WASHINGTON -- In the midst of last week's meaningless Arab League summit in Damascus, Syria, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki boldly launched his government's first major offensive against renegade Shiite militias. Ranging from Baghdad's suburbs south to Basra -- the country's oil port and second-most populous city -- Saulat al-Fursan (Charge of the Knights) is the largest and most complex operation undertaken by the Iraqi military since 2003. The effectiveness of Iraq's soldiers, police and special operations forces in this bloody fight will be an important factor for Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker during Tuesday's congressional appearances.
As is so often the case with "news" from Iraq, the so-called mainstream media have delivered predominantly negative stories -- and plenty of rhetoric -- since the operation began March 26. The battle has variously been described in the press as "a major setback for al-Maliki" and "proof that Muqtada al-Sadr is stronger than ever."
Because so few U.S. and coalition personnel were involved in executing the campaign, most broadcast and print reports originated in Baghdad -- where the focus was on mortar rounds and rockets fired into the Green Zone. Field reports filed from Najaf, Karbala, Diwaniyah, Kut, Hillah and Basra -- all scenes of heavy fighting between Iraqi security forces and renegade Shiite militia units -- generally have been filed by news agency stringers of dubious credibility.
Political leaders in Baghdad and Washington haven't been much more helpful than the potentates of the press in presenting anything but the barest of facts about the operation -- leaving plenty of room for critics to describe the fighting and its aftermath in their own terms. Though al-Maliki went to Basra to direct the effort "to restore law and order" personally, few Western journalists accompanied him. His limited availability to reporters during the heat of the fighting did little to refute negative -- and presumably distorted -- press stories.
After President Bush described the operation as a "defining moment in the history of a free Iraq," Sen. Barack Obama said, "It has not resolved the underlying tensions," and then renewed his pledge to "set a clear time frame for withdrawal" of U.S. troops from the country. And as if to set the tone for the upcoming Petraeus-Crocker hearings, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., declared that the Bush administration "continues to define success downward."
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.