Did Iraq Just Elect a Mass-Murderer?
We can’t know whether the new Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, murdered six restrained men in cold blood while a mix of Iraqi and American guards looked on in shock.
What we do know is that Allawi was alleged to have committed the gruesome crime just before the “hand-over” of the government to Iraqi nationals in 2004 (he served as interim prime minister in Iraq’s transitional government). The allegations were made by an award-winning journalist in a major mainstream publication -- Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald -- relying on two sources who confirmed details of the event independently of one another.
We also know that the American media, with few exceptions, killed the story entirely. The few outlets that alluded to the charges did so with such a degree of skepticism -- essentially accepting official denials (and half-denials) as the end of the matter -- as to render it virtually meaningless.
As a result, in 2004, with debate over the invasion of Iraq front and center around the world, the American public got a far different picture of the conflict -- and the leaders George W. Bush installed in the fledgling Iraqi government -- than the people of every other English-speaking country in the world.
Here’s how Paul McGeough broke the story in the Herald, Australia’s leading daily:
Iyad Allawi, the new Prime Minister of Iraq, pulled a pistol and executed as many as six suspected insurgents at a Baghdad police station, just days before Washington handed control of the country to his interim government, according to two people who allege they witnessed the killings.
They say the prisoners -- handcuffed and blindfolded -- were lined up against a wall in a courtyard adjacent to the maximum-security cell block in which they were held at the Al-Amariyah security centre, in the city's south-western suburbs.
They say Dr Allawi told onlookers the victims had each killed as many as 50 Iraqis and they "deserved worse than death".
The Prime Minister's office has denied the entirety of the witness accounts in a written statement to the Herald, saying Dr Allawi had never visited the centre and he did not carry a gun.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, then Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that while he personally found the allegations "unbelievable," he also thought that, “because they are written by a credible journalist, [then-Foreign Minister Alexander] Downer's responsibility is to get the truth from the Australian embassy in Baghdad and from the government of the United States. It's important that these matters are clarified.”
In the UK, there were also calls for an inquiry. “It is vital that [the allegations] are cleared up one way or another and that needs an independent inquiry,” said former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who resigned his cabinet post over the Iraq war.
Those calls went unheeded. Allawi was cleared of the charges in an investigation conducted by the subsequent Iraqi government under the auspices of President Ibrahim Al-Jafari. But that came during a period of unprecedented political upheaval and violence, and Allawi remained an influential MP in that government; his party, the Iraq National Accord, was the leading party in the Iraqi National List, which in turn was a key part of the governing coalition of Nouri al-Maliki at the time. Both the Iraqi government and the American forces in Iraq had every imaginable incentive to sweep the charges under the rug.
While Allawi strenuously dismissed the charges, reports at the time suggested that rumors of the killings swirling around Baghdad actually enhanced Allawi’s reputation in some quarters as a strong leader who had the backbone to tame the insurgency then raging at full steam.
In Scotland, the award-winning Sunday Herald ran its sister publication’s copy, as did the New Zealand Sunday Star Times, the Irish Examiner and Canada’s Toronto Post. The London Daily Mail and South Africa’s Sunday Mail (same ownership) ran a story with a similar lead, although the denial comes right up front:
IRAQ'S new Prime Minister was fighting to clear his name last night after he was accused of executing as many as six suspected insurgents.
Iyad Allawi is alleged to have shot the prisoners at a Baghdad police station days before power was handed to the interim Iraqi government last month…
The story broke only to a limited degree in the United States. Newsweek had a brief report on the allegation and it also appeared on the UPI wire. In its usually direct way, UPI led with: “Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi killed six suspected insurgents just days before he was handed power, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.”
But, according to a Lexis-Nexis search of the two-week period following the Herald’s bombshell, no major papers picked up the UPI story. The Los Angeles Times did run a piece under the headline: "Rumors circulate about Allawi's itchy trigger finger,” which was republished by the Kansas City Star, the Baltimore Sun and the San Francisco Chronicle. This is how those papers’ readers got the story:
There are many versions of the story on the street. In one, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is driving through downtown Baghdad and sees a frail old man being confronted by three armed men attempting to steal his vehicle.
