The uprising that wasn't, mythical chemical weapons and other items of 'breaking news'

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The Independent Online

The real war pauses occasionally. The information war goes on 24 hours a day. Every opportunity, every scrap of information, has been deployed to reassure British and American public opinion that the war is being won – and won painlessly.

The real war pauses occasionally. The information war goes on 24 hours a day. Every opportunity, every scrap of information, has been deployed to reassure British and American public opinion that the war is being won – and won painlessly.

Rumours and half-truths have been seized on and presented as facts with enormous propaganda power. As the tide of war, and of information, moves on, to recall what was true and what was not has often been difficult.


In the House of Commons on 19 March, rumours began to circulate that the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister had fled to Bulgaria. If true, the suggestion, put about by American officials, would have been a huge coup for the Allies.

Intelligence sources were united in their disbelief. And they were soon vindicated by the appearance the same day of Tariq Aziz on television in Baghdad, quashing the latest rumour that he had been killed while trying to flee the country.

BATTLE FOR UMM QASR 20 March, 7.33pm

Rarely can a military target have been captured as often as Umm Qasr. Nine days ago, a Kuwaiti news agency set the ball rolling when it claimed that the port had been overrun. From then it seemed to be captured day after day.

On Friday, US Marines raised the Stars and Stripes – only for it to be removed hastily for public relations reasons – and Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, decreed the area "secure". An hour after the BBC had announced that Umm Qasr and Basra had fallen in the early days, an Iraqi opposition leader said: "It is quite untrue. There is still heavy fighting in both places."

On Saturday, "pockets of resistance" remained, the British said. The next day in the "taken" area US Marines encountered snipers, then machine-gun fire and grenades. By Tuesday, and the arrival of British Royal Marines, the port was declared "open and secure". Baghdad continues to deny having lost control of the strategic port.


Intelligence reports had predicted the capitulation of Iraq's 51st Division before war had even started. With thousands of propaganda leaflets having been dropped on to the troops and dark hints of American contacts with Iraqi generals, large-scale desertions were a given. "In the southern area, where there are six Iraqi divisions, 50 per cent of their officers are planning to surrender once the campaign opens," one intelligence officer claimed.

As the war started, Pentagon sources said the Iraqi military was "breaking from within". No surprise then, when Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the UK defence staff, said last Saturday that the 51st Division, one of those defending Basra, had surrendered and "that we have many thousands of prisoners of war". Geoff Hoon did not take long to assert that the 51st had "stopped" fighting. The commander and his deputy had given themselves up with 8,000 soldiers surrendering or deserting, said reports. The New York Times reported that the division had "melted away".

Within days, elements of the 51st were back at war. It soon became clear that the man who surrendered was a junior officer masquerading as his commander. Maj-Gen Wall confirmed that elements of the 51st had returned to the city, taking up arms again. Predict-ions of the scale of the desertions have proved wildly over-optimistic: yesterday US officials said they had only 4,000 prisoners of war.

CHEMICAL WEAPONS 24 March, 1.33am

On the day of the first significant Allied combat casualties, the discovery of a "chemical weapons complex" was a welcome propaganda coup for US-led forces.

If the reports were true, it would have been the first find by the invasion force validating allegations that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction.

The discovery came after a weekend of minor setbacks and tough fighting in the early days of the war. Doubts arose almost as quickly as the reports that appeared overnight on Sunday in the Jerusalem Post, which had a reporter with the troops as they entered the complex, and the US news channel Fox, quoting unnamed Pentagon officials. By then the other networks had already got in on the act. ABC News cited one unidentified official who said an Iraqi general captured at the site "was a potential gold mine of evidence about the weapons Saddam Hussein said he does not have".

Former weapons inspectors said the discovery of the site near Najaf by the 1st Brigade of the US 3rd Infantry division was probably insignificant.

US defence officials soon began to row back, saying the factory "may turn out to be a chemical weapons site, or it may be a site that was producing something else". They remained non-committal. Two Iraqi generals in custody were providing useful information, they said. Tests were being carried out at the area, which remained a "site of interest".

Asked about the claims, General Tommy Franks, the coalition commander, told reporters: "It would not surprise me if there were chemicals in the plant and it would not surprise me if there weren't ... It's a bit early for us to have any expectation ... we'll wait for the days ahead." And we still are.

BASRA UPRISING 25 March, first reports 5.15pm

The desire of the Iraqi people to use the Allied invasion as an opportunity to rise up against their hated dictator was seen as the key to a rapid victory. Hence the excitement when reports began to come in on Tuesday that Shias in Basra, Iraq's second city, were engaged in another attempt to settle their scores with President Saddam. Tony Blair told the Commons that there had been "some limited form of uprising". Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, went further, saying the regime had "lost control of southern Iraq".

Military sources were more cautious at US Central Command in Qatar. Major-General Peter Wall, a British officer, said the rebellion was in its "infancy" and it was wrong to predict a "rapid outcome". Tales of people on the streets came from "intelligence sources", but they were leapt onby British newspapers. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based broadcaster that actually had a correspondent in the city, said the streets were calm.

More definitive was the verdict of an Iraqi Shia group based in Iran with every reason to encourage insurgency. "Some disturbances took place ... but it was not widespread and it was not an intifada. The people chanted slogans against Saddam Hussein."

Yesterday, ColChris Vernon, a British military spokesman, said: "Basra is clearly nowhere near yet in our hands and we have no way at the moment of getting humanitarian aid into Basra." Funny then that the GMTV reporter, Richard Gaisford, pictured top left, who broke the story, was still insisting yesterday that the military had sanctioned his report.

THE EXECUTIONS 27 March, 4.20pm

After al-Jazeera broadcast pictures of the bodies of two British prisoners-of-war, Tony Blair was quick to express his outrage. At a joint news conference with George Bush on Thursday, Mr Blair condemned the "execution" of the men.

Unfortunately, the family of Luke Allsopp, 24, said a senior Army officer had told them that the soldier had died in action. "It makes a big difference to us knowing that he died quickly," she said. "We can't understand why people are lying about what happened."

By yesterday the Government's tone had changed. The Prime Minister's spokesman was claiming that the two men "may well have been" executed and said that further inquiries would be made. The Ministry of Defence defended itself, saying the execution charge was based on the fact that Sapper Luke Allsopp and Staff Sergeant Simon Cullingworth were lying some distance from their vehicle and had been stripped of their helmets and body armour after being caught in an ambush last weekend.

Later, Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, expressed "regret" for any distress caused to the families, a statement interpreted as an admission that the Prime Minister got it wrong.