February 15, 2007

Iraqi General Disputes AP Claim on Jamil Hussein

Note: This is a background article to the exclusive posted today at Pajamas Media.

From the very beginning of the controversy surrounding the Associated Press' coverage of a series of Shia militia attacks on Sunni homes and mosques in the Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad on November 24, 2006, Iraqi government officials, Multi-National Corps-Iraq, and bloggers have questioned the identity of one of the primary Associated Press sources for the accounts, an Iraqi Police Captain called Jamil Hussein.

The controversy erupted after the Public Affairs Office of Multi-National Corps-Iraq disputed claims made in the Associated Press articles, which claimed that four Sunni mosques in Hurriyah were "burned and blew up," and that 24 people had been killed in the attacks.

According an AP article released on November 24:

Revenge-seeking Shi'ite militiamen grabbed six Sunnis as they left Friday worship services, doused them with kerosene and burned them alive near an Iraqi army post. The soldiers did not intervene, police Capt. Jamil Hussein said.

A follow-up Associated Press article printed on November 25 stated:

Iraqi soldiers at a nearby army post failed to intervene in Friday's assault by suspected members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia or subsequent attacks that killed at least 19 other Sunnis, including women and children, in the same neighborhood, the volatile Hurriyah district in northwest Baghdad, said police Capt. Jamil Hussein.

In the same article, a second source, a Sunni elder named Imad al-Hasimi:

...confirmed Hussein's account of the immolations. He told Al-Arabiya television he saw people who were drenched in kerosene and then set afire, burning to death before his eyes.

When approached by investigators from the Iraqi Defense Ministry, al-Hasimi recanted his claim that six worshippers were pulled from the Mustafa mosque in Hurriyah, which an AP report by Steven R. Hurst confirmed in a November 28 article. Hurst seemed to imply that as Hasimi was pressured into recanting his testimony in a January 4th article where he stated that he recanted only after Defense Ministry investigators "paid him a visit," a loaded phrase often used in Hollywood accounts of mafia goons strong-arming the witnesses of crimes into silence.

AP later claimed that several anonymous sources in Hurriyah confirmed the claimed immolation attack to AP reporters, but these accounts could not be verified by any other news organization's reporters, including Baghdad correspondent Edward Wong of the New York Times:

When we first heard of the event on Nov. 24, through the A.P. story and a man named Imad al-Hashemi talking about it on television, we had our Iraqi reporters make calls to people in the Hurriya neighborhood. Because of the curfew that day, everything had to be done by phone. We reached several people who told us about the mosque attacks, but said they had heard nothing of Sunni worshippers being burned alive. Any big news event travels quickly by word of mouth through Baghdad, aided by the enormous proliferation of cell phones here. Such an incident would have been so abominable that a great many of the residents in Hurriya, as well as in other Sunni Arab districts, would have been in an uproar over it. Hard-line Sunni Arab organizations such as the Muslim Scholars Association or the Iraqi Islamic Party would almost certainly have appeared on television that day or the next to denounce this specific incident. Iraqi clerics and politicians are not shy about doing this. Yet, as far as I know, there was no widespread talk of the incident.

The Washington Post also spoke with two local imams, who denied the immolations took place.

On November 30, The Public Affairs Office, via email, dropped the bombshell that the Iraqi Interior Ministry had no record of a police officer by the name of Jamil Hussein.

Iraqi Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Khalaf later confirmed that statement in a press conference, which brought the following response from Associated Press International Editor John Daniszewski later that same day:

The Associated Press denounces unfounded attacks on its story about six Sunni worshipers burned to death outside their mosque on Friday, November 24. The attempt to question the existence of the known police officer who spoke to the AP is frankly ludicrous and hints at a certain level of desperation to dispute or suppress the facts of the incident in question.

AP reporters who have been working in Iraq throughout the conflict learned of the mosque incident through witnesses and neighborhood residents and corroborated it with a named police spokesmen and also through hospital and morgue workers.

We have conducted a thorough review of the sourcing and reporting involved and plan to move a more detailed report about the entire incident soon, with greater detail provided by multiple eye witnesses. Several of those witnesses spoke to AP on the condition that their names would not be used because they fear reprisals.

