AP Stands By Iraq Story, Calls Charges ‘Plain Wrong’

By: E&P Staff

Charges that The Associated Press had been duped into running a false story on six Iraqis who were allegedly set on fire two weeks ago — and had used as a source a supposedly fictional Iraqi police captain — have continued to emerge from conservative bloggers and pundits, despite AP denials and its further reporting on the incident.

The U.S. military has questioned the story and some Iraqi officials more recently asserted that the police captain did not exist.

On Friday, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor and senior vice president of The Associated Press, issued another lengthy statement on the matter. She strongly defended the AP’s account and sourcing and denounced criticism of its Iraqi correspondents. “Questioning their integrity and work ethic is simply offensive,” she wrote. “It’s awfully easy to take pot shots from the safety of a computer keyboard thousands of miles from the chaos of Baghdad.”

The statement follows.

***

In recent days, a handful of people have stridently criticized The Associated Press? coverage of a terrible attack on Iraqi citizens last month in Baghdad. Some of those critics question whether the incident happened at all and declare that they don’t believe our reporting.

Indeed, a small number of them have whipped themselves into an indignant lather over the AP’s reporting.

Their assertions that the AP has been duped or worse are unfounded and just plain wrong.

No organization has done more to try to shed light on what happened Nov. 24 in the Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad than The Associated Press.

We have sent journalists to the neighborhood three different times to talk with people there about what happened. And those residents have repeatedly told us, in some detail, that Shiite militiamen dragged six Sunni worshippers from a mosque, drenched them with kerosene and burned them alive.

No one else has said they have actually gone to the neighborhood. Particularly not the individuals who have criticized our journalism with such barbed certitude.

The AP has been transparent and fair since the first day of our reporting on this issue.

We have not ignored the questions about our work raised by the U.S. military and later, by the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Indeed, we published those questions while also sending AP journalists back out to the scene to dig further into what happened and why others might be questioning the initial accounts.

The AP mission was to get at the facts, wherever those facts took us.

What we found were more witnesses who described the attack in particular detail as well as describing the fear that runs through the neighborhood. We ran a lengthy story on those additional findings, as well as the questions, on Nov. 28.

Some of AP’s critics question the existence of police Capt. Jamil Hussein, who was one (but not the only) source to tell us about the burning.

These critics cite a U.S. military officer and an Iraqi official who first said Hussein is not an authorized spokesman and later said he is not on their list of Interior Ministry employees. It?s worth noting that such lists are relatively recent creations of the fledgling Iraqi government.

By contrast, Hussein is well known to AP. We first met him, in uniform, in a police station, some two years ago. We have talked with him a number of times since then and he has been a reliable source of accurate information on a variety of events in Baghdad.

No one ? not a single person ? raised questions about Hussein?s accuracy or his very existence in all that time. Those questions were raised only after he was quoted by name describing a terrible attack in a neighborhood that U.S. and Iraqi forces have struggled to make safe.

That neighborhood, Hurriyah, is a particularly violent section of Baghdad. Once a Sunni enclave, it now is dominated by gunmen loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Many people there talked to us about the attack, but clammed up when they realized they might be quoted publicly. They felt understandably nervous about bringing their accusations up in an area patrolled by a Shiite-led police force that they suspect is allied with the very militia accused in these killings.

Here’s how AP veteran Patrick Quinn described life in Hurriyah on Oct. 11 this year:

“By early October, Shiite militiamen were roaming the streets of Hurriyah, kidnapping, killing and intimidating Sunnis. Handbills circulating this fall warned that 10 Sunnis would die for every Shiite killed.??

In a Nov. 22 story on how October was the deadliest month on record for Iraqi civilians, AP Baghdad bureau chief Steve Hurst wrote: ?Lynchings have been reported as Sunnis and Shiites conduct a merciless campaign of revenge killings.

?Some Shiite residents in the north Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriyah claim that militiamen and death squads are holding Sunni captives in warehouses, then slaughtering them at the funerals of Shiites killed in the tit-for-tat murders.?

No one from the Iraqi Interior Ministry or the U.S. military complained about those descriptions. In fact, soldiers of the U.S. Army?s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, 172nd Stryker Brigade were dispatched to Hurriyah late this summer to try to bring it under control.

AP?s Lauren Frayer, embedded with the 172nd during the Hurriyah deployment, described their efforts in early November. Capt. R. Tyler Willbanks, from Gallatin, Tenn., said ?there were 25 dead bodies a day before we got here?” a number they got down to three a day before the latest eruption at the end of November.

The story of the burnings has gotten far more attention in the United States than in Iraq, where vicious torture and death are sadly commonplace. Dozens of Iraqi citizens are gunned down in their cars, dragged from their homes or blown apart in public places every single day.

As careful followers of the Iraq story know well, various militias have been accused of operating within the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and has long worked to suppress news of death-squad activity in its ranks. (This is the same ministry that questioned Capt. Hussein?s existence and last week announced plans to take legal action against journalists who report news that creates the impression that security in Iraq is bad, ?when the facts are totally different.?)

The Iraqi journalists who work for the AP are smart, dedicated and incredibly courageous to go into the streets every day, talking to their countrymen and trying to capture a portrait of their home in a historic and tumultuous period.

The work is dangerous: two people who work for AP have been killed since this war began in 2003. Many others have been hurt, some badly.

Several of AP’s Iraqi journalists were victimized by Saddam Hussein?s regime and bear scars of his torture or the loss of relatives killed by his goons. Those journalists have no interest in furthering the chaos that makes daily life in Iraq so perilous. They want what any of us want: To be able to live and work without fear and raise their children in peace and safety.

Questioning their integrity and work ethic is simply offensive.

It’s awfully easy to take pot shots from the safety of a computer keyboard thousands of miles from the chaos of Baghdad.

The Iraq war is one of hundreds of conflicts that AP journalists have covered in the past 160 years. Our only goal is to provide fair, impartial coverage of important human events as they unfold. We check our facts and check again.

That is what we have done in the case of the Hurriyah attack. And that is why we stand by our story.

***

Related E&P Stories:

AP Replies to New Claims Against Disputed Story — Iraqis Say They Will Now Monitor Media

AP Defies Military, Bloggers on Story of 6 Iraqis Set on Fire

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