Allawi leaps out of his car and shoots dead the would-be carjackers.
In another, Allawi is in a Baghdad jail where he interviews suspects, hears their confessions, declares “they deserve to die” and shoots them on the spot.
A third version sets the scene of his violent retribution in the Shiite city of Najaf, which has been racked by violence in recent months.
Is there any truth to these tales that Allawi has shot suspects? The stories have been denied by Allawi and dismissed by members of his government, the U.S. Embassy and a State Department spokesman.
On the last point, Scotland’s Sunday Herald reported: "Senior US officials have not made an outright dismissal of the allegations…."
The New York Sun, a conservative alternative paper, ran the only other U.S. story that came back from a Lexis-Nexis search. It reported the allegations were thought unlikely because of Allawi’s character. The Sun’s lead was: “Iraq's top human rights official said yesterday allegations that Prime Minister Allawi summarily executed six prisoners before taking power is a baseless smear spread to undermine the government.”
That was based on a Federal News Service interview with Iraq's Human Rights Minister Bakhtiya Amin, in which he said: “This is not the Iyad Allawi that I know. He's not a killer. And he's not the type of person who goes out killing people.”
It’s an odd line of defense in light of the fact that, as Douglas Valentine wrote in Counterpunch: “According to published reports, Allawi began his career in the killing business in the 1960s on behalf of Saddam Hussein; but in 1978, he switched to the CIA after Hussein tried to kill him. In 1991 Allawi co-founded an anti-Saddam, CIA-front organization, the Iraqi National Accord (INA), which the New York Times described as ‘a terrorist organization.’” When he assumed the office of interim Prime Minister, some European papers routinely refer to Allawi as a “former assassin,” or in similar terms.
At least readers of the L.A. Times and the other three papers that ran its story knew that a rumor about Allawi killing the prisoners was out there. That put them ahead of readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and every other major daily, who heard nothing of the matter.
I sent the original Sydney Morning Herald story to Daniel Okrent, the New York Times’ public editor at the time, with a note that read: “Clearly, the story that follows is not flattering. But it is just as clearly newsworthy and nobody's covering it.”
Okrent’s assistant sent me a link to a Times story titled: “A Tough Guy Tries to Tame Iraq." The story was about "rumor and innuendo” that Allawi was “overseeing the interrogation of a cabal of Lebanese terrorists” when he said “Bring me an ax,” and then “lopped off the hand of one of the Lebanese men.” It’s a nasty story, yes, but not quite the same.
And while there may be several stories out there, only one was reported by a respected journalist, Paul McGeough, in one of a close ally’s leading newspapers. McGeough, while acknowledging that in Iraq "It's very difficult to separate out what people are telling you from what they are hearing," stood behind his reporting in an interview with the Australian news show, "Lateline":
MAXINE McKEW: Paul, as you've also made clear in your article, Prime Minister Allawi has flatly denied this story. Why then is the Herald so confident about publishing it?
PAUL McGEOUGH, 'SYDNEY MORNING HERALD' AND 'AGE' FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Well it's a very contentious issue. What you have is two very solid eyewitness accounts of what happened at a police security complex in a southwest Baghdad suburb. They are very detailed. They were done separately. Each witness is not aware that the other spoke. They were contacted through personal channels rather than through the many political, religious or military organisations working in Baghdad that might be trying to spin a tale. And they've laid it out very carefully and very clearly as to what they saw.
MAXINE McKEW: You haven't identified these witnesses but why have they felt free to talk about such an extraordinary story?
PAUL McGEOUGH: Well, they were approached through personal connections and as a result of that, they accepted assurances. They were guaranteed anonymity, they were told that no identifying material would be published on them and they told what they saw.
Again, can’t know if the Allawi story is true. We only that it has never been fully investigated, and that the citizens of Australia, Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and South Africa had a view of the Iraqi Interim Government that Americans did not share.
That disconnect was striking, and led to stories like the one in Pakistan’s Daily Times under the headline: “US Media Kills Story that Iraqi PM Executed 6 Prisoners.”