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Greetings From the Memory Hole
Our Media Kills a Troubling Story the Rest of the World Saw

by Joshua Holland
July 30, 2004

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The allegation that Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi shot seven restrained prisoners (killing six) in a fit of anger—with a number of witnesses present—is certainly newsworthy.

But, remarkably, the U.S. media has chosen not to cover it, preferring to accept official denials. The foreign press is not so trusting. The disconcerting result is that we simply aren’t getting the same picture of Iraq that citizens of every other English-speaking country see.

If you haven’t caught the story, here’s how Australia’s leading daily, the Sydney Morning Herald broke it on July 17th:

Iyad Allawi, the new Prime Minister of Iraq, pulled a pistol and executed as many as six suspected insurgents at a Baghdad police station, just days before Washington handed control of the country to his interim government, according to two people who allege they witnessed the killings.

They say the prisoners – handcuffed and blindfolded – were lined up against a wall in a courtyard adjacent to the maximum- security cell block in which they were held at the Al-Amariyah security center…

The Prime Minister’s office has denied the entirety of the witness accounts in a written statement to the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, saying Dr Allawi had never visited the center and he did not carry a gun. But the informants told the newspaper that Dr Allawi shot each young man in the head as about a dozen Iraqi policemen and four Americans from the Prime Minister’s personal security team watched in stunned silence…

In Scotland, the award-winning Sunday Herald ran its sister-publication’s copy, as did the New Zealand Sunday Star Times, the Irish Examiner and Canada’s Toronto Star. The London Daily Mail and South Africa’s Sunday Mail (same ownership) ran a story with a similar lead, although the denial comes right up front:

IRAQ'S new Prime Minister was fighting to clear his name last night after he was accused of executing as many as six suspected insurgents.

Iyad Allawi is alleged to have shot the prisoners at a Baghdad police station days before power was handed to the interim Iraqi government last month.

Australia’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that while he personally found the allegations “unbelievable,” he also thought that, “because they are written by a credible journalist, [Foreign Minister Alexander] Downer's responsibility is to get the truth from the Australian embassy in Baghdad and from the Government of the United States. It's important that these matters are clarified.

In the UK, there were also calls for an inquiry. “It is vital that [the allegations] are cleared up one way or another and that needs an independent inquiry,” said former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who resigned his Cabinet post over the war.

The story was out to a limited degree in the United States, as well. Newsweek reported on the allegation and it also appeared on the UPI wire. In its usually direct way, UPI led with: “Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi killed six suspected insurgents just days before he was handed power, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.”

But, according to a Lexis-Nexis search, no major papers picked up the UPI story. The Los Angeles Times did run a piece under the headline: “Rumors circulate about Allawi's itchy trigger finger,” which was republished by the Kansas City Star, the Baltimore Sun and the San Francisco Chronicle. This is how those papers’ readers got the story:

There are many versions of the story on the street. In one, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is driving through downtown Baghdad and sees a frail old man being confronted by three armed men attempting to steal his vehicle.

Allawi leaps out of his car and shoots dead the would-be carjackers.

In another, Allawi is in a Baghdad jail where he interviews suspects, hears their confessions, declares “they deserve to die” and shoots them on the spot.

A third version sets the scene of his violent retribution in the Shiite city of Najaf, which has been racked by violence in recent months.

Is there any truth to these tales that Allawi has shot suspects? The stories have been denied by Allawi and dismissed by members of his government, the U.S. Embassy and a State Department spokesman.

On the last point, Scotland’s Sunday Herald reported: “Senior US officials have not made an outright dismissal of the allegations but Allawi’s office has denied the claims.”

But regardless, while there may be several stories out there, only one was reported by an award-winning journalist, Paul McGeough, in one of our closest ally’s leading daily papers. McGeough, while acknowledging that in Iraq “it's very difficult to separate out what people are telling you from what they are hearing,” defended the story nonetheless. He found the two witnesses separately, and he and his Iraqi interpreter judged them credible. When he “tested” parts of their stories, they held up.

At least readers of the LA Times and the other three papers that ran its story knew that a “rumor” about Allawi killing the prisoners was out there. That put them ahead of readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and every other major daily. They heard nothing whatsoever of the matter.

The New York Sun, a conservative alternative paper, ran the only other U.S. story that came back from a Lexis-Nexis search. It reported the allegations were thought unlikely because of Allawi’s character. The Sun’s lead was: “Iraq's top human rights official said yesterday allegations that Prime Minister Allawi summarily executed six prisoners before taking power is a baseless smear spread to undermine the government.”

That was based on a Federal News Service interview with Iraq's Human Rights Minister Bakhtiya Amin, in which he said: “This is not the Iyad Allawi that I know. He's not a killer. And he's not the type of person who goes out killing people.”

It’s an odd line of defense in light of the fact that, as Douglas Valentine wrote in Counterpunch: “According to published reports, Allawi began his career in the killing business in the 1960s on behalf of Saddam Hussein; but in 1978, he switched to the CIA after Hussein tried to kill him. In 1991 Allawi co-founded an anti-Saddam, CIA-front organization, the Iraqi National Accord (INA), which the New York Times described as “a terrorist organization.” A number of European papers routinely refer to Allawi as a “former assassin,” or in similar terms.

I sent the original Sydney Morning Herald story to the New York Times’ sometimes brave Public Editor Daniel Okrent, with a note that read: “Clearly, the story that follows is not flattering. But it is just as clearly newsworthy and nobody's covering it.”

Okrent’s assistant sent me a link to a Times story titled: “A Tough Guy Tries to Tame Iraq.” The story was about “rumor and innuendo” that Allawi was “overseeing the interrogation of a cabal of Lebanese terrorists” when he said ‘Bring me an ax,’ and then “lopped off the hand of one the Lebanese men.” It’s a nasty story, yes, but not quite the same.

Now, I’m not arguing that the Allawi story is true, only that the citizens of Australia, Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and South Africa have a view of the Iraqi Interim Government that Americans do not share. That disconnect is striking, and has lead to stories like the one in Pakistan’s Daily Times under the headline: “US Media Kills Story that Iraqi PM Executed 6 Prisoners.”

Joshua Holland is Editor-in-Chief of the USC Trojan Horse, the University of Southern California’s “fiercely progressive voice of reason.” He can be reached at: