The Today programme’s reporting of the assault on Basra and Baghdad’s Sadr City by the Iraqi government, backed by US and British troops, tanks and warplanes, has descended to the base assertion that our side is good, their side is bad.
Evan Davis, Today’s new presenter, introduced a section on Basra on May 2 which opened with an resident of Basra describing Moqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army as “very ill-educated, basically criminals” and welcoming the renewed invasion by western forces. Davis then turned to Major General Barney White-Spunner, the UK’s senior officer in Iraq: “So it sounds like fairly good news from Basra?”
“That’s certainly our view,” White-Spunner replied. Davis pressed for more good news: “Are the gains sustainable, I suppose is the question isn’t it? Or do you think if you don’t get to mend the sewers very well people are going to become discontented again and we’ll start getting back to more street disorder?”
White-Spunner took his cue and talked unchallenged about the “excellent work” UK troops were doing, about “development”, “aid distribution”, “humanitarian work”, “sensitivity” to local needs and so on. The interview was almost as cosy as editorial meetings of The Field magazine or Baily’s Hunting Directory, where White-Spunner works when not occupying foreign lands.
Meanwhile, Iraqi government troops were parading the bodies of dead Mahdi fighters like trophies and beating up prisoners. On the same day as White-Spunner’s Radio 4 interview a huge crowd of Shia Muslims protested against Iraq’s US-backed prime minister al-Maliki in Baghdad’s Sadr City, urging him to end the bloody confrontation with the Mahdi Army. Since late March, there has been a surge of air strikes in Iraq: the military has fired more than 200 Hellfire missiles in the capital, compared with just six fired in the previous three months.
The British media routinely portrays supporters of Moqtada Sadr as “militia”, “extremists”, “men in black”, “rogue gunmen” and “death squads”. Yet, up until last September, Moqtada Sadr’s group was part of the Iraqi government. The US offensive has relied heavily on the Iran-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, many members of the armed wing of which, the Badr Organisation, have been battling the Sadr-led resistance.
The US demonises the Mahdi Army because Sadr is resolutely opposed to the occupation. Moreover, many Shia view the Mahdi in part as a charitable organisation and are often grateful for the security it provides. Sadr’s organisation gives money to families of Shia dead and injured, resettles displaced families and offers funds for any victim of American weapons in Sadr City. Evoking comparisons with Hezbollah, Sadr’s movement “has established itself as the main service provider in the country,” says a recent report by Refugees International. Every month the Mahdi army distributes rations of rice, cooking oil, sugar, tea and other staples, much of it provided by the Iraqi Red Crescent, to thousands of Baghdad’s poorest families.
As the Financial Times put it last month, the clashes between the government and the Mahdi army reveal a class division at the heart of the Shia community. Sadr represents the angry, dispossessed Shia masses of Iraq who suffered under Saddam. “What we’ve seen over the past few weeks is a real class struggle open up with no political means for bridging the gap,” the International Crisis Group told the FT. “Sadr’s followers don’t care if he’s an ayatollah or not. They just want him to win for them the wealth and prosperity they feel should be theirs,” a US official told the paper.
The British media’s last line of attack is that British troops are defending women’s rights. But abuse of women was widespread in Basra before the British were driven out of the city last autumn. The US-backed government has brought right-wing Islamists to power, unleashing attacks against women.
The resistance in battling the occupation. But for the BBC’s flagship news programme our boys are just doing good, building sewers and helping reconstruction. This is far from the case – the British and US armies are building a sewer of bloodshed and sectarian hatred in Iraq.