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AP: Still Debating the "Burned Alive" Story

I went over the basics yesterday.

The AP reported that six Sunnis were burned alive by Shiites while leaving a mosque Friday. AP used Capt. Jamil Hussein of the Iraqi Police Force as its sole named source of the account in the original story. The U.S. military and Iraqi soldiers couldn't confirm the event. It turned out, according to CENTCOM, that Hussein was never an Iraqi police officer nor a bona fide spokesperson for the Iraqi police, but the AP's been using him as a source for months, perhaps years. Yesterday, CENTCOM asked for a correction on the story, based on the new information about Hussein.


Today, the AP coughed up a statement  to USA Today. Sounds pretty defiant, given the unequivocal letter from CENTCOM about Hussein. Interesting:

The Associated Press denounces unfounded attacks on its story about six Sunni worshipers burned to death outside their mosque on Friday, November 24. The attempt to question the existence of the known police officer who spoke to the AP is frankly ludicrous and hints at a certain level of desperation to dispute or suppress the facts of the incident in question.

AP reporters who have been working in Iraq throughout the conflict learned of the mosque incident through witnesses and neighborhood residents and corroborated it with a named police spokesmen and also through hospital and morgue workers.

We have conducted a thorough review of the sourcing and reporting involved and plan to move a more detailed report about the entire incident soon, with greater detail provided by multiple eye witnesses. Several of those witnesses spoke to AP on the condition that their names would not be used because they fear reprisals.

The police captain cited in our story has long been known to the AP reporters and has been interviewed in his office and by telephone on several occasions during the past two years.

He is an officer at the police station in Yarmouk, with a record of reliability and truthfulness. His full name is Jamil Gholaiem Hussein.

The AP stands by its story.

Meanwhile, a seriously questionable story keeps bouncing around the globe, landing in every Iraq story, with no mention of the suspicions surrounding it. "Six Sunnis burned alive" is a ready-made phrase for reporters to stick in every single story written about Iraq, violence therein, religious factions, and whether or not we're going to call it all a civil war. It will be dropped into every story for the next week with no reference to the original story source, much less the controversy surrounding him. It is "truth" now, and if it ends up not being true, many people will never be the wiser.

This kind of phrase is all over the place in journalism, and many of them are created by the echo chamber that is the MSM. For instance, remember the "challenging economy" and "slow economy" that crept into every business story in your hometown paper despite the economy booming for the past couple years? That's one of them. I watched reporters drop it in. Say it enough and people believe it.


They're shorthand for a whole worldview the press has. "Challenging economy" means things really are bad because of tax cuts, and there's a tragic wage gap, and the middle class is shriveling, and it's all because of Bush, despite the fact that the economy appears to be firing on all cylinders.

"Six Sunnis burned alive" means the war in Iraq is a civil war, we're in the quagmire the press has been telling us about for years, burning alive is a useful and catchy symbol of an increase in the amount and brutality sectarian violence, and the need to high-tail it out of there as soon as possible, and can believe Bush got us into this mess?

Watch how the story moved and the narrative formed on the AP wire (emphases all mine). There are no links because I got these off the raw AP wire, which is a paid service. All of this goes out on the wire to newspapers, but most of the early versions disappear as old stories are replaced with new versions online, so it's easier to piece things together by reading the wire:

11/24/06 10:10:28

Sunnis claim mosques and houses burned by Shiite militia, police watch
Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Sunni residents in a volatile northwest Baghdad neighborhood claimed Friday that revenge-seeking Shiite militiamen had destroyed four Sunni mosques, burned homes and killed many people, while the Shiite-dominated police force stood by and did nothing.

The reports were the most serious allegations of retribution in Baghdad the day after Sunni insurgents killed 215 people and wounded 257 with five car bombs and mortar fire in the capital's Sadr City Shiite slum.

Police officials in the region told Associated Press reporters that nothing had happened in the Hurriyah district, a once-mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood that has increasingly come under the control of the Mahdi Army of radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Sunni residents, who would not allow use of their names for fear of retribution, said militiamen were blocking them from entering burned homes to claim the bodies of victims killed in the fires.

Sunni claims, no named witnesses, police officials deny any activity in Hurriyah. But a lot happened in 30 minutes, between the filing of the first and second versions of the story:


11/24/06 10:40:28

Militiamen burn six Sunni worshippers alive, army does not intervene
Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Shiite militiamen grabbed six Sunnis as they left Friday worship services, doused them with kerosene and burned them alive near Iraqi soldiers who did not intervene, police Capt. Jamil Hussein said.

