What do we call the enemy?

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[Part 1 of this series on Iraq coverage, The imperfect media storm or George Bush and the Temple of Doom, appeared on Monday.]

Last week, through a front-page reconsideration of its Iraq reporting written by media columnist Howard Kurtz (The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story) the Washington Post finally hung out a piece or two of its dirty laundry. This comes three months after the New York Times buried its Iraq mea culpa on page 10 (and then its ombudsman Daniel Okrent did a far more forthcoming consideration of the same). The fact is that while its editorial page was beating the drums for war, Post prewar reportage was generally marginally better than that of the Times. They had no obvious raging embarrassments like Times‘ reporter Judith Miller’s shameful pieces and more recently, from Walter Pincus to Mike Allen to Dana Priest, they were on the beat of real Bush administration stories in Washington far sooner than their Times equivalents. Still, they have a good deal to apologize for (“From August 2002 through the March 19, 2003, launch of the war, The Post ran more than 140 front-page stories that focused heavily on administration rhetoric against Iraq. Some examples: ‘Cheney Says Iraqi Strike Is Justified’; ‘War Cabinet Argues for Iraq Attack’; ‘Bush Tells United Nations It Must Stand Up to Hussein or U.S. Will’; ‘Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat’; ‘Bush Tells Troops: Prepare for War.’), though you’ll find no apologies here, certainly not for the front-paging of administration war propaganda and the nixing or burying of what prewar questioning its reporters did.

You’ll also find the following howler from Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., “[W]e were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration’s rationale,” not to speak of Bob Woodward’s claim that “We had no alternative sources of information” — at a moment when he knew from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, that the Bush administration was intent on war with Iraq. (Of course, you didn’t need insider sources to grasp this, just a pair of eyes and ears.) Imagine, though, that Washington’s imperial paper of record was focused only on discovering what then couldn’t have been more obvious to tens of millions of people around the world: that the Bush administration was hell-bent on and determined only to go to war, WMDs or no. So imagine, in turn, Kurtz is the best we can hope for a year and a quarter after Baghdad was taken, after a series of Tsunami-like events that have sent the Bush administration reeling, long after every aspect of its WMD claims has gone down those “aluminum tubes” (doubts about which the Post admits to having back-paged) and into oblivion. And they say the President has a tough time acknowledging error!

Self-censorship, conformity, and craven bowing to administration propaganda of the sort admitted to by the Washington Post are, however, just the tip of the media iceberg. The Post, via Kurtz, is only not-apologizing for what was actually written and where it was placed in the paper. It remains beyond anyone’s wildest dreams to hope that our major papers would devote the slightest thought to stories that logically should have been covered but simply went missing-in-action. So for the rest of this dispatch, let me just focus on American Iraq reportage since the taking of Baghdad and offer my own little non-inclusive list of occupation/war stories that seem to me to have gone MIA — and these are only the ones that, with my limited public sources and limited knowledge, I can see from here. Then, because every war has its war words that are meant to bend embattled reality to someone’s advantage, I want to consider a few recent examples of Iraq war words and how the press has dealt with them.

Missing Stories

1. Air Power: Air power has been at the heart of the American-style of war since World War II. With the sole exception of Central America in the Reagan era, from the Korean War in the early 1950s to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1960s to the 2001 “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad, the application of massive air power (or more recently of cruise missiles), often unopposed, has been the essence of war as Americans have fought it. It strikes us as completely normal to be able to bring air power to bear in situations where the enemy of choice has neither air power of its own, nor any but the most minimal air defenses.

When under the onslaught, if the enemy then takes refuge in places that would normally be forbidden to bomb — hospitals, schools, temples, mosques, or among the civilian population — this is seen as a “cowardly” act, placing our military at such a disadvantage as to nullify the “rules of war.” And this is a theme sometimes taken up in the press. In a recent piece (Why the Najaf Offensive Is on Hold), for instance, Time‘s Tony Karon, who generally writes interesting analysis, picked up a phrase made popular in the Vietnam era in discussing the recent fighting near the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf: “While the estimated 1,000 lightly armed Mehdi militiamen,” he wrote, “were no match for more than 3,000 U.S. troops and an undisclosed number of Iraqi personnel deployed there, the political circumstances in which the battle was waged forced the Marines to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.”

