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

By: E&P Staff

The U.S. military and Iraqi officials continue to question a source for a widely publicized Associated Press story about six Iraqis being set on fire last Friday — and AP continues to stand by it, with new developments today.

The latest: A spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior at a press conference today claimed that a key source in the original AP report was not a Baghdad police officer, as AP had declared. He also denounced press accounts based on alleged rumors. Hours later, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of The Associated Press, responded in a statement sent to E&P, stating, “We are satisfied with our reporting on this incident. If Iraqi and U.S. military spokesmen choose to disregard AP’s on-the-ground reporting, that is certainly their choice to make, but it is a puzzling one given the facts.”

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Interior Ministry also said Thursday it had formed a special unit to monitor news coverage and vowed to take legal action against journalists who failed to correct stories the ministry deemed to be incorrect.

The AP had reported last Saturday that a police captain named Jamil Hussein was one of two sources for its original story. The U.S. military in a letter to the AP, along with conservative bloggers such as Michelle Malkin, heatedly charged that Hussein was fictional or in any case was not a police officer, throwing the AP account into doubt.

But AP denied this and, in any case, went back and found several more witnesses to the immolations, and issued a new report on the six deaths Tuesday — while labeling the charges against it as “ludicrous.”

Today brought the Baghdad press conference and the Iraqi official, Brig. Gen. Abdu-Karim Khalaf, charging that Capt. Hussein was not a Baghdad police officer — and denounding media reports based on unconfirmed sources and what he said were mere rumors. Carroll then responded with her statement.

After stating that AP was “satisfied” with its reporting, she continued: “AP journalists have repeatedly been to the Hurriyah neighborhood, a small Sunni enclave within a larger Shiia area of Baghdad. Residents there have told us in detail about the attack on the mosque and that six people were burned alive during it. Images taken later that day and again this week show a burned mosque and graffiti that says ‘blood wanted,’ similar to that found on the homes of Iraqis driven out of neighborhoods where they are a minority. We have also spoken repeatedly to a police captain who is known to AP and has been a reliable source of accurate information in the past and he has confirmed the attack.

“By contrast, the U.S. military and Iraqi government spokesmen attack our reporting because that captain’s name is not on their list of authorized spokespeople. Their implication that we may have given money to the captain is false. The AP does not pay for information. Period.

“Further, the Iraqi spokesman said today that reporting on the such atrocities ‘shows that the security situation is worse than it really is.’ He is speaking from a capital city where dozens of bodies are discovered every day showing signs of terrible torture. Where people are gunned down in their cars, dragged from their homes or blown apart in public places every single day.

“At the end of the day, we have AP journalists with reporting and images from the actual neighborhood versus official spokesmen saying the story cannot be true because it is damaging and because one of the sources is not on a list of people approved to talk to the press. Good reporting relies on more than government-approved sources.
We stand behind our reporting.”

Hussein has been used as a source in several other AP stories earlier this year.

Later Thursday, AP reported the following developments.

***

Iraq’s Interior Ministry said Thursday it had formed a special unit to monitor news coverage and vowed to take legal action against journalists who failed to correct stories the ministry deemed to be incorrect.

Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, spokesman for the ministry, said the purpose of the special monitoring unit was to find “fabricated and false news that hurts and gives the Iraqis a wrong picture that the security situation is very bad, when the facts are totally different.”

He said offenders would be notified and asked to “correct these false reports on their main news programs. But if they do not change those lying, false stories, then we will seek legal action against them.”

Khalaf explained the news monitoring unit at a weekly Ministry of Interior briefing. As an example, he cited coverage by The Associated Press of an attack Nov. 24 on a mosque in the Hurriyah district in northwest Baghdad.

The AP reported that six Sunni Muslims there were burned alive during the attack. The story quoted witnesses and police Capt. Jamil Hussein.

Khalaf said the ministry had no one on its staff by the name of Jamil Hussein.

“Maybe he wore an MOI (Ministry of Interior) uniform and gave a different name to the reporter for money,” Khalaf said.

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll rejected the accusation. “The implication that we may have given money to the captain is false. The AP does not pay for information,” she said.

Khalaf said the ministry had dispatched a team to the Hurriyah neighborhood and to the morgue but found no witnesses or evidence of burned bodies.

The spokesman said the ministry had a large public relations staff and said they should be contacted by the media to “get real, true news.”

U.S. military had no comment on the immolations on the day of the attack but subsequently issued a statement, citing the Iraqi army as saying it had found nothing to substantiate the report.

U.S. Navy Lt. Michael B. Dean, a public affairs officer for the multi-national force, later demanded that the story be retracted because he said police Capt. Jamil Hussein “is not a Baghdad police officer or an MOI employee.”

His allegations were checked with the AP reporter, who had been in routine contact for more than two years with Hussein, in some cases sitting in his office in the Yarmouk police station in west Baghdad. Hussein wore a police uniform during the face-to-face meetings.

Hussein confirmed the burning story on three separate occasions. AP reporters also went to the neighborhood and found three witnesses to the immolations who told nearly identical stories. Since then more people in the neighborhood have told about the incident in a similar fashion. Pictures of the Mustafa mosque where the incident occurred show that it is badly damaged by explosives and shows signs of scorching from fire.

Scrawled in what appears to be spray paint on the mosque compound wall is the phrase “blood wanted,” which Iraqis say has appeared on many structures in areas of heavy Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict throughout Baghdad.

The phrase is a warning to the sect that is the minority in the neighborhood, Sunnis in the case of the region around the Mustafa mosque in Hurriyah, that they will be killed if they return.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the government imposed censorship on local media and severely restricted foreign media coverage, monitoring transmissions and sending secret police to follow journalists. Those who violated the rules were expelled and in some cases jailed.

***

Related E&P Story: AP Defies Military, Bloggers on Story of 6 Iraqis Set on Fire

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