The police captain cited in our story has long been known to the AP reporters and has been interviewed in his office and by telephone on several occasions during the past two years.

He is an officer at the police station in Yarmouk, with a record of reliability and truthfulness. His full name is Jamil Gholaiem Hussein.

The AP stands by its story.

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll then piled on, oddly:

We are satisfied with our reporting on this incident. If Iraqi and U.S. military spokesmen choose to disregard AP's on-the-ground reporting, that is certainly their choice to make, but it is a puzzling one given the facts.

AP journalists have repeatedly been to the Hurriyah neighborhood, a small Sunni enclave within a larger Shiia area of Baghdad. Residents there have told us in detail about the attack on the mosque and that six people were burned alive during it. Images taken later that day and again this week show a burned mosque and graffiti that says "blood wanted," similar to that found on the homes of Iraqis driven out of neighborhoods where they are a minority. We have also spoken repeatedly to a police captain who is known to AP and has been a reliable source of accurate information in the past and he has confirmed the attack.

By contrast, the U.S. military and Iraqi government spokesmen attack our reporting because that captain's name is not on their list of authorized spokespeople. Their implication that we may have given money to the captain is false. The AP does not pay for information. Period.

Further, the Iraqi spokesman said today that reporting on such atrocities "shows that the security situation is worse than it really is." He is speaking from a capital city where dozens of bodies are discovered every day showing signs of terrible torture. Where people are gunned down in their cars, dragged from their homes or blown apart in public places every single day.

At the end of the day, we have AP journalists with reporting and images from the actual neighborhood versus official spokesmen saying the story cannot be true because it is damaging and because one of the sources is not on a list of people approved to talk to the press. Good reporting relies on more than government-approved sources.

We stand behind our reporting.

Executive Editor Carroll's comments seem to say, "how dare they question us, the Associated Press."

Carroll followed up on December 8, 2006, strongly implying that forces in the Interior Ministry may be participating in a cover-up of the attacks because of sectarian influences, and implied that questioning the Associated Press accounts of the Hurriyah accounts, and Jamil Hussein's identity by bloggers, the Iraqi government, and Multi-National Corps- Iraq amounted to a witch hunt:

Some of AP's critics question the existence of police Capt. Jamil Hussein, who was one (but not the only) source to tell us about the burning.

These critics cite a U.S. military officer and an Iraqi official who first said Hussein is not an authorized spokesman and later said he is not on their list of Interior Ministry employees. It’s worth noting that such lists are relatively recent creations of the fledgling Iraqi government.

By contrast, Hussein is well known to AP. We first met him, in uniform, in a police station, some two years ago. We have talked with him a number of times since then and he has been a reliable source of accurate information on a variety of events in Baghdad.

No one – not a single person – raised questions about Hussein’s accuracy or his very existence in all that time. Those questions were raised only after he was quoted by name describing a terrible attack in a neighborhood that U.S. and Iraqi forces have struggled to make safe.

That neighborhood, Hurriyah, is a particularly violent section of Baghdad. Once a Sunni enclave, it now is dominated by gunmen loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Many people there talked to us about the attack, but clammed up when they realized they might be quoted publicly. They felt understandably nervous about bringing their accusations up in an area patrolled by a Shiite-led police force that they suspect is allied with the very militia accused in these killings...

As careful followers of the Iraq story know well, various militias have been accused of operating within the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and has long worked to suppress news of death-squad activity in its ranks. (This is the same ministry that questioned Capt. Hussein’s existence and last week announced plans to take legal action against journalists who report news that creates the impression that security in Iraq is bad, “when the facts are totally different.”)

The Iraqi journalists who work for the AP are smart, dedicated and incredibly courageous to go into the streets every day, talking to their countrymen and trying to capture a portrait of their home in a historic and tumultuous period.

The work is dangerous: two people who work for AP have been killed since this war began in 2003. Many others have been hurt, some badly.