Now this is literally true. For fear of further damaging the Shrine of Imam Ali, the Marines are evidently at present under orders, if fired upon from the direction of the Shrine, not to fire back. What’s missing in action here, however, is the other part of the story: When we employ Apache helicopters, Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles, and F-16s (not to speak of tanks) in heavily populated urban areas against an enemy armed mainly with AK-47s and RPGs, how many hands do we have in front of our backs? Six? Ten? Eighty-seven?

Now that significant portions of Iraq, city by city, seem to be blinking off the American map, our military is increasingly releasing air power as the weapon of choice in those heavily populated urban areas. In the last week, we have bombed, missiled, or strafed (sometimes a combination of all three) in Sadr City, the Shiite slum holding an estimated 2 million of Baghdad’s inhabitants, Samarra, Kut, Najaf, Fallujah (more than once) and possibly in Ramadi and Hilla as well among other places. If you have the time to read deep into Iraq coverage, follow various news wires, check out historian Juan Cole’s invaluable Informed Comment website, check and troll various representatives of the foreign press on-line, you can certainly piece much of this together. So, in Kut, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported:

“Heavy overnight US bombing of Kut killed 84 people and wounded nearly 180 others, a day after clashes between Iraqi police and Shiite militiamen in the southern city, a hospital official said Police Colonel Salam Fakhri said the bombing started at 1:00 am Wednesday and lasted until 3:00 am. ‘The bombing was concentrated in Al-Sharkia district as the US military felt there were a lot of Shiite militiamen in that area. It also has an office of (radical Shiite Muslim cleric and militia chief) Moqtada Sadr,’ he said.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday in Samarra, 500-pound bombs were dropped on two “known enemy locations” killing, according to the American military, a suspiciously well-rounded-off 50 “anti-Iraqi forces” (“But Dr Abdul Hamid al-Samarrai told AFP news agency at the main hospital that most of the casualties were women and children”).

What’s striking is that, while such bombings seem on the increase, I’ve noted no significant articles in our press on the loosing of American air power in Iraq, the dangers and possible illegalities involved in bombing heavily populated civilian areas of a country you still functionally “occupy,” or of the size and positioning of American air power in Iraq. If you’re an Internet news junky, of course, you can go to the website and check out for yourself the American Air Force in Southwest Asia and where our planes are based in Iraq (as best as can be known), but you might think that the widespread, increasingly commonplace bombing of civilian areas in cities would be a story the media might want to cover in something more than the odd paragraph deep into pieces on other subjects.

There’s an old Vietnam-era lesson in this — as a friend and expert on our experience in Vietnam recently pointed out to me. Reporters can generally follow and cover fighting on the ground. It’s harder to be “on the spot” for bombing, and as the military take for granted (and as was true of our largely uncovered massive air assaults on the South Vietnamese countryside, and parts of Laos and Cambodia back in the late 1960s and early 1970s), for the American press, out of sight is out of mind. (See point 4 below.)

2. Permanent Bases: Here’s another desperately uncovered story of the Iraq War/occupation/war, one I’ve harped on since April of 2003 — our permanent bases (charmingly referred to as “enduring camps”) in Iraq. The possibility that four of these might be built was discussed on the front page of the New York Times while the invasion of Iraq was still in progress (and vehemently denied by the Pentagon). A year later, in the spring of 2004, the Chicago Tribune had a couple of pieces on the up-to-14 enduring camps being prepared. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, our permanent bases, plans for them, the building of them, and what they might mean, strategically speaking have gone almost completely unmentioned in our media. And enormous as they evidently are, they should be hard to overlook. Here’s the only reference I’ve found, in an obscure engineering journal, to their overall size and the enormity of the funds being pouted into them, based on an email interview with Lt. Col. David (Mark) Holt of the Army Corps of Engineers, “who is tasked with facilities development.” It reads:

“U.S. Base Construction–The third major mission the army’s engineers are engaged in is building facilities for the bed-down of U.S. forces. ‘Again the numbers are staggering,’ Holt says. Most of work is being done through KBR. ‘Interesting program in the several billion dollar range,’ Holt says.”

