The Interior Ministry acknowledged Thursday that an Iraqi police officer whose existence had been denied by the Iraqis and the U.S. military is in fact an active member of the force, and said he now faces arrest for speaking to the media.
Ministry spokesman Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, who had previously denied there was any such police employee as Capt. Jamil Hussein, said in an interview that Hussein is an officer assigned to the Khadra police station, as had been reported by The Associated Press.
The captain, whose full name is Jamil Gholaiem Hussein, was one of the sources for an AP story in late November about the burning and shooting of six people during a sectarian attack at a Sunni mosque.
The U.S. military and the Iraqi Interior Ministry raised the doubts about Hussein in questioning the veracity of the AP's initial reporting on the incident, and the Iraqi ministry suggested that many news organization were giving a distorted, exaggerated picture of the conflict in Iraq. Some Internet bloggers spread and amplified these doubts, accusing the AP of having made up Hussein's identity in order to disseminate false news about the war.
Now, when did the MOI figure this out, did the U.S. military know, and why the heck didn't either one of them announce it, and the AP report on it before now?
Khalaf offered no explanation Thursday for why the ministry had initially denied Hussein's existence, other than to state that its first search of records failed to turn up his full name. He also declined to say how long the ministry had known of its error and why it had made no attempt in the past six weeks to correct the public record.
Now, why didn't the AP just out with it six weeks ago? They could have shut everyone up long ago (although there still is the fishy nature of the "burning Sunnis" story and the demonstrably incorrect nature of the "four destroyed mosques" story to contend with). But Hussein is the symbol--whether or not it answers all the questions, produce Hussein, and the story goes away. Why in the world not do it earlier?
AP's turning it into a free-press-as-victim story, which most will buy without looking at the legitimate questions and wondering why the heck AP felt it didn't have to respond to them:
Hussein appears to have fallen afoul of a new Iraqi push, encouraged by some U.S. advisers, to more closely monitor the flow of information about the country's violence, and strictly enforce regulations that bar all but authorized spokesmen from talking to media.
During Saddam Hussein's rule, information in Iraq had been fiercely controlled by the Information Ministry, but after the arrival of U.S. troops in 2003 and during the transition to an elected government in 2004, many police such as Hussein felt freer to talk to journalists and give information as it occurred.
As a consequence, most news organizations working in Iraq have maintained Iraqi police contacts routinely in recent years. Some officers who speak with reporters withhold their names or attempt to disguise their names using different variants of one or two middle names or last names for reasons of security. Hussein, however, spoke for the record, using his authentic first and last name, on numerous occasions.
Which is why it's so curious that AP didn't turn him up earlier. This gets interesting:
Khalaf said Thursday that with the arrest of Hussein for breaking police regulations against talking to reporters, the AP would be called to identify him in a lineup as the source of its story.
Should the AP decline to assist in the identification, Khalaf said, the case against Hussein would be dropped. He also said there were no plans to pursue action against the AP should it decline.
I'm sure there will be much more to come.
Update: Folks are reacting over at Michelle Malkin's.
The fact remains that the "four burned mosques" story was changed to a "one burned mosque" story without any clarification or correction, and the "burning Sunnis" story still sounds iffy, given that there was no Sunni outcry. And, then there are the 40 stories Hussein has given AP, none of which have been corroborated by other news agencies.
Whether Jamil Hussein actually exists is really a secondary issue. The fact that the AP used a single source for dozens of inflammatory stories about atrocities in Iraq that still have yet to find any confirmation is almost as disturbing as making the source up.
I'm not sure I'd call it "secondary," per se, but questions remain. Unfortunately, as I said, Hussein was the symbol, and if I know anything about old media types, they'll declare victory and go home right about now. It does say quite something about modern war journalism that the AP feels victorious about finally proving that a major, familiar, oft-used source actually exists a full six weeks after questions arose about him. Bloggers will keep pushing the story-- Bryan and Michelle will do it from Iraq.