Casey says U.S. to keep up Iraq P.R. program
WASHINGTON – The U.S. military plans to continue paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories favorable to the United States after an inquiry found no fault with the controversial practice, the top U.S. general in Iraq said Friday.Army Gen. George W. Casey said that the review has concluded that the U.S. military has not violated any American laws or Pentagon guidelines by running the information operations campaign in which U.S. troops and a private contractor called Lincoln Group write pro-American stories and pay to have them planted without attribution in the Iraqi media.”By and large, it found that we were operating within our authorities and responsibilities,” Casey said, adding that he has no intention of shutting the program down.The information program has been heavily criticized both inside and outside of the military as detrimental to U.S. credibility and contrary to the principles of a free press in a nascent, embattled democracy.During his briefing with reporters, Casey also addressed conditions in Iraq, saying that commanders believe that the violence brought on by last week’s bombing of a venerated Shiite mosque in Samarra has largely subsided, and that Iraq has moved away from the brink of large-scale civil war.”Has there been violence and terrorism here in Iraq in the wake of the Samarra bombings? Clearly. Is the violence out of control? Clearly not. Now, it appears that the crisis has passed,” Casey said.While the final report by Navy Adm. Scott Van Buskirk is not yet complete, Casey’s comments are the clearest sign that the U.S. military sees the propaganda effort as a critical tool for winning hearts and minds in Iraq. Van Buskirk’s report could pave the way for the Pentagon to duplicate the practice – which would be illegal for the military in the United States – in other parts of the world.Casey’s comments, made during a video teleconference with Pentagon reporters, also highlighted the split in attitude on the program between military commanders in Baghdad and some senior officials in Washington. After the existence of the Lincoln Group program was revealed in an article in the Los Angeles Times three months ago, White House officials said they were “very concerned” about the practice of paying Iraqi newspapers to publish unattributed stories written by American troops.Since early last year, the program has planted hundreds of stories in Iraqi newspapers highlighting progress made by Iraqi troops, efforts to rebuild Iraq, and U.S.-led offensives against insurgents.American troops write articles, called storyboards, which are given to the Iraqi staff of Lincoln Group to translate into Arabic. The contractor’s Iraqi staff pay newspaper editors in Baghdad to publish the articles without revealing their origin.Disclosures about the program brought fierce criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill and from many within the Pentagon who argue that the United States should not pay for favorable press coverage in Iraq even as it tries to promote democracy throughout the country.Van Buskirk’s report, some fear, could lead to a proliferation of similar operations around the world. No other reviews are pending in the Pentagon or Congress.Casey is scheduled to meet with President Bush next week to discuss Iraq, but said he had not yet decided whether to recommend reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq over the summer.For months, U.S. officials said that they plan to begin a gradual drawdown of U.S. forces during the summer. To do so, commanders must decide in the next few weeks whether to cancel the planned deployment of several combat brigades scheduled to go to Iraq.Casey said he was pleased with the performance of Iraqi troops during the surge in violence. But he said that the U.S. military received reports that some Iraqi units aided sectarian militias in Baghdad. The reports indicated that Iraqi troops were allowing members of the Shiite Mahdi militia to pass through Iraqi government checkpoints.”Obviously, this is not something that we are going to condone, nor will the Iraqi security force leadership condone,” Casey said.Pentagon officials most fear the possibility that the Iraqi military could one day fracture along sectarian and ethnic lines, paving the way for a full-blown civil war between members of a force trained and armed by U.S. troops.To avoid such a scenario, Casey said one top priority is to disarm militias that pose a continual threat to the authority of Iraqi government troops.”I do not believe that we will ultimately succeed until the Iraqi security forces – the police and the military – are the only ones in Iraq with guns,” he said.