The Iraqi Media’s Response to Recent Sectarian Tension in Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 10

A cartoon appearing in the al-Sabah daily on March 2 highlights an increasingly prominent feature of Iraq’s post-Saddam media. Depicting the malign hand of a writer (with serpent like fingers) using Iraqi blood as ink, the cartoon tries to expose the sectarian affiliations and motives of many Iraqi journalists and reporters. For al-Sabah, the Iraqi media, far from trying to reverse the descent into civil war, is in fact at the forefront of stoking sectarian tensions.

While the divisions in Iraqi society are perhaps over-represented in the new Iraqi media, few publications and journalists are overtly sectarian. Instead, writers use subtle arguments, symbolism and imagery to mask sectarian agendas. The response of the Iraqi media to the bombing of the al-Askariyah shrine and subsequent events is a good example. This has prompted the controversial interior minister, Bayan Jabr (who himself stands accused of strong sectarian affiliations), to urge the new Iraqi media to adhere to “objective reporting” and avoid “exaggerations” that lead to “schism” and “conflict” (al-Sabah, March 2).

Publications belonging to the different factions of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance have tended to exploit the bombing at al-Askariyah and subsequent sectarian blood-letting (including the triple car bombings that shook Sadr City on March 12) to further discredit “blasphemers” (a thinly-veiled reference to indigenous and foreign Salafis) and “Saddam’s henchmen” (al-Adala, February 28). They have also increased reporting on the local tribes’ resistance to the growing power of the al-Zarqawi network in western Iraq. This may be an attempt by the Shiite Islamist media to either exaggerate or promote divisions in the ranks of the insurgents. SCIRI’s daily al-Adala, for instance, reported on March 2 that tribal leaders in strife-torn Haweeja have declared war on al-Zarqawi. This alleged declaration of war apparently follows a recent wave of assassinations in Haweeja, which is a center for both the Arab Sunni guerrilla movement and al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Meanwhile, an editorial in al-Bayan (a mouthpiece of the Shiite Islamist al-Dawah party and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari) on March 6 blames the escalating sectarian conflict on the political deadlock that has prevented the formation of a permanent government nearly three months after the December 15 elections. Al-Bayan also uses the occasion to boost the credibility of Jaafari and support his candidature for the premiership (which ironically is one of the main reasons obstructing the formation of a government). This theme is also taken up by Mohammad Darwish, writing in al-Mada on March 1. Darwish argues that the absence of a strong government based on national unity has created a vacuum that directly encourages al-Askariyah type bombings.

None of this political pressure, however, seems to have had the desired effect on the Arab Sunnis whose cooperation is becoming increasingly important to the formation of a government. Adnan al-Dulaimi, the leader of the Sunni Islamist Iraqi Accord Front, denies that Iraq is heading toward civil war and instead uses the al-Askariyah bombing, and the fears and tensions that it has generated, to increase the bargaining power of the Arab Sunni blocs (al-Sabah al-Jadeed, March 8). The Arab Sunnis’ outright denial that Iraq may be heading toward serious sectarian conflict and possible civil war is partly rooted in their position that sectarian bombings are carried out by Israeli intelligence agencies and other U.S.-friendly forces (Spotlight on Terror, October 14, 2005).

Meanwhile, in an interview with Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency, Mohsen al-Hakim, a senior advisor to SCIRI, implicitly rejects the notion of a link between the al-Askariyah bombing, escalating sectarian conflict and the political paralysis in Baghdad ( Instead, Hakim blames the inability to form a government on normal political differences. Sticking with the Iranian media, the Baztab website reports that in response to the al-Askariyah bombing and other recent events, Zalmay Khalilzad may be contemplating a “Dayton style” solution to Iraq’s steady descent into chaos ( Although Baztab has carried many accurate reports on Iraq, much of its reporting is uncorroborated and marked by a subtle propagandist tone.

Referring to Khalilzad’s recent interview with Time Magazine, Baztab reports that the U.S. envoy’s desire to convene a major meeting of Iraq’s leaders outside of Iraq has parallels with the Dayton accords, which necessitated removing Bosnian leaders from their immediate environment in order to apply effective pressure on them. Baztab reports that this meeting may take place in Jordan, which it alleges is a “base for the al-Zarqawi network and remnants of the ousted Baathist regime.” While the report subtly hints at Khalilzad’s increasing desperation, it also provides an analytical framework for an alternative reading of the situation on the ground. While the Iraqi and Western media see a possible civil war in Iraq as the next stage of the insurgency, Baztab reporting highlights a scenario in which the anti-coalition insurgency, increasing political violence and a full-scale sectarian and ethnic civil war take place simultaneously.