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FIFTH COLUMN DISTORTION

In his speech at the Naval Academy Wednesday outlining U.S. strategy in Iraq, President Bush paid tribute to Marine Corporal Jeffrey Starr, killed in a fire fight in Ar Ramadi April 30th. He was 22, on his third tour in Iraq.

A letter to his girlfriend was found on Starr’s laptop computer:

"If you’re reading this, then I’ve died in Iraq," Cpl. Starr wrote. "I don’t regret going. Everybody dies but a few get to do it for something as important as freedom.  It may seem confusing why we’re in Iraq; it’s not to me. I’m here helping these people so they can live the way we live, not to have to worry about tyrants or vicious dictators. Others have died for my freedom; now this is my mark."

In a mammoth article in October taking note of the 2,000th U.S. death in Iraq, the New York Times mentioned Cpl. Starr and his letter, but didn’t quote the passages above.  All the Times quoted from his letter was: "’I kind of predicted this,’ Corporal Starr wrote of his own death. ‘A third time just seemed like I’m pushing my chances.’"

The Times’ omissions and distortions — which are more the rule than the exception in news coverage of Iraq — explain why so many Americans think we’re losing a war we’re plainly winning.

"Soldiers clearly feel that important elements are being left out of the media’s overall verdict," wrote the Christian Science Monitor’s Mark Sappenfield, after interviewing members of the 3rd battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, the Ohio reserve unit which, on Aug. 3rd had suffered the single greatest loss of life in a roadside bombing in the entire war.

"Like many soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq, (Cpl. Stan) Mayer looks at the bleak portrayal of the war at home with perplexity — if not annoyance," Sappenfield wrote. "It is a perception gap that has put the military and media at odds, as the troops complain that the media care only about death tolls."

The vast majority of Iraq vets share the attitudes of Cpls Starr and Mayer. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican from suburban Pittsburgh, was treated in military hospitals after an automobile accident in Iraq last weekend.

"Every soldier I talked to said: ‘Don’t pull out. Do not make it so that those who have been wounded and those who have died have done so in vain,’" Rep. Murphy said.  "I regret that stories of success upon success are not reaching my family, friends and coworkers," wrote reserve Army Col. Jimmie Jaye Wells, a Texan serving in Iraq.

The relentless media emphasis on the negative also is illustrated by the differing treatment accorded pronouncements on Iraq by Rep. John Murtha, a heretofore relatively obscure Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who had been his party’s candidate for vice president in 2000, and a presidential candidate in 2004.

When Rep. Murtha called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, he led the network newscasts. But when Sen. Lieberman — who had just returned from his fourth trip to Iraq — declared Tuesday that "visible and practical" progress has been made, neither ABC or CBS mentioned it on their evening newscasts, and neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post published a single word of what he had to say.

Some in the media go beyond omission and distortion to outright fabrication, as Reuters news service did the day after the president’s speech.

"Iraqi militants attacked a U.S. base and a local government building with mortar rounds and rockets in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on Thursday, before holding ground on several streets, residents said," Reuters reported. "They’ve taken control of all the main streets and other sections of Ramadi."

But Marine Captain Jeffrey Pool, who is stationed in Ramadi, said: "as of 2:00 p.m. there were no signs of significant insurgent activity anywhere in the city. At 9:30 a.m. an RPG was fired at a joint U.S.-Iraqi observation post which in no damages or casualties. That is all. No other attacks."

Capt. Pool said the false report of an al Qaida offensive in Ramadi "is clearly a sign of how desperate insurgents have become." It’s also a sign of how desperate Reuters is becoming, as progress in Iraq becomes more difficult to ignore.

Jack Kelly is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.