Imagine, “in the several billion dollar range” and being built by Halliburton subsidiary KBR. Some of them like Camp Anaconda are evidently comparable in size to the vast Vietnam-era bases that we built in places like Danang. These go unmentioned and yet if you don’t grasp that, from the beginning, the Pentagon was planning a major string of “enduring camps” in Iraq, then you really can’t grasp why the Bush administration had no exit strategy from that country — because, of course, it had no plans to depart. These permanent bases also help explain why the Coalition Provisional Administration of L. Paul Bremer so confidently disbanded the Iraqi military of 400,000 and made plans instead to rebuild a modest-sized force (but not an air force) of perhaps 35,000-40,000 lightly armed, tank-less troops (as was said again and again from the time of the invasion on). Instead of maintaining anything close to a Saddam-sized military, the neocons and Pentagon hawks in Washington planned to stick around and provide the air power and muscle needed in such a heavily armed region ourselves, as indeed is happening, though under far different circumstances than our policy makers imagined. Of all the subjects one can understand not being covered in Iraq right now due to the obvious dangers to foreign reporters, these American bases certainly should be a reasonably safe exception.

3. Urban warfare and slaughter: One of the fears of the military at the time of invasion of Iraq was that American troops might be bogged down in urban guerrilla warfare in Baghdad, a situation in which our immense technological advantages in war-fighting could be constrained or partially nullified in a maze of city streets. There were scores of articles about this fearful possibility then and a slew of reports about American preparations for such a fate. (A good example of such pieces is New York Times reporter Alan Cowell’s House to House: Urban Warfare: Long a Key Part of an Underdog’s Down-to-Earth Arsenal, published on March 27, 2003.) In the end, Baghdad fell largely without a struggle. Critics — and there were many, including military ones, who raised the possibility of urban warfare — were essentially laughed off the premises as what in the Vietnam era would have been known as “nervous Nellies,” and the subject was forgotten. Now, this American nightmare seems to be coming true. From Mosul in the north to Basra in the South, U.S. and British troops are involved in spreading urban guerrilla warfare. Yet while this is obvious, it also goes largely uncommented upon. There is no real discussion of, or analysis of this in our press that I’ve seen, though reporters would largely only have to revisit their own or their colleagues’ reportage from the spring of 2003 to begin.

Certainly, the recent warfare in the streets of, and amid the tombstones of, Najaf has been covered in some daily detail. There have been descriptions of “bloody” fighting and fierce “hand-to-hand” combat in Najaf’s vast holy cemetery and in the alleyways of the old city. These accounts give a sense of equality in struggle (as in hands tied behind backs). However, if you look at the casualty figures, it seems that so far perhaps 8 American soldiers have died in the fighting as opposed to many hundreds of Iraqis. Even if American “body counts” of dead Mahdi Army militiamen, announced at over three hundred almost as the battle began, are exaggerated (and even if some of those dead are assumed to be civilians caught up in fighting in a sizeable city rather than “anti-Iraqi forces”), the casualty figures are still grotesquely disproportionate (though remarkably similar to those in most 19th century colonial wars). On the face of it, this should really not simply be labeled “bloody fighting” or “fierce hand-to-hand combat” (however fearsome and dangerous it may be for American soldiers). Another word should be added: slaughter. On this, the casualty figures do not lie. I assure you, though, that you can search our media high and low and not find that word, or anything similar.

