March 14, 2006

Who Goes There?

Hatched by Dafydd

The "Iraq is collapsing into civil war" story du jour is the discovery of somewhere north of eighty bodies in the last twenty-four hours, all killed execution style and dumped in various mass graves:

Police in the past 24 hours have found the bodies of at least 87 people killed by execution-style shootings - a gruesome wave of apparent sectarian reprisal slayings, officials said Tuesday.

The dead included at least 29 bodies stacked in a mass grave in an eastern Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad.

The bloodshed - the second wave of mass killings in Iraq since bombers destroyed an important Shiite shrine last month - followed weekend attacks in a teeming Shiite slum in which 58 people died and more than 200 were wounded.

But it's important to realize that we're talking about two entirely separate modes of killing in these first three paragraphs:

  1. Young, military-aged men found executed either by gunshot or by garrotte and dumped into mass graves, mostly in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad;
  2. The "weekend attacks" of random people of all ages slain by bomb blasts clearly set by Sunni terrorists, with or without Sadr's connivance; such bombings have been carried out by both Sunni radicals associated with Musab Zarqawi and by Shiite radicals associated with "kingmaker" Muqtada Sadr and his al-Mahdi militia.

Why does the mode of killing make a difference? Killing is killing, right?

Not so fast: it's easy to label Mode-2 killing as terrorism, because the victims comprise anyone who has the terrible luck to be near the bombsite when the device goes off. But it's not at all clear who is being killed by Mode-1 -- and it may be the case that some significant portion are actually known militants and terrorists being killed by citizen vigilante groups.

Here is a piece of information included in the Reuters story but absent from the AP story:

Sadr himself called publicly for restraint on Monday. But in Sadr City, the bodies of men labeled "traitors" were hung from telegraph poles and officials say privately that Shi'ite militia commanders are no longer all heeding clerical appeals for calm.

The standard media assumption is that these killings, even Mode-1, are examples of "sectarian violence," meaning people killed simply for being Shia or Sunni in the wrong neighborhood. But how do the newswriters know that? What evidence is there why those particular people were killed? Do they even know how many of those killed were even Iraqi, and how many were foreign Arabs or even non-Arabs?

Some points to note:

  • So far, I haven't seen a single report of a mass grave containing women and children shot or strangled. Only military-aged men.
  • Although Reuters mentions that some of the bodies were found "bearing signs of torture," they don't actually tell us what "torture" they mean; past misuse of the word (for example, referring to what happened to detainees at Abu Ghraib as "torture") means I cannot simply accept the Antique Media's claim without specifics: for example, does this abuse look more like punishment -- or like abuse during interrogation? Recall that in much of the world, certainly including Iraq, inflicting pain and injury in order to get information is considered normal.
  • The bodies are nearly always dumped in groups, as if a batch of people had been rounded up from the same location and killed together. This could be "people worshipping at the wrong mosque," but it could also be "militants captured in a safehouse."
  • There are persistent reports that the "kidnappers" are often Interior-Ministry police or "men in black." Whether honest or militant themselves, such people might have access to police files of known Sunni militants.

Each of these suggests at least the possibility that some portion of Mode-1 killings are not terrorism but rather vigilantism. Vigilante justice has a very bad reputation, some of it deserved; but even the most anti-vigilante activist has to agree that at least some of the people who have been lynched throughout history were, in fact, guilty of whatever crime was urged against them. Others were innocent... but the moment one accepts that some were guilty, the questions become more pointed: what percent were guilty? how was supposed guilt determined? and what safeguards were in place to prevent innocents being killed?

Most of those lynched are not strangers; they are known within the community -- and known to be violent, dangerous people. Often there are witnesses to the crime, but for whatever reason (standing of the accused, absence of a sitting court, insularity of a minority population, the local courts known to be corrupt or slapdash) it's not practical to try the accused in a court.

Without question, many innocent people have been murdered by vigilante justice. "Known in the community" can also include the guy who owns the land you want to steal, or the surly black ranch hand who can be blamed for "raping" the daughter who in fact had consentual sex with some lowlife white ranch hand. It's impossible to deny that such murders were (and still are) committed under color of vigilantism.

But many innocents have also been killed by constituted justice: Bruno Hauptmann, for example, executed in 1936 for the kidnapping and murder of the child of aviator Charles Lindbergh; or Caryl Chessman, executed in 1960 for being the "Red Light Bandit." For both men, there is at least a strong and very reasonable doubt that he was guilty of the crime. Similarly, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (executed 1927) may or may not have actually been guilty of the murder of Alessandro Berardelli, but their trial certainly cannot be called a model of justice. In most times and places in history, such arbitrary sentences of death are found as often in constituted justice as in vigilante justice.

In Iraq, there is not even a question: orders of magnitude more innocent people were executed legally under court sentence in the days of Saddam Hussein, even measured per month, than have been killed by vigilantism since Hussein's removal -- even if one assumes that every, last person found killed by Mode-1 was innocent, itself a dubious claim.

What we really need for understanding is for the media to begin identifying those killed by Mode-1 and determining which of them is known or strongly suspected to be a member of a terrorist organization, whether Shiite or Sunni. This cannot be determined, by the way, by asking local Shia whether some Shiite fellow tribesman is a "terrorist," because that is a question that can almost never be answered No. At least not safely.

