Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Here’s a small example of why things sometimes seem so murky here.

Today, we heard about a peaceful protest at the Oil Ministry after US soldiers detained or maybe slapped or maybe handcuffed an Iraqi woman who had resisted a search of her bag by sniffer dogs. The incident quickly raised questions of cultural sensitivity because she reportedly had a Koran in her bag and did not want it to be licked or sniffed by the dog, which in Muslim eyes would make it unclean.

None of this could be immediately confirmed, and given available resources and other important stories we’re chasing, we decided not to go to the ministry because the protest was small and breaking up when we heard about it. To get the story, we would need to drop what we were doing and interview the woman, who we thought would be inaccessible by the time we got there. We planned to ask about the incident at the afternoon briefing by coalition officials.

It’s possible soldiers at the scene were culturally insensitive. It’s also possible the story is not what it seems. In the end, we decided a larger story down the road about cultural missteps would be more meaningful than a quick daily based on sketchy facts.

Here’s what Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Charles Heatly said:

“When we helped the Governing Council with its initial rollout if you like, three months or so ago, we addressed this issue to them directly,” said Heatly, an Arabic speaker who has spent years in the Middle East. “We know there’s people out there who want to blow you up, who want to undermine progress here. We want to look after you, we want to do so in a culturally sensitive way.”

Heatly said the Governing Council replied: “As far as we’re concerned, we are happy for you to use dogs within specific parameters. We’re happy for you to use them in public buildings … what is unacceptable would be for you to bring dogs into people’s homes.”

“Those who want to suggest that the use of dogs is not halal (lawful) and completely unacceptable are simply wrong,” Heatly said. “There are a number of Arab countries whose police forces use dogs both for drug sniffing and for explosive work.”

Coalition officials used the opportunity to lecture the media about jumping to conclusions – last week the wires reported that US soldiers had gunned down four Jordanians; instead the Jordanians had driven into the side of a tank because they hadn’t seen it.