We in journalism give lots of coverage (though not necessarily balanced coverage) to
political scandals. But when it comes to scandals involving us, we're more
reticent... which is why hardly any of you have heard of Captain Jamil Hussein.
In a story that attracted international attention, the Associated Press reported
Nov. 24 that:
"Shia militiamen grabbed six Sunnis as they left Friday worship services, doused
them with kerosene and burned them alive near Iraqi soldiers who did not intervene,
police Capt. Jamil Hussein said.
"The savage revenge attack for Thursday's slaying of 215 people in the Shiite Sadr
City slum occurred as members of the Mahdi Army militia burned four mosques and
several homes while killing an unknown number of Sunni residents in the once-mixed
Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad."
MSNBC's Contessa Brewer said this sensational story was a trigger for the network's
decision to refer to the conflict in Iraq as a civil war. But two difficulties have
emerged with the it:
First, the U.S. military and the Iraqi government say they can find no evidence the
incident reported by Capt. Hussein ever occurred.
"Contrary to recent media reporting that four mosques were burned in Hurriya, an
Iraqi army patrol investigating the area found that only one mosque had been burned
in the neighborhood...The mosque sustained smoke and fire damage in the entry way
but was not destroyed," Multinational Force Iraq said in a news release Nov. 25.
"The patrol was also unable to confirm media reports that six Sunni civilians were
allegedly dragged out of Friday prayers and burned to death," MNF-Iraq said.
"Neither Baghdad police nor Coalition forces have reports of any such incident."
Second, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior says it has no police captain named Jamil
I did a Nexis search on Jamil Hussein. He first shows up in an AP story on April
21, 2006, and appears in 24 subsequent stories describing separate incidents. (Mr.
Hussein is mentioned in 199 stories, but most of these are multiple accounts of the
All but one of the mentions are in AP dispatches, which would be curious were Mr.
Hussein a police spokesman. If he were a police spokesman, you'd imagine he'd be
speaking to other news organizations as well.
The one exception is a Knight Ridder dispatch May 5. But Knight Ridder identified
Mr. Hussein as an emergency room doctor.
These could be different guys. Hussein is a common name in Iraq. Or it could be
that Mr. Hussein is not who he represented himself to be, either to the AP or to
AP relies heavily on Iraqi stringers. This story, and most others quoting Capt.
Hussein, originated with a writer named Qais al Bashir.
Could the AP be infiltrated by terrorist sympathizers? It's happened before. AP
photographer Bilal Hussein was arrested by U.S. forces last Spring after they caught
him in an al Qaida bomb factory in Fallujah. The U.S. military says Capt. Hussein
is one of 14 AP sources whose existence it cannot verify.
The Associated Press is sticking with its story. "An AP reporter contacted Hussein
for a third time about the incident to confirm there was no error," AP reporter
Steven Hurst wrote in a story Nov. 28. "The captain has been a regular source of
police information for two years and has been visited in his office at the police
station on several occasions."
The New York Times rushed to the AP's defense. But reporter Ed Wong in the Times'
Baghdad bureau was unable to substantiate the AP account.
"We reached several people who told us about the mosque attacks, but said they had
heard nothing about Sunni worshippers being burned alive," Mr. Wong said in an email
to another Times reporter. "Such an incident would have been so abominable that a
great many residents in Hurriya...would have been in an uproar over it. Yet as far
as I know, there was no widespread talk of the incident."
AP's international editor, John Daniszewski, said the military's criticism of the
story was "frankly ludicrous and hints at a certain level of desperation to dispute
or suppress the facts of the incident in question."
AP needs to lose the attitude. We need more than the AP's word that Capt. Hussein
is legitimate, because the facts unearthed to date do not support the AP's account.
The AP needs to produce Capt. Hussein, along with people who can vouch for his bona
News organizations which run AP stories should demand this. If they don't, they'll
show that their interest in the truth is as attenuated as the AP's apparently is.