Rather, photographs of the dead taken while they were still alive (if families can be talked into supplying them) should be gathered and mixed in with photos of others clearly not involved; then these photos should be shown in a "photo line-up" to victims and witnesses. Let them pick out anybody they recognize -- and see which such "witness identifications" match up with those who were killed and dumped into mass graves (or left in the back of a pickup truck). And then report honestly on the results.

But of course, that would involve actual journalistic work; and it's so much easier simply to label every death an "apparent sectarian reprisal slaying" and move on to the next piece of bad news. Besides -- "sectarian violence" fits the Iraq civil war story so much better than does the execution of terrorists!

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, March 14, 2006, at the time of 2:25 PM

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» Who is killing whom in Iraq? from Media Lies
Dayfdd has some thoughts and some questions about what's going on in Iraq.

The "Iraq is collapsing into civil war" story du jour is the discovery o...
[Read More]

Tracked on March 14, 2006 5:44 PM

» Iraq's Non-Sectarian "Sectarian" War - New Development from Big Lizards
Yesterday Dafydd talked about the number of young military age men's bodies found in Iraq. Many of them had been toutured and killed execution style. Dafydd suggested this could be a result of vigilantism by Iraqis against the foreign terrorists... [Read More]

Tracked on March 15, 2006 5:45 PM

» Who is killing who in Iraq? from Stingray: a blog for salty Christians
Dafydd at Big Lizards blog has an interesting post entitled Who Goes There?, where he opines that a significant portion of those we hear about being killed in Iraq are actually known terrorists who are the victims of Iraqi vigilante justice. The &... [Read More]

Tracked on March 15, 2006 7:29 PM


The following hissed in response by: BusterDBear

Seems after tyrants fall, followers swing.
I also read today (at Mudville Gazette, I think) that the locals in Anbar had removed 3/4 the foreign fighters in that area.
Young democracies and the needed removal of the undesired element.

The above hissed in response by: BusterDBear [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 14, 2006 5:23 PM

The following hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist

Clearly, the majority of Iraqis are not looking to kill each other, or even for "Civil War".

After just three days into Iraq, MSM was reporting that American Troops were "bogged down". If UPI is correct (even including or not including the "bogged down" days), then American Ground Troops have been in Iraq for less than three years, and MSM is still trying to support America's Enemies.

Ridder Surprised, Unhappy Over McClatchy Flipping 12 Papers

Getting rid of Democrat and Liberal and Terrorist supporting newspapers here in America ain't easy, but you can probably buy "12" of them tomorrow at a 'Dozen Special', or wait a year, and buy the infamous New York Times for a dime. At such prices, perhaps they are worth collecting, but i doubt it.

MSM has no clue, huh. Not a clue about "Civil War", and even less of a clue as to their own survival.

How does a Country Win a War, when half of such Country is controlled by a Political Party and *ITS* Mainstream Media, and such a pair supports the Enemy??? Well, start by holding off the Enemy, and then start rooting out the likes of a Al Gore, a Tom Daschle, a John F. Kerry, and follow those by someone like a Dan Rather. Ignore most polls (even all of them), and keep rooting by just Voting. The Democrat Party needs to be dumped first, and then the Enemy will be defeated...simple as that. Tough way to Win a War, huh. Well, imagine losing to the likes of Zahida's husband, and get a rather simple to speak.


The above hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 14, 2006 7:26 PM

The following hissed in response by: Mescalero

Isn't it about time to question Muktada Sadr's involvement in this orgy of violence? We already know that he's controlled by Iranian Intelligence. Why don't we just go in and take that friggin bastard out along with his goose-stepping buddies? After that, we should stand up to Kofi Annan and give that rotten bastard the finger he so richly deserves!

The above hissed in response by: Mescalero [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 14, 2006 8:15 PM

The following hissed in response by: Jim,MtnViewCA,USA has been covering this for months. one of the back stories of the war has been a growing impatience of the Shia to atrocities and terrorism that has been perpetrated and abetted by Sunnis. who can blame them?
at one point Iraq rivaled all nations in the percentage of the citizenry who were refugees. a lot were Kurds and Shia. now growing numbers of Sunnis are departing according to strategypage. no, not since the mosque bombing but for weeks and months now. (the MSM are no doubt plugging the civil war thing-o as their new justification for cut-and-run).
you will note (for example read the posts at and austin bay) that Sunni leaders are ostentatiously declaring war on AQ-Iraq. we may find it is a race now for the Sunni to become Iraqi patriots or be driven out.

The above hissed in response by: Jim,MtnViewCA,USA [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 14, 2006 10:57 PM

The following hissed in response by: Michael McCullough

Very thoughtful commentary. Iraqis that I have known here in America have always been very peaceful and generous. In fact, they have an international reputation for being hospitable to strangers. Based on your thinking though, the Iraqi people are tired of being hospitable to terrorists and are taking matters into their own hands.

In one sense it would be better to let the government solve the terrorist problem. In another sense though, it certainly can't hurt if the terrorists know that the people don't welcome them.

The above hissed in response by: Michael McCullough [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 15, 2006 7:10 PM

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