Failure to Report

Big news orgs are failing to cover the Iraqi tribal "awakening"

With American casualties continuing to fall in Iraq, and with Iraqi civilian deaths trending downward due in part to the stunning defeats al Qaeda has suffered at the hands of both Sunni Iraqi militias and the American military, things in Iraq look better than they have in years. A big reason for this turnaround is that Sunni tribes, which were engaged in terrorism against American forces until recently, have—for the moment at least—turned their guns on al Qaeda and away from the national government and American troops.

While this has been covered here and there in the mainstream press, there has been little attempt by the big papers and magazines to really dig into the issue, and explain what exactly is happening and, more important, why. This failure hit home Saturday, when the UK’s Guardian published an excellent profile of Hajji Abu Abed, one of the Sunni leaders of the “awakening” movement. The profile paints a harrowing picture of the warlord, offering a kind of good news (he’s fighting al Qaeda) / bad news (he appears unstable, and has no intention of joining the Shiite-led government once his Qaeda-killing is over) assessment.

The piece was important if for no other reason than to highlight the total failure of the American media to get its head around this huge story. In fact, I realized that I couldn’t remember a single instance of an American paper or magazine bothering to interview any of the leaders of the “awakening” movement, which has turned the Anbar province from a bloody gantlet for American troops into a place where the Marines can sponsor a marathon in the now peaceful streets of Ramadi. So, where are the interviews of these Sunni sheiks who have changed the face of the war so dramatically? And if they don’t exist, what possible explanation can the Baghdad bureaus of major publications have for not digging into this story?

After looking around, I did find one interview with a sheik. In mid-September, the Washington Post ran parts of an interview with Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who founded the Anbar Salvation Council, also known as the Anbar Awakening movement—but only because he was assassinated the day before. The Post had conducted the interview on July 30, but sat on it for six weeks because—why? It wasn’t news? Surely someone in the Baghdad bureau, or one of its stringers, is able to travel to Anbar to interview one of these tribal leaders, like the Guardian just did.

I actually found one other interview with on of these Iraqi leaders, but it didn’t appear in the mainstream media. In September, independent blogger Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal traveled to Iraq and interviewed a General Mustaffa, an “architect of the Concerned Citizens movement” in the Baghdad region, which he posted on his blog.

If he can do it, can’t someone from one of the big bureaus do it? This is an extremely important story, one American readers need to hear more about.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.