The firefight in Basra, which thankfully seems to be over, has the US in a state of confusion. For once, the government and the mainstream US media are providing conflicting narratives about how and why this episode in Basra occurred. Even the outcome is disputed with some sources including the administration claiming that the operation indicates progress for the central government in Iraq while other saying that this a clear victory for the Sadrists or even Iran.
I've been especially curious to note that US sources have begun to abandon the practice of using Sunni-Shia sectarian tension as a causative factor. A whole new narrative or series of competing narratives will soon be emerging.
A narrative is a story line told to puts events in context. For example, a suicide bombing does not occur in a vacuum. If the military or a news organization simply reported a suicide bombing in Baghdad today without providing context, that would do little more than confuse Americans since they are almost completely ignorant of the region and it's history. They wouldn't know their Basra from their Samarra if their lives depended on it (in fact, a lot of lives end up depending on it). So, it becomes incumbent on the sources of information to explain how that hypothetical suicide bomber is either a brainwashed foreign fighter trying to destroy freedom or an extremist Sunni expressing an ages old tribal grudge or whatever. A lot of opinion can go into the construction of a narrative.
The narratives of the Iraq War have, up until now, been relatively consistent across US sources even as they've been consistently changing over time. There have been what I would call phase shifts in coverage as the US military, the US government and the US media all move from one narrative to another. This behavior becomes quite clear when one takes the time to looking back over the history of Iraq coverage.
Remember when the insurgency was originally described as being comprised of ex-members of Saddam's Ba'ath party, so called dead enders? That was in the beginning of the war. Back then the idea of a Ba'ath party insurgency was appealing to the Bush administration because it implied certain things that the administration naively believed to be true (with the press following closely behind). There were voices in the US media and elsewhere that disagreed with this narrative but for the most part it dominated the war coverage in those days. According to this view, the insurgency was the tail end of the initial invasion and destined to deteriorate over time. The correct course of action to end an insurgency of this type would be to root out the holdouts of the Ba'ath party with continued military actions and to dissolve any remnants of the old power structure such as the Iraqi army and civil service. These actions turned out to be big mistakes.
This story of the Ba'ath insurgency was pushed aside fairly quickly since the insurgency grew over time even as more and more former Ba'ath party members were killed and captured. We entered phase two as a new narrative emerged. This time the insurgency was comprised mainly of foreign fighters and Al Qaida. For many years, the insurgency was framed as a conflict between US forces and terrorists from Muslim countries around Iraq. Iraqis did not really factor in anywhere except as innocent bystanders who needed the protection of the US military. This concept dovetailed very well with the desire to see the war in Iraq as a front in the war on terrorism.
From there, we move on to phase three as the narrative turned into one of a "Sunni Insurgency" (the name Fallujah ring a bell?) and then at phase four we end up with the current concept of a Sunni-Shia civil war. Now, in the wake of the latest outbreak of intra-Shia violence, this narrative will most likely be abandoned.
While it's my view that this progression in narrative is more a function of the way that the violence in Iraq is described, others have seen it as fundamental to the situation itself. This attitude has a long history that should be recognized by the mere mention of the mysterious and inscrutable East (or in this case Middle East). Along these lines, US citizens should be familiar with the idea of an "ever-mutating Iraq insurgency."
I, myself, am curious to see where the US discussion of Iraq goes from here. The press doesn't seem to be as willing to take cues from the administration anymore. We may begin to see multiple voices with multiple narratives in the mainstream.
I want to wrap up this post by saying that even though I disagree with the American narratives of the Iraq War thus far I do recognize a kernel of truth in them. The issues with former Ba'ath party members, Al-Qaida, and the Sunni-Shia unrest are all real phenomena. They were not invented by the administration or the media. The problem that I have with these narratives is that they minimize the presence of US troops as a factor in the violence and they marginalize the opinions that have been expressed by the Iraqis themselves. That will have to be the subject of a later post.