The savage revenge attack for Thursday's slaying of 215 people in the Shiite Sadr City slum occurred as members of the Mahdi Army militia burned four mosques, and several homes while killing an unknown number of Sunni residents in the once-mixed Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad.

Gunmen loyal to radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began taking over the neighborhood this summer and most of its Sunni residents already had fled.

Wow, Qais al-Bashir sure found Jamil Hussein quickly. See Dub has thoughts on that:

It's looking like AP Baghdad correspondent Qais al-Bashir is the only one who can see this mysterious, non-existent "Captain Jamil Hussein". Well, it's not for certain yet, but al Bashir is the common element in four stories involving Captain Snuffleupagus. Er, Jamil Hussein:...

So one instance of Hussein's name appearing without al-Bashir's isn't fatal to my theory that al Bashir is the pipeline for "Capt. Hussein's" stories into the AP desk. In a story that involves a lot of reporting about something else, as the Hurst story does, and in which Capt. Hussein's propaganda is basically a footnote of a few lines, it would seem logical that Hurst would get credit over the source of the Hussien tidbit. And there is certainly a preponderance of the reports that mention capt. Hussein that, when they do credit anyone, involve Qais al-Bashir. And that strikes me as a more than a little suspicious.

As you'll see later in this string of wire filings, this story switches to a Hurst byline about seven hours later, with an al-Bashir contributing line, but it's crystal clear that the Hussein story and attribution came by way of al-Bashir.

11/24/06 11:17:32

Shiite militias burn Sunnis alive, attack mosques in capital as revenge killings spiral

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Militiamen grabbed six Sunnis as they left Friday worship services, doused them with kerosene and burned them alive as Iraqi soldiers stood by, and seven Sunni mosques came under attack as Shiites took revenge for the slaughter of 215 people in the Sadr City slum.

With the government trying to avert a civil war, two simultaneous bombings in Tal Afar, in northern Iraq, killed at least 23 people. On Thursday, Sunni-Arab insurgents unleashed bombings and mortar attacks in Sadr City, the deadliest assault since the U.S.-led invasion.


Now, we have no byline, and civil war's been added to the equation.  

11/24/06 12:46:43

Shiite militiamen kill 25 Sunni Arabs in revenge attacks in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Shiite militiamen doused six Sunni Arabs with kerosene and burned them alive as Iraqi soldiers stood by, and killed 19 other Sunnis in attacks on their mosques Friday, taking revenge for the slaughter of at least 215 Shiites in the Sadr City slum the day before.

The mosque attacks came after the government, in a desperate attempt to avert civil war, imposed a sweeping curfew on the capital, shut down the international airport and closed the country's main outlet to the shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.

Now, it's a "desperate" attempt to avert civil war.

11/24/06 17:04:20

Shiite militiamen burn Sunnis alive in revenge attacks for Sadr City slaughter
Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Revenge-seeking militiamen seized six Sunnis as they left Friday prayers and burned them alive with kerosene in a savage new twist to the brutality shaking the Iraqi capital a day after suspected Sunni insurgents killed 215 people in Baghdad's main Shiite district.

Iraqi soldiers at a nearby army post failed to intervene in Friday's assault by suspected members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia or subsequent attacks that killed at least 19 other Sunnis, including women and children, in the same neighborhood, the volatile Hurriyah district in northwest Baghdad, said police Capt. Jamil Hussein.

Most of the thousands of dead bodies that have been found dumped across Baghdad and other cities in central Iraq in recent months have been of victims who were tortured and then shot to death, according to police. The suspected militia killers often have used electric drills on their captives' bodies before killing them. The bodies are frequently decapitated.

But burning victims alive introduced a new method of brutality that was likely to be reciprocated by the other sect as the Shiites and Sunnis continue killing one another in unprecedented numbers. The gruesome attack, which came despite a curfew in Baghdad, capped a day in which at least 87 people were killed or found dead in sectarian violence across Iraq.

New byline, with Qais Al-Bashir listed as a contributor only, and Hurst using al-Bashir's Hussein attribution while stepping up the "marks a new level of brutality" talk.


11/24/06 18:48:20

Shiite militiamen burn Sunnis alive in revenge attacks for Sadr City slaughter
Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Revenge-seeking Shiite militiamen seized six Sunnis as they left Friday prayers, drenched them with kerosene and burned them alive, and Iraqi soldiers did nothing to stop the attack, police and witnesses said.

The fiery slayings in the mainly Sunni neighborhood of Hurriyah were a dramatic escalation of the brutality coursing through the Iraqi capital, coming a day after suspected Sunni insurgents killed 215 people in Baghdad's main Shiite district with a combination of bombs and mortars.

