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A Peek in the Rear View Mirror

Reported by Judy - June 3, 2005

Want more proof that Fox News presents an overly optimistic picture of the situation in Iraq? Compare their predictions of a military operation's success with results on the ground. All too often, the mismatch is glaring.

A case in point is the prediction made by Fox News military analyst Bill Cowan, retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines. Cowan appeared on "The Big Story" last Wednesday (May 25, 2005) to talk about the U.S. military's western offensive in the town of Haditha, dubbed "Operation New Market."

At the time, it was described as a "major terrorirst crackdown" and part of a search for al Qaeda leader al-Zarqawi. Judge Andrew Napolitano, sitting in for the physically absent (as opposed to always mentally missing) John Gibson, asked Cowan if the crackdown was "going to work," whatever that means in this context.

"It's going to work without a doubt," predicted Cowan. "Anything we can do to disrupt those rat lines, disrupt those lines of communications ... anything we can do to disrupt the insurgents is doing to work, and Operation New Market is going to cause that to happen."

The operation called for U.S. troops to go house to house searching for insurgents, which Napolitano said "shouldn't be a difficult thing to do ... Do the locals know who the bad guys are?"

Cowan said the locals do know who the U.S. is after and some are willing to come forward despite the risk of being killed "because they want it to end." As a result, he said, the troops know whom they are looking for and with Iraqis alongside them as they enter a house, "you can tell quickly what side of the fence they are on."

Ok, switch to another version of reality, this one from the blog of Juan Cole, a scholar on the Middle East at the University of Michigan.

"U.S. continued their Western offensive on Wednesday, moving into Haditha, a city of 90,000. They said they killed 10 guerrillas and found the local townspeople afraid of the jihadis.

"Mahir Dili, the dean of the College of Arts at Anbar University, who lives in Haditha, said that 15 US troops invaded his home at 5 am. They asked him if he owned any weapons or was harboring any guerrillas, then thoroughly searched his home and left when they found nothing (al-Zaman). The report suggests that the Haditha sweep is being done relatively blind, without good intelligence, so that a mild-mannered dean gets treatment that should ideally be reserved for a suspected guerrilla or helper of guerrillas."

Meanwhile, an AP reporter traveling with the U.S. troops reported two days later that two Marines had been killed and that the 1,000 troops involved in the sweept were getting almost no help from the local Iraqis.

"Right now, the only Iraqis traveling with the Marines are four Shiite soldiers — three of whom are related — from the faraway southern city of Basra. These Iraqis know little of Sunni Haditha," wrote Antonio Castenada in his report.

"'What I need most now is someone who can say this is a good guy and this is a bad guy,' said Marine Col. Stephen W. Davis, who commands all the troops in Regimental Combat Team 2 in the city."

So to repeat Napolitano's vague question, did Operation New Market "work"? The troops killed 10 people, lost two of their own, and probably scared the bejezsus out of a college dean unnecessarily. I wonder how long it took the troops, guided by their faithful local Iraqis, "to tell what side of the fence" the dean was on.

This is typical of Fox coverage -- much bally-hoo about the announcement of a military operation, optimistic predictions of its success, and then move on to the next announcement. Instead of predicting its success and stating flatly that it would succeed, Cowan would have done better to note that 1,000 troops in a city of 90,000 is too few too accomplish much, that its success would depend entirely on how much cooperation they were getting and that that was an open question in a Sunni city, and that any success it had would be short-lived if U.S. or Iraqi troops did not stay in the city afterwards.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but foresight doesn't have to be totally blind.

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