July 9, 2008

The Case Of The Invisible American War Machine


Amara Home Raids Amara Housetohouse

Amara-Staircase Amara Bedroom

Iraqi Humvees

(click smaller images for full size)

Last week, I thought there was something fishy about the photos from Amara, and now a new TIME article bears it out.

First, some background: In nearly every account of the push two weeks ago to clear out the Mahdi army from the southern city of Amara, the operation was described as an initiative of "Iraqi forces backed by US troops."  Yet, in combing through the newswire images of the Amara action, I found a striking absence of involvement on the part of the Yanks.

…With one exception — involving the first photo above, as part of that standard portrait of the "captured enemy weapons haul."

The fact the remote presence of an American GI commands first notice in the Getty caption seems almost too telling to ignore.  It reads:

A US soldier stands in the background (L) as Iraqi police display a captured weapon in the southern city of Amara in Maysan province, 365 kilometers south of Baghdad, on June 18, 2008. Dozens of Shiite militiamen surrendered to Iraqi forces Today, hours before the expiry of a four-day deadline set by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for them to lay down their arms ahead of a new crackdown on militia in the south.

And the TIME article?

Well, stashed near the end of Monday's otherwise routine story about the Amara clean out ("Baghdad's Grasp on Iraq's South") was this passage on the American role, including a little nugget about the campaign's photo policy:

The offensive has been tough, Amara's commanders say, but they're not going it alone. Shortly after the morning's mission, four American soldiers visited al-Moussawi's station to inquire about progress made in dismantling an office used by the Sadrists. One of the soldiers, who said they were under orders to prohibit the press from photographing them, put the number of American troops brought into the area since last month at around 1,000. They are also building a new forward operating base in the area.

Indeed, despite a low profile, Harbia says the support provided by the U.S. forces has been a key component in Amara's success.

That General Petraeus, he's a PR genius.

Gone is all that nasty documentation of American soldiers imposing themselves on either innocent or opposition-sympathizing Iraqi civilians as embedded photographers were known to relay two or three years back.  (In a particularly egregious example, you might even recall the raid in February '07 where the Iraqis — who were supposed to lead the mission by barely showed up — caused American Staff Sgt. Hector Leija to pay with his life … further leading the military to flip out that the NYT dared even document the whole obscene mess.)

If you go back even further, you'll see examples (1, 2) from the good old days — of Americans rummaging through people's bedrooms, or Americans storming residential staircases or Americans demanding access to people's courtyards — and appreciate, as in shots 2-5 above (#6 framing a convoy of Iraqi vehicles approaching Amara), how those images have been replaced with these photos of the Iraqis doing the dirty work.

The only problem is, there is no way of knowing (based on this photo policy, or what we used to call "censorship") if the American aren't doing that stuff anymore, or the military has just figured out a way to cover it up with the Iraqi lackeys finally conforming to the script.

In fact, if it wasn't for the GI who found himself standing in the background of the captured booty picture, it would be hard to tell if the Americans had anything militarily to do with the Amara operation at all.

(image 1, 2, 5 & 6:  Essam Al-Sudani/AFP.  June 19,  2008. (#5 is June 14th.) images 3 & 4: Ali Yussef/AFP.  Amara. Maysan province, 365 kms south of Baghdad)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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