Get the Facts Straight on Iran and EFPs

When is an Iranian bomb not an Iranian bomb? When it's made in Iraq.

Reporters, like the stories they cover and the sources they cultivate, are never perfect, and the quest for perfection invariably runs up against daily deadlines and the amount of information they’re able to gather before their editors start clamoring for copy.

In a front-page piece in the Washington Post this morning, reporter Karin Brulliard, writing from Baghdad, aims to give an account of an American military police unit slugging it out in the midst of the still-unfolding “surge” strategy, the president’s last-ditch effort to tamp down violence in the capital.

It’s an illumining piece, and Brulliard manages to capture the many perils faced by American troops working with the Iraqi forces, caught in the middle of a violent, multi-sided civil war.

But in the third paragraph the piece goes momentarily off the rails, giving readers information that represents only part of a crucial (and controversial) aspect to the war in Iraq, but not the fuller context for that information.

During a meeting between U.S. troops and an Iraqi police commander in a police station in Sadr City, several explosions go off: “The third explosion was a car bomb that upended a blast barrier and punched three neat holes through a concrete wall 50 yards away. The holes, the soldiers said, were telling: The bomb was one of the potent projectile-emitting weapons that the U.S. military says Iran provides to Shiite militias in Iraq.”

It’s true that the U.S. military has famously claimed that Iran is supplying Iraqi insurgents with these deadly explosively formed projectile (EFP) bombs, which, in terms of effectiveness, dwarf the usual IEDs that the insurgency has used for years—but this isn’t the whole truth. Despite the Post’s statement of fact, the realities on the ground are much more complicated than the paper is letting on, and to simply repeat the military’s version of events is to do the truth a disservice.

We don’t know whether Iran is supplying these weapons, but we do know that several “factories” where these EFPs are manufactured have been uncovered in Iraq in recent months, giving the story a dimension that the Post ignores.

Just last week, the New York Times reported that in the town of Diwaniya, “American and Iraqi forces uncovered an assembly area for the powerful roadside bombs known as explosively formed projectiles, the statement said. Four bombs were already assembled, it added, and others were in various stages of being put together.”

What’s more, in February Andrew Cockburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times that back in November, “U.S. troops raiding a Baghdad machine shop came across a pile of copper disks, 5 inches in diameter, stamped out as part of what was clearly an ongoing order. This ominous discovery, unreported until now, makes it clear that Iraqi insurgents have no need to rely on Iran as the source of EFPs.”

And that’s not all. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that another EFP “factory” was discovered in southern Iraq, and around the same time the New York Times threw some water on the U.S. military’s claims that the bombs were coming exclusively from Iran, when a cache of EFP materials was found in Baghdad—all marked with stamps from countries around the Middle East, but not Iran.

None of this means that Iran isn’t providing help—we’re not in a position to know—but it does mean that the Post was sloppy with the facts on a subject that is profoundly important.

We remember a time a few years back when the press was sloppy with the facts on another Middle Eastern country’s military capabilities, and its ability and willingness to export those capabilities. The nation—and the world—can’t afford to have this particular bit of history repeat itself.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.