Iraqis finally acknowledge that AP news source does exist

The Interior Ministry acknowledged Thursday that an Iraqi police officer whose existence had been denied by the Iraqis and the U.S. military is in fact an active member of the force, and said he now faces arrest for speaking to the media.

Ministry spokesman Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, who had previously denied there was any such police employee as Capt. Jamil Hussein, said in an interview that Hussein is an officer assigned to the Khadra police station, as had been reported by The Associated Press.

The captain, whose full name is Jamil Gholaiem Hussein, was one of the sources for an AP story in late November about the burning and shooting of six people during a sectarian attack at a Sunni mosque.

The U.S. military and the Iraqi Interior Ministry raised the doubts about Hussein in questioning the veracity of the AP’s initial reporting on the incident, and the Iraqi ministry suggested that many news organization were giving a distorted, exaggerated picture of the conflict in Iraq. Some Internet bloggers spread and amplified these doubts, accusing the AP of having made up Hussein’s identity in order to disseminate false news about the war.

Khalaf offered no explanation Thursday for why the ministry had initially denied Hussein’s existence, other than to state that its first search of records failed to turn up his full name. He also declined to say how long the ministry had known of its error and why it had made no attempt in the past six weeks to correct the public record.

Hussein was not the original source of the disputed report of the attack; the account was first told on Al-Arabiya satellite television by a Sunni elder, Imad al-Hashimi, who retracted it after members of the Defense Ministry paid him a visit. Several neighborhood residents subsequently gave the AP independent accounts of the Shiite militia attack on a mosque in which six people were set on fire and killed.

Khalaf told the AP that an arrest warrant had been issued for the captain for having contacts with the media in violation of the ministry’s regulations.

Hussein told the AP on Wednesday that he learned the arrest warrant would be issued when he returned to work on Thursday after the Eid al-Adha holiday. His phone was turned off Thursday and he could not be reached for further comment.

Hussein appears to have fallen afoul of a new Iraqi push, encouraged by some U.S. advisers, to more closely monitor the flow of information about the country’s violence, and strictly enforce regulations that bar all but authorized spokesmen from talking to media.

During Saddam Hussein’s rule, information in Iraq had been fiercely controlled by the Information Ministry, but after the arrival of U.S. troops in 2003 and during the transition to an elected government in 2004, many police such as Hussein felt freer to talk to journalists and give information as it occurred.

As a consequence, most news organizations working in Iraq have maintained Iraqi police contacts routinely in recent years. Some officers who speak with reporters withhold their names or attempt to disguise their names using different variants of one or two middle names or last names for reasons of security. Hussein, however, spoke for the record, using his authentic first and last name, on numerous occasions.

His first contacts with the AP were in 2004, when the current Interior Ministry and its press apparatus was still being formed out of the chaotic remains of the Saddam-era ministry.

The information he provided about various police incidents was never called into question until he became embroiled in the attempt to discredit the AP story about the Hurriyah mosque attack.

Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said Thursday that the military had asked the Interior Ministry on Nov. 26 if it had a policeman by the name of Jamil Hussein. Two days later, U.S. Navy Lt. Michael B. Dean, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Navy Multi-National Corps-Iraq Joint Operations Center, sent an e-mail to AP in Baghdad saying that the military had checked with the Iraqi Interior Ministry and was told that no one by the name of Jamil Hussein worked for the ministry or was a Baghdad police officer.

Dean also demanded that the mosque attack story be retracted.

The text of the Dean letter appeared quickly on several Internet blogs, prompting heated debate about the story and criticism of the AP.

At the weekly Interior Ministry briefing on Nov. 30, Khalaf cited the AP story as an example of why the ministry had decided to form a special unit to monitor news coverage and vowed to take legal action against journalists who failed to correct stories the ministry deemed to be incorrect.

At the time Khalaf said the ministry had no one on its staff by the name of Jamil Hussein.

“Maybe he wore an MOI (Ministry of Interior) uniform and gave a different name to the reporter for money,” Khalaf said then. The AP has not paid Jamil Hussein and does not pay any news sources for information for its stories.

On Thursday, Khalaf told AP that the ministry at first had searched its files for Jamil Hussein and found no one. He said a later search turned up Capt. Jamil Gholaiem Hussein, assigned to the Khadra police station.

But the AP had already identified the captain by all three names in a story on Nov. 28 — two days before the Interior Ministry publicly denied his existence on the police rolls.

Khalaf did not say whether the U.S. military had ever been told that Hussein in fact exists. Garver, the U.S. military spokesman, said Thursday that he was not aware that the military had ever been told.

Khalaf said Thursday that with the arrest of Hussein for breaking police regulations against talking to reporters, the AP would be called to identify him in a lineup as the source of its story.

Should the AP decline to assist in the identification, Khalaf said, the case against Hussein would be dropped. He also said there were no plans to pursue action against the AP should it decline.

He said police officers sign a pledge not to talk to reporters when they join the force. He did not explain why Jamil Hussein had become an issue now, given that he had been named by AP in dozens of news reports dating back to early 2006. Before that, he had been a reliable source of police information since 2004 but had not been quoted by name.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press