Fallujah anticlimax

Al-Jazeera's subdued coverage reveals some ambivalence in Arab views of the showdown.

By Eric Boehlert
Published November 13, 2004 3:41AM (UTC)
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Just as the assault on Fallujah may not be the pitched military showdown some analysts were predicting, so has the Arab press's battle for public opinion over Fallujah also been more restrained than expected. The fighting "is not generating the same intense, emotional response we saw in April" during the first U.S.-led siege of the city, says Marc Lynch, a political science professor at Williams College and an expert on Arab media.

In part, the coverage of Fallujah has been eclipsed by the passing of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a story that has dominated Arab and Muslim news for the past five days. Also, with the constant stream of bloody images being broadcast in the Arab world -- unrest in the Palestinian territories, bomb attacks against Iraqi civilians, and fresh videotapes of the beheading of kidnap victims -- "it becomes harder and harder for things to stand out and have an impact," Lynch says. "There's a numbing effect on Arab viewers, so it's hard for Fallujah to fight for space. Arabs right now are trying to regroup from the U.S. elections, Arafat's [death] and Osama bin Laden's reemergence on videotape. There's also a sense that the attack on Fallujah was talked about for so long, and that the jihadists are all gone, so it's not going to solve anything. It's been anticlimactic."


The realization that the outcome in Fallujah is not likely to stand as a crowning U.S. military achievement is being expressed worldwide. In Thursday's New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman, who had been a proponent of the Iraq war, wrote in a piece titled "Groundhog Day in Iraq": "Iraq has still not been fully liberated. In fact, as the fight for Falluja shows, it hasn't even been fully occupied."

The BBC took note of the "restrained way the [Fallujah] attack is being handled in the Arab media": "The images shown in the most respected Arab newspapers like Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat have been relatively anodyne."

Some complain that the Fallujah coverage has been too restrained. Angry al-Qaida jihadists, posting on their Web sites, have lashed out at Al-Jazeera, accusing the Arab news network, based in Qatar, of failing to highlight the heroism of the Fallujah insurgents, reports As'ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University at Stanislaus. He notes that militants have mocked Al-Jazeera as "Al-Khanzeera," or "the pig," and urged Muslims to boycott the network and its popular Web site because of its insufficiently sympathetic coverage.


That's quite a turnaround from April, when Al-Jazeera was subjected to intense, high-level criticism from another direction -- U.S. officials -- for emotional and allegedly misleading coverage of the fighting in Fallujah. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt even said the network had served "as the catalyst for increased attacks on coalition forces." Secretary of State Colin Powell brought up the network's Fallujah reporting during a springtime meeting with Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim, suggesting relations between the two countries were being harmed by Al-Jazeera's coverage.

This time there are no such U.S. complaints. "Without a doubt, Al-Jazeera is more cautious in how they're covering things," says AbuKhalil, who suggests the change in tone is connected to President Bush's reelection. "They are trying not to antagonize the United States."

"Al-Jazeera is struggling with how to portray what's going on in Fallujah," agrees Adel Iskandar, coauthor of a recent book on the news network.


The network's subdued approach may also stem from logistics, such as its lack of reporters in the dangerous Fallujah battlefield. In April, one of its star reporters, Ahmed Mansour, broadcast live updates from the besieged city. "Al-Jazeera had the only reporter on the ground, and his reporting [about civilian deaths] was different than the coalition forces' narrative," says Lynch, who is writing a book titled "Iraq and the New Arab Public." "The Americans were saying no civilians were dying, and Al-Jazeera was pointing the camera at dead people in Fallujah. It was the perfect story for them, and they got a lot out of it." (U.S. officials complained that Al-Jazeera had incorrectly reported that American soldiers were deliberately targeting civilians.)

Despite Al-Jazeera's newfound reserve, coverage by Arab and U.S. news organizations continues to be dramatically different in emphasis, dwelling on almost completely opposite aspects of the fighting. "U.S. stations illustrate military success and forging ahead -- night vision, securing territories, images we've grown familiar with -- while Arab satellite TV reports on the sense of loss and complete destruction of Fallujah, that the entire city has been reduced to rubble," says Iskandar, who teaches communications at the University of Kentucky.


That persistent variation was highlighted on the Web sites of CNN and Al-Jazeera two days after the start of the U.S. assault. On Al-Jazeera's English-language site, the top headline read, "Mosques bombed as fighting rages in Falluja." Iraqi journalist Fadil al-Badrani, reporting from Baghdad, was quoted as saying, "Almost half of the mosques in the Iraqi town of Falluja have been destroyed, with U.S. warplanes launching air strikes and fierce fighting on the ground continuing." Citing a U.S. sergeant, the story suggested the resolve of the Muslim insurgents was high: "They opened up on my tank. They don't look like they are going to cave in." Additional stories featured on the site included "Scores of civilians killed in Falluja" and "U.S. losses mount."

CNN.com's top story at the same time stressed that the resistance from insurgents had been surprisingly light. Military officials, CNN reported, said that two mosques had been "searched." Even the photo captions stood in stark contrast. From Al-Jazeera.net: "Residents say scores of civilians have been killed." And from CNN.com: "Aid workers at the Iraqi Red Crescent Society in Baghdad load a truck with relief supplies for Falluja."

Many Arab and Muslim news consumers have watched the Fallujah battle unfold with conflicting emotions, unsure whom to root for, Iskandar says. "Iraqi civilian losses [at the hands of the Americans] are astronomical, even compared to U.S. and coalition forces. But it's hard for the Arab audience to see the insurgency as legitimate. [Jihadist extremist] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is considered to be incredibly radical, beyond any conceivable understanding of most Arabs or Muslims. The idea of the underdog exists nonetheless. If it were a local, generalized populist uprising [in Fallujah], the Arab audience would be more supportive. There is sort of a subtle desire to see America be embarrassed in some way -- the 'I told you so' mentality."


That same ambivalence emerges in the Arab press coverage of Fallujah. "In the aftermath of the [Iraq] war, Americans were so unpopular, resistance became popular. But some of the romance has worn off," Lynch says. In light of recent terrorist attacks on Iraqis, including the massacre of 49 unarmed trainee policemen, "there's total frustration. Nobody can see any clear way out. They know who they're against -- the Americans -- but they don't know who they're for."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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