4. American strategy in Iraq: I discussed this in my last dispatch, but let me just repeat briefly. When the new State Department/CIA team arrived during the June “transition,” led by soft-spoken ambassador John Negroponte, they clearly had a plan — put new Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and other Iraqi spokesmen in front of the cameras and get American policy-makers inside the Green Zone to shut up. They did so and, miraculously, evidently lacking access, sources, leaks, or quotable voices, reporters simply stopped writing accounts, analyses, speculations on the nature of or meaning of American strategic planning in Iraq. Green Zone officialdom simply disappeared from our press, which largely dealt with the fighting that could be seen in Najaf and Allawi’s supposed decisions in relation to Najaf. It may be obvious to any sane observer that the Americans are still in charge and that American strategic decisions are largely being implemented by Americans, not Iraqis; it may also be plausible that the offensive against Najaf results from an American urge (however ill-advised) to crush what looked to be the easiest of the oppositional forces in the country, al-Sadr’s lightly armed, ill-trained militiamen, and perhaps somehow take Iraq off front pages until November, but as a news story, all strategic thinking in Baghdad is, at the moment, missing in action.

5. The Imam Ali Shrine and Shiism: In the context of points 1-4, this may seem a small matter, but while the Imam Ali Shrine is almost generically referred to as “holy” in any story or perhaps as Shiism’s most holy site or one of Islam’s most holy sites, and its golden dome is sometimes mentioned, and the Shrine itself has regularly been front-paged in stories in the last weeks and can be found near the top of the TV news, I have yet to see a full background piece on the shrine or a full description of its history and meaning. The best I’ve noticed anyway was a sidebar prepared by the “staff “of the Christian Science Monitor, for Scott Balduff”s canny piece Sadr plays to power of martyrdom. Generally speaking, the same goes for Shiism itself. With the exception of Juan Cole, an expert on Shiism, who has been a one-man press corps when it comes to explaining the Shiite world to those of us who visit his site regularly, I would nominate “Shiite” as the least defined noun and the least meaning-filled adjective in our press at the moment..

Why should this matter? One answer is: Because Islam is not a familiar religion to most Americans (despite growing numbers of converts here), and so, unlike more familiar “holy” sites, either religious or political, the Imam Ali Shrine has no resonance for us. The impact of the fighting so near to, and the threat to the Shrine, doesn’t really register here, even as it is deeply unnerving Muslims (not to speak of others) elsewhere in the world. If (in some fantasy future) a rebellious priest, no matter how extreme his views, were locked inside the Vatican with his self-appointed militia fending off an occupying army from some powerful Arab state, I assure you the reporting would be different indeed. It matters that we, who simply read about this, can’t even begin to put ourselves in the shoes of Iraqis experiencing it — although this should at least give us insight into why American policy makers and military men, no less ignorant than the rest of us, can make such staggering tactical blunders.

[Note: In expectation of e-letters from those of you who have seen articles on any of the above subjects, I should quickly admit that, while I read as widely as I can and Google around as much as possible, I have no way of catching even a fraction of everything that’s written. I’m interested though. Just, if possible, when you write in to tell me I’m an ignorant sot for any or all of the above, do send along the headlines of the relevant pieces as well as the names of reporters, dates published, and urls.]

War Words

What do we call the enemy? George and Laura Bush were the guests on Larry King Live this Sunday,. In the context of the latest fighting in Najaf, King said to the President: “We’ve had more today, there are more eruptions in Iraq. And it seems never-ending, does[n’t] it? What does it do to you?”

The President replied:

“We’ve got a great leader in Prime Minister Allawi. He’s a tough guy who believes in free societies. And more and more Iraqis are being trained. And more and more Iraqis are stepping up to do the hard work of bringing these terrorists, these former Baathist and some foreign fighters to justice. And that’s why we are going to prevail.”

