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Daily Column
US Papers Mon: Networks Withdraw Before Troops
Female Circumcision in Iraq's North, Iraq's "Violent Semi-Peace"
By DANIEL W. SMITH 12/29/2008 02:00 AM ET
Less and less news seems fit to cover in Iraq, and the New York Times writes of many news organizations largely pulling out of the country, particularly the major U.S. television networks. Also, female circumcision in Iraq’s Kurdish regions, a Baghdad "trip to Nowhere", shoe orders through the roof, and an opinion on the current state of Iraq.

Network TV Coverage of Iraq
In a story not to miss for those in the least interested in how Iraq is covered, Brian Stelter of the New York Times writes of how America’s three broadcast network news divisions have “quietly” stopped sending full-time correspondents to Iraq.

It’s not as though newsworthy events have stopped occurring in Iraq, just as they hadn’t in Afghanistan over the past five years, when it became the “forgotten war” until recently. Michael Yon, an independent reporter is quoted as saying, “Now it’s swapping places with Iraq,” as the public eye shifts its gaze a few countries eastward, despite 130,000 U.S. troops still stationed on Iraqi soil.

A war that is lengthy and without a succinct happy ending proves to be a bad combination for American viewers; lengthy and expensive, bad for its networks. The very high operational price tag, lagging ratings, and continued danger in Iraq (still the deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists) leave news organizations in a difficult position – nobody wants to close down their bureaus in Baghdad, but the price tag of keeping a full time staff can be prohibitive at a time when newsmakers in all media are being forced to trim budgets. There is some discussion between networks of consolidating the staggering operational costs, especially security. Some of this already exists, and Stelter writes that journalists in Iraq “expect further cooperative agreements and other pooling of resources in the months ahead.”

Here is the breakdown of major news organizations still present.
In Baghdad, ABC, CBS and NBC still maintain skeleton bureaus in heavily fortified compounds. Correspondents rotate in and out when stories warrant, and with producers and Iraqi employees remaining in Baghdad, the networks can still react to breaking news. But employees who are familiar with the staffing pressures of the networks say the bureaus are a shadow of what they used to be. Some of the offices have only one Western staff member.

...CNN and the Fox News Channel, both cable news channels with 24 hours to fill, each keep one correspondent in Iraq. Among newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post continue to assign multiple reporters to the country. The Associated Press and Reuters also have significant operations in Iraq.
The result is that the war in Iraq is “gradually fading from television screens, newspapers and, some worry, the consciousness of the American public.” Thus, less coverage begets less coverage. Jane Arraf, a former Baghdad bureau chief for CNN who has remained in Iraq as a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor says, “viewers’ appetite for stories from Iraq waned when it turned from all-out battle into something equally important but more difficult to describe and cover,” She recalled hearing one of her TV editors say, “I don’t want to see the same old pictures of soldiers kicking down doors.” She adds, “You can imagine how much more tedious it would be to watch soldiers running meetings on irrigation.”

Things much more dramatic than irrigation meetings happen every day in Iraq, but “stories that are strongly visual — as when an Iraqi journalist tossed two shoes at President Bush this month” are often needed to get strong coverage. As Stelter points out though, even in these cases, the footage is increasingly supplied by freelance crews and video agencies, instead of the major network’s crews that would have had their own boots on the ground in years past.

In an appropriately disturbing article, the Washington Post’s Amit R. Paley gives an in-depth look into female circumcision (also termed “genital mutilation” by many) prevalent throughout much of north Iraq’s Kurdish population. Despite growing international condemnation of such practices (and not just by women’s rights activists), it is estimated by at least one study that 60 percent of women in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq have been circumcised, and at least one Kurdish territory, 95 percent of women have undergone the practice. Reasons of religion, keeping a woman “pure”, and claims of cleanliness are given as justifications for the procedure.

Paley begins with Sheelan Anwar Omer, a “shy 7-year-old Kurdish girl”, who “bounded into her neighbor's house with an ear-to-ear smile, looking for the party her mother had promised.”
There was no celebration. Instead, a local woman quickly locked a rusty red door behind Sheelan, who looked bewildered when her mother ordered the girl to remove her underpants. ... As the midwife sliced off part of Sheelan's genitals, the girl let out a high-pitched wail heard throughout the neighborhood. As she carried the sobbing child back home, Sheelan's mother smiled with pride. "This is the practice of the Kurdish people for as long as anyone can remember," said the mother, Aisha Hameed, 30, a housewife in this ethnically mixed town about 100 miles north of Baghdad. "We don't know why we do it, but we will never stop because Islam and our elders require it."
"If there is any harm in this exercise, we should not do it," says Hama Ameen Abdul Kader Hussein, preacher at the Grand Mosque of Kalar and head of the clergymen's union in Germian. “Previously, he preached that female circumcision was required,” writes Paley. “Now he says it is optional, which Hussein believes has caused the area's rate of female circumcision to drop from 100 percent to about 50 percent.”

There is more than one graphic description of the procedure, and more than one description of a small girl, writhing in pain afterwards, some of whom develop medical complications. It is not easy reading, but it shouldn’t be.

Andrea Bruce, Washington Post staff photographer (and I think, by now, she has earned the title of contributing writer) continues her “Unseen Iraq” column which documents the lives of Iraqis with a piece called “In Baghdad, a Trip to Nowhere”. There is a photograph of a train at dawn, and an accompanying description of a short and unsuccessful journey from point A to point B.
Bruce’s offerings are always worth a look.

In Other News
Yigal Schleifer of the Christian Science Monitor reports from Istanbul about “model 271”. It is one of the many models of shoe being touted by its manufacturer as the weapon of choice by Iraqi television correspondent Montadar al-Zaidi, while at press conferences given by President George Bush.

It has been the bestseller of Ramazan Baydan's line of shoes for years. Now, after the infamous event and Baydan’s claims, he can’t fill orders fast enough. Orders for model 271, now renamed “Bye Bye Bush" are pouring in by the thousands.

An opinion piece in the New York Times by Jason Campbell, Michael O’Hanlon (both from the Brookings Institution in Washington) and Amy Unikewicz (a graphic designer) write that “as 2008 and the Bush presidency conclude, Iraq has settled into a kind of violent semi-peace”. It is not detailed, but it is to-the-point, and reasonable.

They assign the majority of credit for Iraq’s current security successes not simply on the fact that the “surge” brought more troops to Iraq, but that strategy was altered. Their emphasis is that “our troops, in conjunction with Iraqi security forces, emphasized protection of the Iraqi population,” as well as “the simultaneous effort to bring Sunni volunteers, the so-called Sons of Iraq, into the counterinsurgency.”

Of the 11 benchmarks that Brooking’s “Iraq Index” laid out for the Iraqi government, they feel that 7 have been reached.

Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.


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