Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Who's punking who here?

That story about the Iranian tanker truck filled with bogus Iraqi election ballots and snagged at the Iran-Iraq border is fascinating. But as with so many stories like this, it will disappear down the memory hole before anybody gets around to working out how, where, when, and why the story started, and by whom.

The story spread around the world in a cyber-second on December 13 and 14, 2005. Some outlets were reporting the story for the first time even as other outlets, already into the second news cycle, were reporting official denials.

Particularly intriguing is the fact that, despite conflicting and contradictory statements made by Iraqi border security officials and the Interior Ministry, as well as the lack of US military confirmation, Radio Free Iraq, courtesy of Voice of America, broadcast the initial story about the ballot-filled tanker truck.

That might help to explain why "rumors" were flying around Baghdad about thousands of forged Shia-friendly ballots.

If the ballot-filled tanker truck story was a piece of well placed disinformation, was it intended to stir up post-election protests about voting irregularities once the size of the Shia victory became clear?

Here's a roundup of reports and comments. All emphasis has been added.

CLICK "Read more" TO CONTINUE...

[Iraqi] Police and Interior Ministry Officials called journalists overnight to say a tanker truck stuffed with forged ballot papers was seized crossing the frontier from Iran."

The New York Times reports:
Less than two days before nationwide elections, the Iraqi border police seized a tanker on Tuesday that had just crossed from Iran filled with thousands of forged ballots, an official at the Interior Ministry said. The tanker was seized in the evening by agents with the American-trained border protection force at the Iraqi town of Badra, after crossing at Munthirya on the Iraqi border, the official said. According to the Iraqi official, the border police found several thousand partly completed ballots inside….[T]he Iranian truck driver told the police under interrogation that at least three other trucks filled with ballots had crossed from Iran at different spots along the border.
[As rumors go, this one is pretty specific and readily checkable. And just what is the symbolism of the tanker truck? And what is the significance of Badra and Munthirya?]

Lt. Gen. Ahmed al-Khafaji, the head of Iraq's border guards, denies police reports on Wednesday that a tanker truck stuffed with thousands of forged ballot papers had been seized crossing into Iraq from Iran before Thursday's elections. Interior Minister Byan Jabor denies the report too.

But Al-Khafaji also adds to the pile of puzzle pieces when he says that the rumor appeared to have come from the Defense Ministry's intelligence unit.

CNN reports on the story, using the US military as its source but also explaining that the US military "has not yet seen the alleged fake ballots" and has sent a unit to investigate.

On December 13, 2005, Free Arab Voice specifies that the tanker truck was "filled with forged ballots marked for the Shi‘i sectarian “United Iraqi Alliance” party.

And on December 14, 2005, the group reports on a second ballot-filled tanker truck.
Mafkarat al-Islam reported on Wednesday that US occupation forces had discovered a second truck packed with forged election papers supporting the Shi‘i sectarian alliance backed by pro-American Shi‘i religious authority ‘Ali as-Sistani.

The Baghdad correspondent for Mafkarat al-Islam reported a high-level source in the Iraqi puppet “Interior Ministry” security service as saying that a fuel tanker with tens of thousands of election papers inside had been found one day after the discovery of a similar vehicle in the Badrah area in southeastern Iraq. The source said that the second tanker was found with three individuals aboard, two Iraqis believed to belong to the Badr Brigades and one Iranian citizen.
On December 15th, the US State Department states:
We've looked into these reports of a tanker truck full of forged ballots crossing over the border with Iran. What we have been able to discern from our people on the ground is that there is nothing to substantiate this allegation.
Skeptical about the tanker-truck story himself, Juan Cole of Informed Consentwrites:
I don't find the story plausible, but it appears that the US military has actually arrested Fazel "Abu Tayyib" Jasim, a provincial council member of Kut and a member of the Shiite Badr Organization (the paramilitary of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq), implicating him in the affair. I'd like to see the truck and the ballots on television. One tanker, or even a fleet of them, couldn't affect centrally an election with millions of voters.

In any case, these actions and statements of the US military are unlikely to overturn the election results, which probably give the religious Shiites control of parliament. But they could further destabilize Iraq, if that is possible.
Yeah, I'd like to see the trucks and the ballots on television, too. I'd also like to know what the guidelines are for Radio Free Iraq/Voice of America concerning the broadcast of unsubstantiated stories about fraudulent ballots on the eve of the parliamentary election.

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