The attacks culminated Baghdad's deadliest week of sectarian fighting since the war began more than three years ago.

Police Capt. Jamil Hussein said Iraqi soldiers at a nearby army post failed to intervene in the burnings of Sunnis carried out by suspected members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia, or in subsequent attacks that torched four Sunni mosques and killed at least 19 other Sunnis, including women and children, in the same northwest Baghdad area.

Imad al-Hasimi, a Sunni elder in Hurriyah, confirmed Hussein's account. He told Al-Arabiya television he saw people who were soaked in kerosene, then set afire, burning before his eyes.

Two workers at Kazamiyah Hospital said the bodies from the clashes and immolations had been taken to the morgue at their facility. They refused to be identified by name, saying they feared retribution.

In spite of the police and witness accounts, however, President Jamal Talabani appeared to discount the reports. He emerged from meetings with other Iraqi political leaders late Friday and said Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obaidi told him that the Hurriyah neighborhood had been quiet throughout the day.

Eight hours later, and we've finally got one named source corroborating Hussein.

Today, the "AP stands by its story," but it also prints a new one with a great deal more witness testimony.

BAGHDAD — The attack on the small Mustafa Sunni mosque began as worshippers were finishing Friday midday prayers. About 50 unarmed men, many in black uniforms and some wearing ski masks, walked through the district chanting "We are the Mahdi Army, shield of the Shiites."

Fifteen minutes later, two white pickups, a black BMW and a black Opel drove up to the marchers. The suspected Shiite militiamen took automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers from the vehicles. They then blasted open the front of the mosque, dragged six worshippers outside, doused them with kerosene and set them on fire.

This account of one of the most horrific alleged attacks of Iraq's sectarian war emerged Tuesday in separate interviews with residents of a Sunni enclave in the largely Shiite Hurriyah district of Baghdad.

The Associated Press first reported on Friday's incident that evening, based on the account of police Capt. Jamil Hussein and Imad al-Hashimi, a Sunni elder in Hurriyah, who told Al-Arabiya television he saw people who were soaked in kerosene, then set afire, burning before his eyes.


Actually, the AP first reported on the incident Friday morning, based on the account of police Capt. Jamil Hussein alone. Imad al-Hashimi was added to the story after it had been out on the wires for more than eight hours. The earliest version of the story made it online, right here. So, that sentence in the new AP story is a fib, isn't it?

That doesn't exactly increase my confidence in the original account if they're not even willing to cop to the al-Bashir story they put out Friday morning, quoting Hussein alone as the source for the burned alive incident.

Horrible things happen in Iraq. I make no attempt to deny that. Terrible violence happens there every day. But just because this incident could have happened in Iraq, doesn't mean AP reporters are any less obligated to make sure they've got it right. Given that many/most of Hussein's comments to the media have come through al-Bashir, and that CENTCOM says Hussein's not a police officer, I'd think AP would be interested in finding out a lot more about him and al-Bashir.

Oh, and the rest of these guys (h/t Michelle and Flopping Aces):

* police Lt. Ali Abbas
* police Capt. Mohammed Abdel-Ghani.
* Police Brigadier Sarhat Abdul-Qadir
* Mosul police Director Gen. Wathiq al-Hamdani
* police Lt. Bilal Ali
* Ali al-Obaidi, a medic at Ramadi Hospital, police Maj. Firas Gaiti said.
* Police Captain Mohammed Ismail
* Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman (a.k.a. Police Brigadier Abd al-Karim Khalaf, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, Brig. Abdel-Karim Khalaf)
* Mohammed Khayon, a Baghdad police lieutenant
* police spokesman Mohammed Kheyoun. (a.k.a. Police Lieutenant Mohammed Khayoun)
* Lt. Thaer Mahmoud, head of a police section responsible for releasing daily death tolls
* police Lt. Bilal Ali Majid said
* police Lt. Ali Muhsin.
* police 1st. Lt. Mutaz Salahhidine. (a.k.a. Lieutenant Mutaz Salaheddin)
* Col. Abbas Mohammed Salman policeman Haider Satar

I should add also that people are working on deadline and under tremendous pressure when they're filing these stories, so some changes in wording and details are to be expected and aren't necessarily an indication of any bias or dishonesty. That's why I don't usually mention such changes unless they're big. I believe I've only mentioned such a story progression on the blog once or twice before, but when a story comes under close scrutiny like this, I think it's instructive to watch it form on the wire.



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