Saturday, August 28, 2004

So, what’s new?

Throughout the early part of last week, U.S. forces tightened a noose around the Mahdi’s Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, Iraq, fighting block by block up to the front door of the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine.

The battle carried huge significance. If the Americans and their Iraqi allies failed to tame Sheik al-Sadr’s rebel forces, it could fatally undermine the efforts of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to establish a stable government.

But if the U.S. and Iraqi government forces went too far or seriously damaged the mosque, they risked a backlash that could turn the nation’s Shi’ite majority permanently against the new government.

This was definitely front-page news. But to anyone reading the story every day, there was very little new. The biggest difference between one day’s story and the next, at times, was that American tanks were now 200 yards from the mosque rather than 400.

It didn’t help that the Baghdad government had ordered reporters out of Najaf, leaving those embedded with U.S. forces as the only witnesses to the battle. Even those were usually not in a position to see what was happening and were reduced to describing the sounds of the battle.

The wire agency copy, as a result, was peppered with cliches and barely informative phrases, such as “loud explosions were heard,” “tanks rumbled through the streets,” “gunfire echoed,” “explosions shook the city,” and the ever popular “clashes flared.”

What’s more, each day’s copy was frustratingly similar to that of the day before. Here are the Associated Press leads from four successive days beginning Aug. 20:

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — Militiamen loyal to rebel Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr removed weapons from the revered Imam Ali shrine in Najaf but remained in control of the holy site Friday amid efforts to end their two-week-old uprising.

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — Militants loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr kept their hold on a revered shrine, and clashes flared in Najaf on Saturday, raising fears that a resolution to the crisis in the holy city could collapse amid bickering between Shi’ite leaders.

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — Explosions and gunfire shook Najaf’s Old City on Sunday in a fierce battle between U.S. forces and Shi’ite militants, as negotiations dragged on for the handover of the shrine that the fighters have used for their stronghold.

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — U.S. forces Monday drew near Najaf’s revered Shi’ite shrine, engaging in fierce battles with followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as the military stepped up pressure on the insurgents to hand over the holy site to religious authorities.

Another approach

As the days went by, it became increasingly difficult to go into our daily news meetings and tell the senior editors that this story belonged on the front page. We had to find another way to find the story.

That task was made harder because we don’t have our own reporter in Iraq at the moment.

Betsy Pisik, who covered the handover of authority at the end of June and stayed on another five weeks, had flown out just as Sheik al-Sadr’s latest uprising was beginning. And Iran-based correspondent Borzou Daragahi, who just got married in Paris, is stuck in Tehran waiting for a visa to return to Baghdad.

On Tuesday, we thought we had found an answer. The London Daily Telegraph, whose syndication service we use, had a report on a family burying three victims of the fighting in the huge cemetery abutting the mosque while the battle raged nearby.

We slipped in a couple of paragraphs summarizing the day’s fighting and offered that for the front page, with a full story on the battle as a sidebar.

Unfortunately, the senior editors decided not to take either story for the front page and we had room for only one Iraq story inside. We decided that had to be the fighting story and the cemetery report never got published.

• David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is

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