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    War and Terror: Fog of war shrouds the facts
    Posted on Saturday, April 05 @ 01:31:49 UTC
    Topic: Troops and Tanks
    Troops and Tanksby Stuart Millar, The Guardian

    Claims and counter-claims as off-the-record briefings add to confusion

    In a week during which an apparent "operational pause" by coalition forces was replaced by sweeping advances right to the outskirts of Baghdad, it has been as difficult as ever to discern hard fact from the fog of war.

    As the military campaign has increased in tempo, so has the propaganda battle. The reluctance of US and British commanders to divulge information has led to an increase in the off-the-record spinning of stories by anonymous sources. Public statements by political leaders in both London and Washington have served more to blur the picture than to clarify it.

    As a result, a number of the key developments reported this week leave many questions unanswered.

    1 Baghdad blackout

    As US forces mounted their dramatic assault on the Saddam international airport on the southwestern outskirts of Baghdad late on Thursday the city was plunged into darkness as the power went off completely for the first time since war began.

    There was immediate speculation on the cause of the blackout. British military sources told reporters the Americans had used a sophisticated weapon known as a carbon fibre bomb to short out Baghdad's electricity supply and allow special forces troops to enter the city in darkness.

    The weapon works by dropping fine carbon fibre filaments onto electricity pylons and transformers to cause short circuits and high-energy arcing. But its use is sensitive, as the US discovered when it dropped two during the Kosovo conflict and was denounced for putting critical civilian facilities, such as hospital equipment, out of action.

    Both Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, and General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, denied a "blackout bomb" had been used. "Central command has not targeted the power grid in Baghdad," Gen Myers said at the daily briefing in Washington.

    The British press was clearly undeterred: every front page yesterday included the suggestion that blackout bombs had been used. Coalition commanders responded publicly by blaming the Iraqi leadership for the power cut.

    2 Suicide bomber

    The killing of four US soldiers in an apparent suicide bomb attack on a checkpoint north of Najaf last Saturday seemed to open up a disturbing new front in the war. Promising that this was "just the beginning", the Iraqi leadership said the bomber, named as Ali Jaffar Hammadi al-Namani, was an army officer who was being awarded two posthumous medals for his action. His family would receive 22,000.

    But this week western intelligence officers briefed journalists that the attack may not have been all it seemed. They claimed forensic evidence from the taxi used in the attack suggested that the driver may have had no idea there was a bomb on board. Engineers, the spooks suggested, had found remains of a planted device that could have been detonated by remote control.

    The Sun was the only paper to report this new version of events, describing al-Namani as an "innocent taxi driver". The truth may never be established.

    3 Ricin factory and the London terror connection

    For months Washington's claims of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida have rested on a camp in north-east Iraq run by an Islamist extremist group, Ansar al Islam. Western intelligence agencies believe that chemical weapons, such as ricin, may have been manufactured at the site.

    The Americans have persistently tried to link this camp with the discovery of traces of ricin in a north London flat in January, and the murder of a special branch officer in Manchester during a raid on a suspected member of the alleged terror cell.

    So on Sunday, after 50 US cruise missiles were used to flatten the Ansar camp, it was no surprise when Gen Myers made similar claims.

    "We attacked and now have gone in on the ground into the site where Ansar al Islam and al-Qaida had been working on poisons. We think that's probably where the ricin found in London came from," he said.

    But British intelligence and police sources have consistently distanced themselves from these claims, insisting that there is no evidence of a link between Iraq and the men now in custody charged with the alleged plot to produce ricin.

    Nevertheless, both the Sun and the Mirror swallowed the Washington line whole. "Proof," the Sun's banner headline on the front page on Monday declared, while inside George Pascoe-Watson, the deputy political editor, said the camp contained "damning evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of horror... justifying the war on him". He continued: "Deadly weapons being made there included the poison ricin - found in a north London flat in January."

    4 Executions

    There was a further twist this week in the controversy over Tony Blair's claim that two British soldiers killed in southern Iraq, Staff Sergeant Simon Cullingworth and Sapper Luke Allsop, had been executed.

    Last week Downing Street appeared to backtrack from this position after Sapper Allsop's furious sister told the Mirror that his commanding officer had categorically told the family that both men had died instantly when their vehicle was ambushed.

    At 6.20pm on Monday the Press Association distributed a pooled despatch from a Times reporter embedded with the Royal Marines which said a Royal Marines intelligence officer had backed the prime minister's assertion that the men were executed. At 8.25pm, however, PA put out an advisory note to newsdesks asking them to "kill" the previous story. "The story has been killed at the request of the Times," it stated, offering no further explanation.

    5 The captured general

    Last Sunday 600 Royal Marines from 40 Commando launched an assault on the Basra suburb of Abu al-Kacib in a bid to break the stand-off over the strategically important southern city. The mission - codenamed Operation James after the Bond films - was hailed as a major success, with the commandos claiming to have killed an Iraqi colonel and taken a major-general prisoner.

    "I can confirm that we have captured an Iraqi general officer," Group Captain Al Lockwood, the reliably optimistic British forces spokesman, told reporters at Qatar headquarters. "At this stage it's unknown exactly which arm of the Iraqi armed forces he is from, but we are hoping this will lead us to get information that will assist us with our operations."

    The Independent ran with the story, under the headline "Republican Guard general captured by commando unit." The Sun also reported it. But as other papers reported, the claim had already been withdrawn. British spokesman Will MacKinlay told BBC television: "We believe that's not the case anymore." The cause of the confusion, he said, was the "fog of war".

    6 Prisoner of war numbers

    Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, has frequently found himself shrouded in the fog of war since the invasion of Iraq began. A fortnight ago, a couple of days after the start of hostilities, he said Iraq's 51st Division, guarding Basra, had "stopped fighting", with British forces taking thousands of prisoners. Four days later it became clear that was not the case, as more than 1,000 soldiers from the 51st returned to the fray.

    This week Mr Hoon found himself obscured by erroneous claims once again. On Monday he told the Commons that coalition forces had taken 8,000 Iraqi prisoners of war. By Thursday, he said that figure had risen to 9,000. Within a few hours of that claim, however, the Ministry of Defence put out a statement revising the total down to 5,323.

    Reproduced from:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/
    Story/0,2763,930274,00.html

     
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