So the President thinks that in Najaf we’re up against Baathists, foreign fighters, and terrorists. In a similar vein, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the following of the fighting in Najaf at a recent press conference:

“In this case, the violence is being perpetrated by outlaws and by former regime elements and by terrorists who respect no truce, respect nothing except force. And as long as those individuals don’t understand the spirit of peace and reconciliation, are not willing to work for democratic, free Iraq, they have to be dealt with. And so your question really should not be addressed to us. It should be addressed to those who are causing the violence, who are setting off the bombs, who are destroying the hopes of the Iraqi people.”

Now statements like Powell’s tend to be reported quite straightforwardly in our press even though the one thing you certainly couldn’t say about the Mahdi Army in Najaf is that it’s made up of former “regime elements” or “Baathists.” These are, after all, the Shiites of southern Iraq whom Saddam brutally repressed in 1991 and whom we claimed our invasion was meant to liberate. It should be remembered, in fact, that the last army to reach the Imam Ali Shrine with intent to harm was Saddam’s.

Should you want to imagine what the present situation looks like from the point of view of many Shiites and you’re willing to search, you can probably find the odd comment buried somewhere in our torrent or Iraq reportage (“Saddam made mass graves in 1991,” Abbos fumed. “Now the Americans are making mass graves in 2004, filled with Shiites again.”), or you can go offshore or into cyberspace, where, for instance, Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service offers the following in the Asia Times on-line, quoting (the ubiquitous) Juan Cole:

“‘What’s going on right now looks a lot like April 1991, when it was [Iraqi president] Saddam [Hussein] who was crushing a Shi’ite uprising. But now it’s the Marines who are playing the role of the Republican Guard,’ Cole told Inter Press Service, adding that US policy in Iraq was looking increasingly like ‘Ba’ath-lite,’ particularly under Allawi.”

Or you can read the piece (mentioned above) by Scott Balduff, who has done some superb on-the-spot reporting from Najaf, and writes:

“If the Americans and Iraqi Army do end up assaulting the Shrine of Ali, they will not be the first. Hussein threw the full force of his military against the shrine in 1991 after Shiite rebels launched an abortive rebellion. Artillery barrages damaged the shrine complex and special-forces soldiers killed the rebels inside the complex itself. The brutality of this crackdown at such a holy site turned most Shiites against Hussein, even those who had defended him in the past.”

Of course, the labeling of guerrillas, rebels, and insurgents, religious or otherwise, as “outlaws” and “terrorists” has a long history in European colonial wars as also, for instance, in Japanese depredations in China in the 1930s. Similarly the language in the statements coming out of our military in Iraq these days has a familiar ring for anyone who knows something of the history of counterinsurgency warfare. For instance, here’s part of a statement quoted in the Washington Post by Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, identified by the Post reporter as “Deputy Director for Operations of the U.S. led multi-national force”:

“Clearing operations by Iraqi Security Forces and Multi-National Forces today in Najaf continue to further isolate the militia and restore control of the city to the government and people of Najaf The combined Iraqi and multi-national security forces continue to operate in strict compliance with guidance from the Prime Minister [interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi] to safeguard and prevent possible harm to these holy shrines as well as protect the citizens and future of Iraq.”

Our operations involving Predator drones, Apache helicopters, and jets in downtown Najaf, then, are “clearing operations” (though who exactly is being “cleared” isn’t made particularly clear), and the forces, almost totally American, conducting these clearing operations are dubbed “multinational,” and all this is supposedly being done under the “guidance” of Prime Minister Allawi to “safeguard these holy shrines.” Of course, it’s obviously in the interest of American policy makers and military men to put forward such lies even at a moment when the only non-American troops fighting on our side in Najaf, the sparse Iraqi battalions we’ve trained, are evidently deserting in droves, as Hannah Allam, Tom Lasseter and Dogen Hannah of Knight Ridder have recently reported. (“‘I’m ready to fight for my country’s independence and for my country’s stability,’ one lieutenant colonel said. ‘But I won’t fight my own people.'”) But if this sort of language is simply reproduced without comment in our news, then Americans will have little way to grasp the nature of what’s happening in Iraq.

Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?

