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Last Updated:  Thursday, 27 March, 2003, 18:10 GMT
Cutting through Iraq's 'fog of war'

By Joseph Winter
BBC News Online

The millions of people around the world avidly following the latest news from the war in Iraq could be forgiven for becoming slightly confused in recent days.

On several occasions, reports of apparently significant developments have later had to be withdrawn or downgraded - causing great embarrassment to journalists and military officials alike.

British tank knocks down wall with Saddam Hussein's picture
The military is aware of the power of the media
But are these classic examples of the confusion due to the "fog of war". Or of news management, not to say propaganda?

First, British and United States military officials said that Umm Qasr had been "taken" while BBC reporters on the ground said that pockets of resistance remained - which continued for several days.

Then, military officials reported a "civilian uprising against Saddam Hussein" in Iraq's second city of Basra, hard evidence of which has yet to materialise.

On Wednesday, "a column of up to 120 tanks was leaving Basra". The convoy later proved to be just three-strong.

And the death of 15 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad shopping centre has been shrouded in mystery.

The Iraqis blame United States-led forces.

US Central Command in Qatar first accepted that a precision missile may have gone astray, but later suggested it may have been Iraqi anti-aircraft fire.

The BBC's Andrew Gilligan in Baghdad said that Iraq had not fired its anti-aircraft guns for the four days before the Iraqis were killed.

'War is chaos'

"I am deeply suspicious. Most of the false reports have been to the advantage of the coalition forces," former BBC war correspondent and independent MP Martin Bell told BBC News Online.

But US military spokesman Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks said the Basra "tank column" was "a classic example of the fog of war".

We are trying to be as open as possible within the constraints of operational security
British army spokesman

The report was based on an electronic signal, which later proved to be wrong - a fairly common occurrence, he said.

He said this information had been broadcast worldwide by an "embedded" reporter working with a unit near Basra, who had picked it up.

A British army spokesman said that "war is chaos" and so initial reports are bound to be confused.

Adding to the confusion is the sheer scale of the media operation in the Iraq war.

Some 900 reporters are embedded with various UK and US military units involved in the conflict and many are now broadcasting live from near the front lines.

They are speaking to hundreds of military officials, in addition to those based in Qatar, Washington and London.

The BBC's head of newsgathering, Adrian Van Klaveren, says this means we are being inundated with snippets of information but it is difficult to build up the overall picture.

"What we have to do is to stand back regularly and try to piece it all together," he said.

Some have criticised the use of embedded reporters but Mr Van Klaveren says: "They're being given more freedom than we expected".

'Rumours or fact?'

Martin Bell blames the recent confusion on the "excitability" of editors of rolling television news stations.

They are under pressure to give the television war junkies something fresh to keep them hooked.

People queue for water in Basra
Al-Jazeera showed a peaceful Basra while others talked of an uprising

Some "report rumour as fact", Mr Bell says.

But doesn't the army try to manage the news and use information as a tool of war?

"Absolutely not," said a spokesman at British army headquarters who refused to give his name.

He pointed to the embedded reporters as proof that: "We are trying to be as open as possible within the constraints of operational security."

He said that technically, it was no more difficult to get accurate information from the front lines in this war than in any other.

'Be sceptical'

The Iraq war is a media war like never before.

Military training courses around the world attach increasing importance to public relations.

Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks taking questions in Qatar
Some journalists question the use of official military briefings

In the short-term, military news management can be effective.

As rebels marched across the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997, they gleefully told reporters that they were on the verge of attacking a particular city.

On hearing this, government troops immediately fled and the rebels walked in unopposed. This ploy was successfully repeated across the country.

But some reporters are already showing signs of becoming fog-of-war-weary.

Michael Wolff of New York magazine got some applause from other journalists when he asked Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks whether it was worth turning up for the US Central Command news briefings.

"You're free to go," General Brooks replied and quickly moved on to the next question.

Martin Bell says the best way of cutting through the "fog of war" is to return to journalistic basics: be sceptical.

And this applies to those watching the war on their computers and TV screens, as much as the reporters putting it there.

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