In 2016 the attention of the world’s media was once again on Iraq. A previously little-known group of Sunni militants fighting under the name of The Islamic state of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS) has occupied Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, causing as many as 500,000 people to flee. They have continued their advance on the capital Baghdad, fighting through Tikrit, Diyala, Tal Afar and consolidating their control of the Iraq-Syria border by seizing all the government controlled border posts. In the west they have seized the main road crossing to Jordan as well as the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Baghdad is reported to be cut off from road traffic on three of four sides with the only route out of the country leading to the Shia dominated south via the highway to Basra.
Revered Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani has called upon Shia men to volunteer to fight alongside the government forces and they have responded in their thousands, holding rallies in the capital Baghdad and the Shia strongholds of Karbala, Najaf and Basra. The rallies have been well covered in the western press. Complete with chanting and brandishing of weapons they make a colourful spectacle. But there is another reason why the western coverage focuses on these rallies. They are being held, in the relative safety of the Shia dominated areas, far away from the fighting and fast-moving columns of the ISIS militants that only then were reported to have captured the largest oil refinery in Iraq near the town of Baiji to Baghdad’s north. For the few western correspondents who have dared to return to the country, there seem to be only two parts of the country they can operate from, the capital Baghdad and the wellarmed, defended and virtually independent Kurdish regions in the north.
The Shia dominated Iraqi army, trained and equipped at great expense by the US forces before they left in 2011, seemed to be collapsing and withdrawing on all sides, back towards the capital. Then US President Barack Obama announced the redeployment of 270 Marines to increase security at the US Embassy in Baghdad and ordered the deployment of 300 Special Forces ‘advisors’ to assist the Iraqi army. The Shia dominated government of Nuri Al Maliki is being accused of fanning the sectarian Sunni-Shia tensions by arming Shia militias to fight alongside the military and tit-for-tat sectarian killings are already being reported in the capital Baghdad.
Much has been written in the past years about the sophisticated media campaign being conducted by ISIS through the medium of Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. Photos and videos of what appear to be the massacre of government troops by ISIS fighters, following the fall of Mosul, have been circulating on the internet along with images of destroyed and captured US donated military equipment. The effect on morale and the panic caused by such a campaign has been enough for the government of Maliki to block access to the internet in the areas they still control.
No western media were covering the campaign of ISIS, other than through monitoring their output on the internet and reporting from the government side. For a Sunni group with such an extreme reputation that it was reportedly expelled from Al Qaeda, there is no one prepared to risk the likely kidnapping or summary execution of their perceived enemies the group have revelled in documenting and distributing via the internet as they have advanced towards Baghdad. Besides, after 12 years of fighting the Americans, the Syrian regime and now the Iraqi government forces demonstrably understand how to transmit their message to the outside world and present it in such a graphic and well-produced way that their message will be included in western media coverage. The death of a Kurdish journalist by sniper fire near Kirkuk in June 2015 was a clear warning to the press to stay away from areas likely to fall to Islamic State.
It has only got worse. This is a story that has become impossible to tell with first hand reporting.
After almost four years of news in the western media from Iraq being, by and large, reduced to the daily, weekly and monthly tally of casualty figures from suicide bombings and attacks on government forces the fate of the country has suddenly become an issue in the western media again. Commentary in the Australian and US media abounds.
The old tired left and right arguments and recriminations about the legitimacy of the original invasion in 2003 have been revisited. The commentators on the right have generally speaking blamed the Obama administration for withdrawing too early and completely in 2011, ignoring the fact the Iraqi government of Maliki was instrumental in that withdrawal. On the left, the invalidation of the reasons for going to war and the mismanagement of the aftermath of the invasion by the Bush administration, have been revisited. Some pundits have turned the attention back on the conduct and reporting of the press in Australia and the US and how they conducted themselves in reporting the Iraq war. Writing for Fairfax newspapers in Australia, columnist Mike Carlton (Brisbane Times, 19 June 2014) ran a series of quotes from conservative commentators: the Sydney Morning Herald’s Gerard Henderson, the Australian, Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan and the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt from 2005, 2006 and 2007 respectively, in which each commentator emphatically claimed the Iraq war had been won and the country was on track to becoming a stable democracy thanks to the US led invasion.
Carlton made the point that the chaos now engulfing Iraq was the responsibility – not only of the leaders at the time, George W. Bush, the UK’s Tony Blair and Australia’s own
John Howard, who led the coalition to war in Iraq – but also the media: In prosecuting the war, they were cheered all the way by the unquestioning Tory toadies of the Australian media, principally – although not solely – in the Murdoch press. (Carlton, Brisbane Times, 19 June 2014).
