WASHINGTON, March 13 (UPI) -- Rumors in Iraq have a weight that government and even newspaper reports don't seem to carry, and the latest rumors suggest Iraqis believe a civil war is imminent and the United States secretly wants it to happen.
Just three days after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld criticized what he believes to be "exaggerated" and one-sided press coverage of apparently sectarian violence in Iraq sparked by the Feb. 22 attack on a Shiite mosque in Samarra, U.S. military intelligence reported that "most Iraqis increasingly fear an all-out civil war will begin soon."
"In fact, the entire group believes that Iraq is at least in a state of low-level civil war and most believe that the country is one assassination or Samarra-type event away from all-out civil war," it stated.
That suggestion is contained in the March 10 edition of the "Baghdad Mosquito," a daily collection of "open source intelligence" culled from Iraqi newspapers, as well as rumors from a group of "knowledgeable" Iraqis.
The Skeeter, as it is known, was begun in 2003 as the insurgency began to heat up. It is an attempt to capture every day the zeitgeist on the street in Iraq, and hopefully to give a clue as to how to shape it. It is produced by the Multi-National Corps-Iraq Command and Control Coalition Analysis and Control Element.
"The word on the street should not be ignored as simple hearsay, even though much of it is obviously false. It helps shape Iraqi opinions and perceptions," states the Mosquito.
"In Iraq, rumors travel through the streets quickly and are accepted by many, educated and uneducated alike, to be the absolute truth," states the document.
In fact, Saddam Hussein had a department of his intelligence service specifically dedicated to spreading rumors.
Rumsfeld last week acknowledged the violence and growing tension in Iraq, but said it is being offset by Iraqi government leadership.
"The leadership being shown by the Iraqi security forces, by the Iraqi government officials in the wake of these attacks against the shrine has to be seen as encouraging, despite the apparent unwillingness of some to accept it," he said March 7.
The group polled by the Skeeter staff suggests Iraqis are not encouraged.
"In unanimity the group responded that the crisis is not over. The primary reason for this is, as (of) last week, ... there are those on both sides of the sectarian extremes that continue to inflame the situation between Shiites and Sunnis. They specifically mentioned (Abdul Aziz) Al Hakim and (Moqtada) Al Sadr on the Shiite side and Harith Al Dhari on the Sunni side," the document states.
It may be a chicken and egg question: do Iraqis increasingly fear civil war because that is what news outlets in Iraq and elsewhere forecast is coming? Or do their fears shape news coverage?
The March 10 Skeeter offers fodder for both sides: the Iraqi street is rife with suspicion about American intentions and actions in Iraq, some of which find its genesis in newspapers. But much of it seems to be generated organically within the country.
According to the bulletin, one of the rumors making the rounds is that U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. John Abizaid's expectation that more shrines would be attacked before the violence is over "prove that these attacks are part of an American plan."
"Some Iraqis believe that President Bush called Shiite and Sunni figures after the Samarra attack not to ensure stability but to ensure that the U.S. plan of starting a civil war is carried out," states another rumor reported by the Skeeter.
A civil war would allow the United States to bring back Saddam Hussein, a prospect the Skeeter suggests many would welcome.
"A majority of Iraqis believe that America is creating the chaos in Iraq in order to bring back Saddam. Most Iraqis now believe that this would be better because under Saddam they at least had security and services," states the document.
Iran is the focus of much Iraqi attention. According to the Skeeter, rumor has it that 150,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard members have infiltrated Iraq since 2003 to carry out assassinations and attacks.
"Iraqis now call the so-called death squads, 'Iranian squads,'" the document states.
It is not an outlandish suggestion; Rumsfeld last week said the Revolutionary Guard has a presence in Iraq, but would not say in what numbers and over what time period.
Much suspicion is centered on the Interior Ministry's special police, which has a spotty track record. It was an Interior Ministry secret jail where more than 160 prisoners were discovered by U.S. forces; some had been starved and possibly tortured.
The Skeeter says Iraqi military forces have been warning citizens to watch out for and defend themselves against "armed men wearing MOI" commando uniforms. Some believe the attack on the Shiite shrine in Samarra, which set off the latest round of violence, was carried out by MOI forces to unite the Shiites behind the government.
U.S. forces read publications like the Baghdad-centric Skeeter with various levels of concern. One U.S. official just returned from Iraq said the information is useful only in the aggregate. As rumors arise, they are tracked over time. If they seem to gain traction or form a pattern, they can influence policy.
"My boss and I were primarily interested in what was going on in our local area," the official said. "It's good to know but it's rarely much different than what you can find in the Early Bird, frankly."
The Early Bird is the Pentagon's daily clipping service from English-language newspapers and magazines.
That said, a heads-up on rumors helps shape U.S. military communications and propaganda campaigns. In fact, the officer said, one of the most effective means of communicating in Iraq is to leverage the rumor mill.
"It's very easy to do. We interact with Iraqis all day long. You tell them something and absolutely it gets repeated all over," he said.
The information is nearly always factual, he said, and often involves sharing intelligence; The more facts the rumor-spreader has, the more likely his version of the truth will be repeated and accepted.
"And the way you check it is with your paid sources," the officer said. "You tell your guy something ... and three days later you get it back. You've closed the loop."