In the Washington Post Outlook section this Sunday, correspondent Robin Wright wrote a particularly execrable piece (Not Just A Battle For Najaf) about the situation in Iraq, whose language might have been taken directly from Bush administration press releases. There are fantasy passages like the following, no less pure in their deceptions than those of Brig. Gen. Lessel: “A deepening backlash [in Iraq] could further complicate this second phase of the three-part political transition and damage the quest to build a model new democracy that would inspire a wider transformation in the Arab and l[sl]amic worlds.” I’m sorry, but you’ll have to remind me: What was the first phase of that three-part transition? And I was under the obviously mistaken impression that the new, silent American occupation regime inside Baghdad’s Green Zone had left all thoughts of building “a model new democracy that would inspire” etc. behind and opted instead for an ex-Baathist thug who has an iron fist tied behind his back.

But I wander. What I wanted to focus on was a relatively innocuous sentence about Muqtada al-Sadr and his men in Wright’s piece: “The stakes are now far greater than whether a rogue cleric and his renegade militia can diminish the fledgling Iraqi government and its U.S. patrons.” It’s a modest but interesting example of how word choice sets the frame within which we view the world. On the one side Wright has marshaled two negative adjectives: “rogue” and “renegade.” Both work well within the framework laid out by Colin Powell. After all “rogue clerics,” like “rogue elephants,” and their “renegade militias” fit easily enough into the category of “outlaws.” In such a context, you couldn’t even bring to mind an adjective like “nationalist” or “patriot” (even though we, here in the U.S., don’t necessarily find any necessary contradiction between American religious fundamentalism and American patriotism). On the other side, you have that wonderful adjective “fledgling” linked to “government.” No rogue elephants here just a fragile little government chick in a nest overseen by “patrons” (a word which, while it may have some modest negative connotations, brings to mind rich people who give money to the arts or museums).

As a start then Wright accepts that, whatever Allawi’s group may be, it is indeed a “government,” and we are nothing but its “patrons.” No “puppets” and “masters” possible here. Not even “interim administration” and “occupiers.” So before you get near the supposed content of what she’s writing about, so much is already settled — and settled in favor of a useful official fantasy about the nature of reality in Iraq; useful, that is, for an administration trying desperately to limp through to November.

Perhaps it’s the nature of reporting, a trade done on the run and at top speed, that much of reality must regularly fall into a series of easily re-used set phrases and descriptions. After all, familiar modifiers have been wielded this way since Homer (“the fleet-footed Achilles”) to remind, identify, and categorize. So it’s always interesting when you see one or two of those identifying phrases change, as I did last week in reports by Alex Berenson and John Burns of the New York Times on the fighting in Najaf. It’s always a small indication that journalists are registering a change in the landscape. So twice in that week in front page stories those two reporters put an adjective in front of al Sadr that hadn’t been used before — “populist” (“Guns fell silent across most of the city as Iraqi government representatives met into the night at the provincial governor’s headquarters with emissaries of Mr. Sadr, the populist Shiite cleric.”) That description was followed by another word that, I believe, had simply not appeared previously in Times reportage: “insurrection.” In regard to the Sunni areas to the north, the word “insurgency” and “insurgents” had long been used to describe what was happening (a cautious usage I adopted myself), but here they suddenly wrote of a “widespread insurrection,” as in general uprising. (“His stand against American forces here has stirred a widespread insurrection across southern Iraq, starting in Najaf and then quickly setting off fighting in at least eight other predominantly Shiite cities.”)

Burns and Berenson used these two words on Saturday and then repeated them on Sunday. This represented a small but telling shift in the Times‘ assessment of what’s happening in Iraq.

