- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 30, 2004

Another massacre

Reports on the massacre of 49 newly trained Iraqi soldiers eight days ago left some unanswered questions that screamed out for answers: Why were the soldiers traveling without weapons or armed escorts and who, if anyone, had tipped off their attackers on their travel plans?

So it was no surprise that The Washington Post and the New York Times both jumped on the story on Tuesday when interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi accused the U.S.-led coalition of “major negligence” in permitting the massacre to happen.

We might have led our Iraq coverage the same way that day if something else had not caught our eye — an exclusive story from United Press International about a very similar massacre of Iraqi national guardsmen two weeks earlier. And this time, the evidence of an inside job was even stronger.

UPI Pentagon reporter Pamela Hess, who spent a month embedded with U.S. troops in western Anbar province last summer, reported that killers on Oct. 12 had lined up and shot 17 guardsmen, killing 11 and wounding the others.

Shell casings found at the scene, one military official was quoted as saying, were marked with red spray paint indicating the guardsmen had been killed with ammunition issued to the new Iraqi police force.

Miss Hess neatly noted the parallels between this incident near the Syrian border and the later massacre on the other side of Iraq, and managed to include Mr. Allawi’s comments as well.

We liked the item because it not only advanced the previous massacre story but also highlighted one of the most important issues facing American forces in Iraq — the problems of establishing reliable Iraqi security forces so that the U.S. troops can come home.

Looking for trends

“I was already working on my story even before the Saturday incident happened” in eastern Iraq, explained Miss Hess, who has used e-mail to stay in touch with soldiers and officers whom she met in Anbar province.

“In the course of e-mailing and checking with [military contacts], one of them tipped me off that this had happened,” she recounted. “I spent two or three days running down details with some others I had met. When I thought I had all the facts, I ran it past the original source and he said, yes, that’s how it happened. …

“Then on Sunday I saw the news [about the other massacre] and I realized that my story would have more traction. … When Allawi said what he did on Tuesday about the negligence of coalition forces, that gave me a peg.”

Miss Hess said that if the second massacre on Oct. 24 had not happened, “I would have written my story the same way, but you probably wouldn’t have noticed it. I know editors look for trends.”

As for the larger story about the problems of building up and training reliable Iraqi security services, Miss Hess faces a problem that confronts all reporters from time to time.

“I have already written how hard this task is to develop the Iraqi security forces,” she said. “I wrote it in July. That box is checked in my head, but who knows if anybody read it? I could write the same story every day.”

Miss Hess said she saw “a lot of discouragement” among the American forces charged with training the Iraqis, but she believes her sources gave her this story for more personal reasons.

“There are an unbelievable number of things going on [in Iraq] that are not covered at all,” she said. “Some of it is good news and a lot of it is bad news. I think these men and women are living this every day. They see so much that gets no attention at all and they feel a need to see the story told.

“I don’t see a political motive — the military tend to be heavily Republican — but there is a hunger for people to understand the complexity of what they are facing, the truth of their lives. … It is an unbelievable challenge.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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