According to a 10 August 2014 Reuters wire “Maliki Defiant as his special forces deploy in Baghdad” Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki, a Shi’ite who leads the largest bloc of parliamentarians, will go through the federal court to force President Fouad Masoum, a Kurd, to nominate him to form a government as prime minister. Sounds reasonable. But the wire, entitled “Maliki Defiant as his special forces deploy in Baghdad” and invoking the name of Saddam Hussein, insinuates that Maliki is using force to secure a third term as prime minister. Perhaps. But isn’t it just as likely that he’s taking precautions to make sure that his opponents won’t use force to push him out, or worse? After all, Sunnis, Kurds, a good number of Shi’ites as well as major stakeholders Iran and the United States—talk about an odd couple!—all want him gone, giving the Saddam Hussein analogy a different twist.
With the forces of the Islamic State formerly named the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria a short drive from Baghdad, I can understand why people want the divisive Maliki gone. But a report that gives no thought to how it would look from his perspective has as good a chance of misleading as informing.
There’s another, less obvious but nevertheless misleading piece of information later in the article.
“The group, which sees Shi'ites as infidels who deserve to be killed, has ruthlessly moved through one town after another, using tanks and heavy weapons it seized from soldiers who fled in the thousands.
“Islamic State militants have killed hundreds of Iraq's minority Yazidis, burying some alive and taking women as slaves, an Iraqi government minister said on Sunday, as U.S. warplanes again bombed the insurgents.
“Human rights minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani accused the Sunni Muslim insurgents –who have ordered the community they regard as ‘devil worshippers’ to convert to Islam or die—of celebrating what he called a ‘a vicious atrocity’.
“No independent confirmation was available of the killings of hundreds of Yazidis, bloodshed that could increase pressure on Western powers to do more to help tens of thousands of people, including many from religious and ethnic minorities, who have fled the Islamic State's offensive.”
Now it may turn out to be true that “Islamic State militants have killed hundreds of Iraq's minority Yazidis, burying some alive and taking women as slaves.” But who saw this happen? And get away? It’s plausible that a few Yazidis escaped a large-scale massacre. But buried alive? Enslaved women? How do you get escape that to live to tell the tale? The Iraqi official’s account sounds more like typical rumors that crop up before and after a swift onslaught of enemy forces. And the success of the Islamic State so far suggests that its forces are too disciplined for that to happen. Soldiers, policemen, militia, yes. Civilians? I think that it would first try to collect taxes before it resorted to the sword. Of course it would be easy for the Iraqi authorities to produce witnesses and other evidence. The Reuters report does say that the claim was uncorroborated. But did the reporters bother to ask the Iraqi official, who had every incentive to use any bit of information regarding the urgency and seriousness of the situation regardless of it veracity?
I deal almost exclusively in publicly available information. Experience tells me that it’s exclusive information that can be wildly misleading. But publicly available information has its own shortcomings. The biases of statistics can often be gleaned from the accompanying notes; for less formally rendered sources, you often have to use common sense.