by Robert Fisk
March 15, 2003
All across the Middle East, they are deploying by the thousand. In the deserts of Kuwait, in Amman, in northern Iraq, in Turkey, in Israel and in Baghdad itself. There must be 7,000 journalists and crews "in theatre", as the more jingoistic of them like to say. In Qatar, a massive press centre has been erected for journalists who will not see the war. How many times General Tommy Franks will spin his story to the press at the nine o'clock follies, no one knows. He doesn't even like talking to journalists.
But the journalistic resources being laid down in the region are enormous. The BBC alone has 35 reporters in the Middle East, 17 of them "embedded" – along with hundreds of reporters from the American networks and other channels – in military units. Once the invasion starts, they will lose their freedom to write what they want. There will be censorship. And, I'll hazard a guess right now, we shall see many of the British and American journalists back to their old trick of playing toy soldiers, dressing themselves up in military costumes for their nightly theatrical performances on television. Incredibly, several of the American networks have set up shop in the Kurdish north of Iraq with orders not to file a single story until war begins – in case this provokes the Iraqis to expel their network reporters from Baghdad.
The orchestration will be everything, the pictures often posed, the angles chosen by "minders", much as the Iraqis will try to do the same thing in Baghdad. Take yesterday's front-page pictures of massed British troops in Kuwait, complete with arranged tanks and perfectly formatted helicopters. This was the perfectly planned photo-op. Of course, it won't last.
Here's a few guesses about our coverage of the war to come. American and British forces use thousands of depleted uranium (DU) shells – widely regarded by 1991 veterans as the cause of Gulf War syndrome as well as thousands of child cancers in present day Iraq – to batter their way across the Kuwaiti-Iraqi frontier. Within hours, they will enter the city of Basra, to be greeted by its Shia Muslim inhabitants as liberators. US and British troops will be given roses and pelted with rice – a traditional Arab greeting – as they drive "victoriously" through the streets. The first news pictures of the war will warm the hearts of Messrs Bush and Blair. There will be virtually no mention by reporters of the use of DU munitions.
But in Baghdad, reporters will be covering the bombing raids that are killing civilians by the score and then by the hundred. These journalists, as usual, will be accused of giving "comfort to the enemy while British troops are fighting for their lives". By now, in Basra and other "liberated" cities south of the capital, Iraqis are taking their fearful revenge on Saddam Hussein's Baath party officials. Men are hanged from lamp-posts. Much television footage of these scenes will have to be cut to sanitise the extent of the violence.
Far better for the US and British governments will be the macabre discovery of torture chambers and "rape-rooms" and prisoners with personal accounts of the most terrible suffering at the hands of Saddam's secret police. This will "prove" how right "we" are to liberate these poor people. Then the US will have to find the "weapons of mass destruction" that supposedly provoked this bloody war. In the journalistic hunt for these weapons, any old rocket will do for the moment.
Bunkers allegedly containing chemical weapons will be cordoned off – too dangerous for any journalist to approach, of course. Perhaps they actually do contain VX or anthrax. But for the moment, the all-important thing for Washington and London is to convince the world that the casus belli was true – and reporters, in or out of military costume, will be on hand to say just that.
Baghdad is surrounded and its defenders ordered to surrender. There will be fighting between Shias and Sunnis around the slums of the city, the beginning of a ferocious civil conflict for which the invading armies are totally unprepared. US forces will sweep past Baghdad to his home city of Tikrit in their hunt for Saddam Hussein. Bush and Blair will appear on television to speak of their great "victories". But as they are boasting, the real story will begin to be told: the break-up of Iraqi society, the return of thousands of Basra refugees from Iran, many of them with guns, all refusing to live under western occupation.
In the north, Kurdish guerrillas will try to enter Kirkuk, where they will kill or "ethnically cleanse" many of the city's Arab inhabitants. Across Iraq, the invading armies will witness terrible scenes of revenge which can no longer be kept off television screens. The collapse of the Iraqi nation is now under way ...
Of course, the Americans and British just might get into Baghdad in three days for their roses and rice water. That's what the British did in 1917. And from there, it was all downhill.
Weasel words to watch for
'Inevitable revenge' – for the executions of Saddam's Baath party officials which no one actually said were inevitable.
'Stubborn' or 'suicidal' – to be used when Iraqi forces fight rather than retreat.
'Allegedly' – for all carnage caused by Western forces.
'At last, the damning evidence' – used when reporters enter old torture chambers.
'Officials here are not giving us much access' – a clear sign that reporters in Baghdad are confined to their hotels.
'Life goes on' – for any pictures of Iraq's poor making tea.
'Remnants' – allegedly 'diehard' Iraqi troops still shooting at the Americans but actually the first signs of a resistance movement dedicated to the 'liberation' of Iraq from its new western occupiers.
'Newly liberated' – for territory and cities newly occupied by the Americans or British.
'What went wrong?' – to accompany pictures illustrating the growing anarchy in Iraq as if it were not predicted.
Robert Fisk is an award winning foreign correspondent for The Independent (UK), where this article first appeared. He is the author of Pity Thy Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (The Nation Books, 2002 edition)