What to call — how to label and categorize — Muqtada al-Sadr has been a curious problem for American reporters and the Times reporting has reflected that. In one of the earliest Times references to Sadr, on May 12, 2003, Susan Sachs referred to him as “another ambitious cleric, Moktada al-Sadr” (“Iraqis More Bemused Than Enthused by Cleric”). Generally, when he appeared as a bit player in the paper’s pages in the early months after Baghdad fell, he was little more than “young” or “ambitious.” In his initial appearance on the Times op-ed page on August 29, 2003, Reuel Marc Gerecht referred to him as “a 22 year old firebrand” (though the age was wrong). On September 24, al-Sadr was still imagined to be nothing but a “marginal” figure and Noah Feldman wrote of him as “the rejectionist Moktada al-Sadr.” (“Wisely, the coalition has declined to arrest Mr. Sadr; his hopes for a living martyrdom denied, he increasingly looks more like a small-time annoyance than the catalyst of a popular movement” — from “Democracy: Closer Every Day”). In October 2003, in “Bomb at Turkish Embassy In Baghdad Kills Bystander,” Alex Berenson and Ian Fisher spoke of him as ” a radical, anti-American Shiite cleric.” In May 2004, Ed Wong uniquely spoke of him as “the maverick Shiite cleric” (“U.S. Military Says Shiite Rebels Seem to Have Ceded Karbala”), but generally in these months he was referred to in headlines and texts simply as “the radical cleric.”

In a headline for a piece reported by “Alex Berenson; Sabrina Tavernise and Iraqi employees of The Times, whose names have been withheld for security” (“Radical Cleric in Iraq Sets Off Day of Fighting) on August 6, just eleven days ago, he was still being called this. But on August 11, a change set in. In the very first paragraph of a Berenson piece that day (U.S. Forces, Close to Attack in Najaf, Decide to Hold Off), he was referred to as “the rebel Shiite cleric,” as he was again the next day before, on the 13th, he morphed into a “populist” cleric (populist, or agrarian rebel, still has quite a positive ring in the American lexicon) “sparking” a “widespread insurrection,” before today in two front-page pieces (Alex Berenson and John Burns, 8-Day Battle for Najaf: From Attack to Stalemate and Alex Berenson and Sabrina Tavernise, Cleric in Najaf Refuses to Meet Iraqi Mediators), he once again became a “rebel Shiite cleric” or a “rebel cleric.” (The Berenson and Burns piece, by the way, quotes for the first time in a while “Senior officers in Baghdad, as well White House officials,” who throw the blame for the launching of the Najaf offensive largely onto the shoulders of local Marine commanders, with Ambassador Negroponte only later deciding “to pursue the case.” Although anything is possible, this seems unlikely to me.)

If you want a fuller picture of al-Sadr, you might — and I apologize for directing you to his work so often — check out Juan Cole’s piece, It Takes a Following to Make an Ayatollah in the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section on him, his movement, and the larger Shiite context of the moment and consider the wonderful, unexpected adjective he uses to describe him (along with “lower-ranking cleric” and “fiery”) — “beefy.” Or consider the Scott Balduff piece mentioned above, which quotes “Amatzia Baram, a noted scholar on Shiite Islam at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington” as calling him a ‘shrewd politician.'” Not a description we would normally read here.

In fact, while most of the Times’ descriptive adjectives seem to catch something of al-Sadr, they do so within the context of his relationship to us, or at least within the context of the words available to us to describe political actors who fall somewhere between Colin Powell’s very American “outlaw” and the Times’ recent very American “populist.” None of them surely catch al-Sadr in his Iraqi context particularly well and, given the general lack of Iraqi voices in our media, we’re not soon likely to find out what the Iraqi descriptive range might be.

How the naming of embattled reality is brokered in our newsrooms and how it changes is a fascinating subject, though one you’re unlikely ever to find discussed in the press itself. A couple of passing phrases from that inadvertently revealing Howard Kurtz mea-almost-culpa in the Washington Post might, however, offer a little help. For instance, the editorial decision-making that resulted in the highlighting of administration prewar propaganda and the burying of all critical thought in the back pages of the paper is referred to in the piece as “groupthink,” or as Karen DeYoung, reporter and former assistant managing editor, commented bluntly: “‘We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said.'” Amen. Tom

[Thanks to Nick Turse for his research help on the Times and al-Sadr.]