NYT: Iraq Creeping Towards 'Full-Scale Civil War' (But Don’t Look At The Numbers)

A piece in today’s NYT lets slip a canard that has been increasingly accepted as an article of faith among many talking heads and television news cycles, and reveals that the United States forces are actually helping Iraqis by being there.

And dang it all if it isn’t the Sunnis pleading for the Americans to remain steadfast and strong this time. While this is not necessarily an encouraging development, it does dampen previous notions that the US forces are viewed strictly as occupiers, bloodthirsty killers or as incompetent and unnecessary, and are instead looked upon by the oppressed and victimized as a protecting force (along with the Iraqi police and army).

The writers use a somewhat hyperbolic tone with phrases like “As sectarian violence soars…,”  or “…since an eruption of sectarian bloodletting in February…,” and also  “…to help contain the widening chaos.” The writers obviously aim to leave  no doubt in the readers mind (theoretically) that there is a widening, increasing, unstoppable wave of violence, death and insurmountable carnage that continues apace each day.

However, one needs simply to look at some of the numbers to throw cold water on this flawed assumption  (it is no surprise that the NYT doesn’t mention actual statistics or numbers in this story.) When one visits Iraqi Body Count (which claims to measure Iraqi civilian deaths), there emerge no significant trends of  “erupting sectarian bloodletting,” “widening chaos,” or “soaring sectarian violence.” You’ll notice two things looking at the data (assuming it is accurate). The first is that on most given days, the civilian body count for the entire country of Iraq fails to crack double digits in most areas. In those instances which it does, the count seldom goes much higher than 30 deaths (there are min. and max. values to allow for discrepencies in the counting).  This is akin to reporting murder stats from Chicago, Camden, Philly and Washington DC - the total is higher when you add up the individual areas of violence, but not even by a long shot is any one area is an uncontrollabe bloodbath. The second thing to note is that the violence is often localized in several recurring population centers (especially Baghdad, and also Baquba, Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah and Kirkuk.)

 This data certainly paints a different picture from the one painted with the hyperbolic “reporting” that gives the impression that the entire country is about to collapse into a full-scale, American-style civil war.  The piece makes it seem as if Gettysburg and Antietam are just around the corner, when in fact the actual numbers of dead are similar to that (perhaps slightly higher) than murder statistics in crime-ridden American cities like Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Camden.  

Put simply, the situation is imperfect, but not nearly as bad as the NYT wants you to think it is.

The Merrian-Webster dictionary definitions define civil war as a war between opposing factions of the same country.  This is partially the case in Iraq, but there are complications that cloud the definition. For example, there is a dearth of foreign fighters in Iraq from across the region who are not citizens of Iraq. These foreign fighters, however, do target Iraqi civilians. They are not parties to this “civil war” that the NYT seems requisite in pretending is happening. By this loose definition of civil war, the turf battles and bloodletting between the Bloods and the Crips was also to be considered a  civil war – closer to the actual definition without foreign complications. Two factions, both of the same country, at open and violent war with one another.  That “gang war” fits the dictionary definition of “civil war.”

It is perhaps more accurate to characterize the sectarian strife in Iraq as simply that – sectarian strife. There is no “wide-scale, thousands upon thousands dead each day” casualty rate that suggest “all-out” civil war.  The data also does not seem to indicate that the country is “creeping to the brink of full-scale civil war,” as the article claims.

And just in case you thought they forgot, room is made at the end of the short piece for an “alleged US atrocities” graph. Standard operating procedure – there must be “balance,” no matter now irrelevant to the story being reported. Sticklers will argue that this is to contextualize the Sunni outrage at American troops before they did an about face to request they stay longer. Many Sunnis under Hussein, however, were dancing in the streets on September 11, 2001, and no doubt will be dancing when the US draws down to a support-level presence as well. The anger existed long before “Abu Gharib.” Nothing new here.

Iraq New York Times Journalistic Issues

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