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[casi] The Myth of Iraq's Fake Funerals

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Brendan O'Neill

The story about Iraq storing dead babies' bodies so that it then can parade
them through the streets in propagandistic mass funerals has united
everyone from gore merchants to right-wing journalists to supposedly
left-wing bloggers. Many have latched on to the dead baby claims as
evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime is wicked beyond belief, and probably
in need of a good bombing to bring it to its senses. But where does the
story come from?

It originated in a report by British-based journalist John Sweeney for the
BBC, where Sweeney writes of '...the faking of the mass baby funerals. You
may have seen them on TV. Small white coffins parading through the streets
of Baghdad on the roofs of taxis, an angry crowd of mourners, condemning
western sanctions for killing the children of Iraq'.

Sweeney points out that 'usefully, the ages of the dead babies - "three
days old", "four days old" - are written in English on the coffins', before
asking ominously 'I wonder who did that?'. He then quotes Iraqi sources
claiming that dead babies are stored until there are enough for a fake mass

So where did Sweeney get this information? From a man called Ali, who
recently fled central Iraq to the relative safety of the Kurdish north,
after being suspected of having a hand in the murder of Saddam Hussein's
son Uday. Even Sweeney admits that Ali doesn't look like the most
trustworthy person in the world (he's 'not exactly a contender to be the
next Archbishop of Canterbury', and has previously been involved in
violence), but Sweeney half-reassures his readers that 'I don't think he
was lying to us'.

However, the 'evidence' for the fake funerals doesn't even come directly
from Ali, but from a friend of a friend of Ali's. Sweeney tells us that Ali
is a friend of a taxi driver whose son has a position in the Iraqi regime -
and the son told his taxi driver dad who then told Ali who then told
Sweeney that babies are stored for mass funerals. Whatever happened to
journalistic proof? Ali's story is nothing more than hearsay presented as
evidence. And it is now being presented by some as further justification
for bombing Iraq.

As it happens, Sweeney was embroiled in another journalistic row earlier
this year, when the BBC was accused by its own staff of being 'colonial' in
the way it reported the Zimbabwe elections in March 2002. As the Guardian

'Senior figures at the BBC World Service have expressed concern to the
domestic news division that coverage of the Zimbabwe elections has been
driven by a "colonial" agenda, potentially causing damage to the
corporation's reputation for impartiality. Particular anxieties have been
expressed about the tone of coverage on Radio 4's Today programme and about
a Correspondent documentary in which...Sweeney smuggled himself into
Zimbabwe in the boot of a car.'

The Guardian went on: 'Sweeney appeared to suggest it was necessary to hide
in a car to interview the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. In fact, Mr
Tsvangirai has been interviewed many times by different BBC outlets, even
appearing in person at Bush House.'

Back to Iraq: why are so many willing to believe the dead baby story
without the same standards of proof we would normally demand - especially
for something so shocking? It seems that when it comes to Iraq, some people
will buy any story. Many on the right champion reason and rationality, but
Iraq is their blindspot, the issue on which they will trumpet anything that
bolsters their case for invading and bombing Iraq. And in the absence of
any hard, coherent evidence that Iraq poses a threat to the West, any old
hearsay will do.

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