He went on to comment on the reaction of these same sections of the press if their assessments of the war in Iraq were challenged. If you dared to question the war, in concept or execution, they branded you anti-American; Ideological claptrap, of course, but the worst of Tory insults. You were disloyal, even treasonous. (Carlton, Brisbane Times, 19 June 2014).
As highlighted in this book the repercussions for journalists and organisations who presented a contrary narrative to that being promoted by the US and Australian governments and their media supporters, about perceptions of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, were real and professionally damaging. In my case, the accusation that the reason I had not been killed when I was kidnapped in Iraq in October 2004 was somehow because I had been sympathetic to the ‘terrorists’ was a theme repeated in the media and the blogosphere for several years.
As I point out these same accusations were used to discredit my credibility and the impartiality of SBS Dateline when we broadcast the footage of US soldiers burning Taliban corpses the following year. Those same accusations of ‘anti-Americanism’ were used by both media organisations and right-wing bloggers to cast doubt on the accuracy of the story, despite the US military themselves launching an investigation and immediately suspending psychological warfare operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as a result of the story.
Back then you had to get your Iraqi driver or translator to go down to the market and find this stuff on DVD. Now it is there on the internet. It is sensational and news organisations pick it up. It is cheap, risk-free and attracts consumers. Daesh know this. They have been very successful in propagating their message.
As they go from beheadings to drownings to the destruction of historical monuments with hostages strapped to them, they are pushing the pornographic limits of their violence. It is about maintaining the attention of the West. It is cynical. It is obscene. And it is effective.
I was lucky. I was kidnapped before things had gone so far, by people who had not radicalized to the point they would kill any foreigner for the most marginal gain. But those of us working in Iraq could see where it was going. It was a coming hell.
In 2004, no one was really interested. Neither the media nor the government was too concerned about what was happening. When Saddam fell we entered a state of contented denial.
But here were the new foundations of the world in which we now live. We picked this fight, and like a drunk in a bar it would come back to us. And it has. (Martinkus, 2015b, Saturday Paper).
There were many journalists who died, survived terrible ongoing physical and psychological wounds trying to bring the truth of what was happening in these wars. Many have lost careers, families and endured public derision for nothing more than trying to tell the truth of these wars. Many continue to do so.
By mid July 2017, the ISIS stronghold of Mosul in northern Iraq had basically fallen to Iraqi and Kurdish troops backed by the American led coalition. Thousands have died, the city is ‘liberated’ but in reality virtually destroyed. Thousands are displaced. The city is a ruin. Across the border in Syria the ISIS controlled city of Raqqa is now under attack by US-backed Kurdish and Syrian forces and supported by coalition air power and special forces. The killing continues. The civilians try to flee creating the largest movement of displaced people since World War 2.
The Islamic militants stay to fight and die. The US backed forces continue to bomb and fight their way in to heavily populated areas. Meanwhile in Afghanistan ISIS affiliated groups conduct the largest attacks against Afghan government forces that have been reported so far and more revelations emerge in Australia of human rights abuses by Special forces troops desensitved by continual deployments that endless theatre of war. Mutilating bodies of the perceived enemy, killing children. It is not pretty. What can I say? We tried to tell you what was going on.
There were and are those who tried to tell the truth. I have sought to document the difficulties and dangers they faced from their own governments and organisations and those they faced from an increasingly brutal series of insurgencies. I have also tried to document those media organisations and individuals who contributed to the misguided policies of governments and militaries by amplifying and supporting their ultimately counter-productive policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Such policies have led, through the manipulation and use of the media by all sides, to the perception, and reality, of a world subject to ‘Endless Jihad’. The lost copy by those who are now dead or unable to record their experiences, photos in boxes, notebooks and tapes left in suitcases at friends and relatives garages whilst they try to reconstruct
their lives, or in some cases, end them. That is why I felt compelled to put this down. As Ryszard Kapuscinski puts it in his final book Travels with Herodotus, written after a lifetime of covering wars, coups, revolutions throughout the third world:
Man knows and in the course of years he comes to know it well, feeling it ever more acutely, that memory is weak and fleeting, and if he doesn’t write it down what he has learned and experienced, that which he carries within him will perish when he does. (Kapuscinski, Ryszard, Travels with Herodotus, 2007).
I wanted, in fact needed, to record the lost copy of those years, of those times, those wars and those people ...
*John Martinkus, above is the author of A Dirty Little War: East Timor’s Descent into Hell, 1997–2000; Indonesia’s Secret War in Aceh; Travels in American Iraq. From 2004 to 2008 he worked for SBS’s Dateline.