By: Seth Porges
Updated at 10:35 a.m. ET
A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad told E&P Online Tuesday afternoon that he blames the Associated Press for spreading a sensational, and now disputed, story this week about two U.S. soldiers having their throats slashed and bodies mutilated by an angry mob in Iraq.
The AP story on the incident — along with similar accounts from other outlets — drew wide play in newspapers across the country on Monday, before the military jumped in to challenge it later that day.
“Personally, I would fault the AP as a member of the coalition and really as an American citizen,” Coalition Spokesperson Sgt. Danny Martin said. “The AP is an American-based media outlet. They have the right to freedom of speech, freedom of press. They pretty much print what they like. I do find it somewhat irresponsible in their journalism that instead of perhaps showing some patience and waiting for the initial military report, that they just went from eyewitness accounts that have proven in just about every instance here to be exaggerated, embellished, or just false.”
However, The New York Times on Tuesday seemed to suggest the military might be to blame. The Chicago Tribune also on Tuesday revealed that the military’s initial situation report on Sunday night indicated that the soldiers had been mutilated and slashed in the attack.
In a statement sent to E&P Online Wedneday morning, an AP spokesman said that the wire service, after carrying the initial report Sunday morning, filed an updated account Sunday afternoon “saying that the initial reports had been wrong.” (See AP Defends Its Reporting on ‘Mutilated’ Soldiers .) Nevertheless, papers around the country carried, or drew on, the initial report in their Monday editions. The AP added, “The military refused to provide details about what happened, despite opportunities during a regular news briefing.”
The episode began on Monday, when newspapers jumped on a report that two American soldiers killed in Mosul, Iraq, had their throats slit and their bodies mutilated by a mob. Many accounts noted similarities to a notorious 1993 incident in Somalia.
The military has since refuted this story, claiming that the soldiers were killed when their vehicle was fired upon. It has confirmed that the belongings of the soldiers were looted, but denies their throats were slit or bodies mutilated with cement blocks or rocks.
The original account in the widely published AP story by Mariam Fam opened with the flat statement, “Attackers slit the throats of two American soldiers who were waiting in traffic …” It noted that the U.S. military had no information on the incident but the reporter stated that the two soldiers “could be seen lying in the street next to their vehicle … with their throats cut.”
The AP was far from alone in this assessment. Individual newspapers chimed in or added their own emphasis on Monday.
“Bastards!” screamed the New York Daily News front page Monday. “Iraqi teen wolf pack ambushes 2 GIs, drags them into street and mutilates them.” The story was written by one staffer based in Washington (James Gordon Meek) and another in New York (Bill Hutchinson).
USA Today‘s Steven Kormarow wrote: “Two U.S. soldiers were killed and their bodies mutilated by a crowd … in the most gruesome demonstration so far of anti-American fervor in Iraq.”
The Wall Street Journal reported: “Two U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, and a crowd stoned their inert bodies in a scene reminiscent of Somalia.”
The New York Times story by Ian fisher and Dexter Filkins began: “Three American soldiers were killed in Iraq on Sunday, including two whose throats were slashed …” The paper’s source was “a military official.”
The Los Angeles Times handled it more carefully: “Military officials would only confirm Sunday that two soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division were shot at as they drove between U.S. garrisons here. The Associated Press quoted witnesses saying that the soldiers were dragged from their vehicle after it crashed into a wall and that their bodies were pummeled.”
The Washington Post‘s Anthony Shadid, who has spent many months in Baghdad during the past few years, also qualified his story (with the word “reportedly”): “Assailants killed two U.S. soldiers … in a bloody scene. Crowds then reportedly mutilated their bodies, trashed the vehicles and made off with the soldiers’ belongings.” He attributed the more vivid accounts to “Western news agencies in Mosul.”
It is possible, of course, that the AP and other reporters have the story partly right (concerning the mutilations if not the throat slashings). Several eyewitnesses of unknown reliability claiming to have seen the bodies being mutilated were quoted in various stories.
“They lifted a block [of cement] and hit them with it on the face,” the New York Daily News quotes witness Younis Mahmoud as saying.
But following the Pentagon denial many newspapers scrambled to print contradictory reports and rebuttals on Tuesday. The New York Times noted that the initial stories were “seized upon” by cable news networks and tabloids — as if the Times itself had not reported much the same account.
The Times‘ latest story, however, suggested that the military was to blame, with their original source, the unnamed military official, retracting his earlier report.
“Confusion swirled Monday as a United States military official retracted his earlier report that the throats of two American soldiers had been slashed,” the Times reported Tuesday. “The official … said he was receiving his information from written military records.”
Sgt. Martin told E&P Online that he did not know who the “military official” in question was, nor did he know what “written military records” the initial information might have been based on.