Several of AP's Iraqi journalists were victimized by Saddam Hussein’s regime and bear scars of his torture or the loss of relatives killed by his goons. Those journalists have no interest in furthering the chaos that makes daily life in Iraq so perilous. They want what any of us want: To be able to live and work without fear and raise their children in peace and safety.

Questioning their integrity and work ethic is simply offensive.

It's awfully easy to take pot shots from the safety of a computer keyboard thousands of miles from the chaos of Baghdad.

The Iraq war is one of hundreds of conflicts that AP journalists have covered in the past 160 years. Our only goal is to provide fair, impartial coverage of important human events as they unfold. We check our facts and check again.

That is what we have done in the case of the Hurriyah attack. And that is why we stand by our story.

On January 4, 2007, AP reporter Steven R. Hurst announced the Iraqi Ministry Brigadier General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf had acknowledged that "Jamil Hussein" was indeed who the Associated Press said he was the entire time:

The Interior Ministry acknowledged Thursday that an Iraqi police officer whose existence had been denied by the Iraqis and the U.S. military is in fact an active member of the force, and said he now faces arrest for speaking to the media.

Ministry spokesman Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, who had previously denied there was any such police employee as Capt. Jamil Hussein, said in an interview that Hussein is an officer assigned to the Khadra police station, as had been reported by The Associated Press.

The captain, whose full name is Jamil Gholaiem Hussein, was one of the sources for an AP story in late November about the burning and shooting of six people during a sectarian attack at a Sunni mosque.

The U.S. military and the Iraqi Interior Ministry raised the doubts about Hussein in questioning the veracity of the AP's initial reporting on the incident, and the Iraqi ministry suggested that many news organization were giving a distorted, exaggerated picture of the conflict in Iraq. Some Internet bloggers spread and amplified these doubts, accusing the AP of having made up Hussein's identity in order to disseminate false news about the war.

On January 11, 2007, LT. Michael Dean, LT, US Navy assigned to Multi-National Corps-Iraq Public affairs forwarded to me and several other bloggers the following an email from Bill Costlow, a civilian liaison with the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team (CPATT) working with the Iraqi Interior Ministry in Baghdad. The email said, in part (my bold):

Seems like every time I talk to somebody about this guy, his name changes. His personnel record says his name is: Jamil Gulaim Innad XX-XXXXXXX [name redacted- ed].

Spokesman BG Abdul-Kareem has spoken with members of the AP in Baghdad
and has confirmation that he is their source.

"BG Abdul-Kareem" was later confirmed in direct follow-up emails to Bill Costlow of CPATT as being the exact same Interior Ministry spokesman, Iraqi Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, cited by the January 4 Hurst article... but telling a quite different story about the identity of Jamil Hussein.

According to Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, not only was "Jamil Hussein" actually
Jamil Gulaim Innad XX-XXXXXXX, the AP itself confirmed this identity, and then apparently decided to print an apparently fictitious account saying that Jamil Hussein was Jamil Hussein.

I personally contacted Associated Press reporter Steven R. Hurst via email on January 11 to confirm Hussein's true identity with him, and instead, within 90 minutes, received the following email reply from Linda M. Wagner, Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs for the Associated Press, which read in part:

Steve Hurst passed your e-mail inquiry along to me. AP stands by the story below, which provides the full name of the source whose existence was acknowledged to AP by Iraq's Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf in an interview on Thursday, January 4. I have bolded the relevant passages for ease of finding them in the text.

I've since conducted follow-ups with CPATT liason to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Bill Costlow, and he provided me this morning with the direct quote of Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Khalaf as noted in the Pajamas Media Exclusive.

A direct copy of Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Khalaf's quote was forwarded to Linda Wagner of the Associated Press this morning, asking her if the Associated Press still stood behind Hurst's January 4th article, now that that article has been contradicted by their own source.

Thus far Wagner has declined to respond. If she so desires, she can contact me for Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Khalaf's phone number for confirmation of this quote.

I think he is expecting her call.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at February 15, 2007 03:00 PM

Excellent work, Bob. I excerpted and linked the PJM piece and linked your blog post from Part 49 of my Jamilgate series.

Posted by: Bill Faith at February 15, 2007 07:15 PM