COMMENTS: Battle of Basra Begins

There was no clear direction to the day's news. The war in Iraq was Story of the Day yet none of the three newscasts decided to lead with it. All three newscasts filed from the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended troop levels in Iraq for the second half of the year while in Iraq itself the Mahdi Army in Basra continued its clashes against government forces. As for each newscast's lead, NBC chose the campaign trail; ABC followed up on a story in The New York Times on conflicts of interest in cancer research. On CBS, substitute anchor Harry Smith kicked off with the rising price of oil.

ABC was the only network to file from Baghdad. Miguel Marquez (embargoed link) called "the stakes incredibly high for this fragile Shiite government" as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia, 72 hours to disarm itself. Marquez identified Muqtada al-Sadr, the opposition politician who leads the militia, as an "anti-American cleric." Marquez reported that 30,000 Iraqi troops have been committed to Basra in order to enforce al-Maliki's ultimatum. At the Pentagon, NBC's Jim Miklaszewski offered differing details. He characterized the raid on Basra as an attempt "to take back control of the city from renegade Shiite militias" plural. He reckoned the government force was smaller--between 15,000 and 20,000--and made up of a combination of soldiers and police officers.

Neither Marquez nor Miklaszewski examined whatever political disputes there might be between al-Maliki and al-Sadr. Marquez depicted the attack on the Mahdi Army as a law enforcement measure, "to contain the widespread crime and violence that have made Basra, Iraq's second largest city, the most dangerous place in the country."

ABC's Pentagon man Jonathan Karl pointed out that the recent reduction in violence in Iraq "has been attributed to three factors"--US military reinforcements, the so-called surge; the decision by formerly insurgent Sunni tribes to switch sides; and "the Mahdi Army's ceasefire." With five US combat brigades leaving Iraq by July and the Mahdi Army now under military attack "all three of those factors may be in jeopardy."

CBS' David Martin focused on the advice on troop deployments given to the Commander in Chief. The Joint Chiefs of Staff warned George Bush that "more US troops may soon be needed in Afghanistan." Martin reported that they endorsed a plan by Gen David Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, not to reduce troop levels there below 140,000. In doing so they are "leaving the President with a stark choice of pulling too many troops out of Iraq or putting too few in Afghanistan."


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