Friday, January 28, 2005

A Very Special Effect

Looking at the latest pictures of pre-election violence in Iraq, this little gem fairly leapt out at me. Look at the pictures carefully, then read the analysis below.






An Iraqi boy runs past a car just as it explodes in front of al-Nahdha High School which was scheduled to be used as a voting centre in Baghdad, January 28, 2005. Hours earlier in the same area in southern Baghdad, a car bomb exploded next to a police station, killing four Iraqi civilians, police said. REUTERS/Ali Jasim




A car bursts into flames after it exploded in front of a school which was scheduled to be used as a voting centre in Baghdad, January 28, 2005. Hours earlier in the same area in southern Baghdad, a car bomb exploded next to a police station, killing four Iraqi civilians, police said. REUTERS/Ali Jasim




A car bursts into flames after it exploded in front of a school which was scheduled to be used as a voting center in Baghdad January 28, 2005. Hours earlier in the same area in southern Baghdad, a car bomb exploded next to a police station, killing four Iraqi civilians, police said. REUTERS/Ali Jasim




A photographer takes pictures of a car just as it explodes in front of a school which was scheduled to be used as a voting center in Baghdad January 28, 2005. Hours earlier in the same area in southern Baghdad, a car bomb exploded next to a police station, killing four Iraqi civilians, police said. REUTERS/Ali Jasim




A second explosion (white smoke) is seen from a burning car moments after it detonated close to a polling station in southern Baghdad. Insurgents set off a car bomb and attacked polling stations and security forces in several Iraqi cities, killing at least six people as Iraqi exiles across the globe began voting in their country's landmark election.(AFP/Ali Al-Saadi)




A Baghdad resident runs away from a car engulfed in flames after a car bomb blast in a nearby vehicle in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood, Friday, Jan 28, 2005. Car bombing's rattled Baghdad's Dora neighborhood, as insurgents targeted polling sites across the country with just two days to go before historic elections. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)




Flames engulf a car following a nearby car bomb blast in another vehicle in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood, Iraq (news - web sites) Friday, Jan 28, 2005. Car bombings rattled Baghdad's Dora neighborhood, as insurgents targeted polling sites across the country with just two days to go before historic elections. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)




Analysis:

What do you see? A car on fire, apparently not close to anything flammable. We are told this is in front of a school, but we do not see the school. The fire looks like petrol, probably in cans in the back of the vehicle, set off with an incendiary WP shell (White Phosphorus - the white smoke and sparks). There are people running, but they are not leaning at the angle of people who're running in a hurry. There are some people standing around in the background at what would be danger-close distance for shrapnel even from a single 152mm HE shell. You can see a second photographer in one of the pictures. The stories are inconsistent: one says "flames engulf a car following a nearby car bomb blast in another vehicle", another says "a car just as it explodes".

The key and blindingly obvious point: there are at least three photojournalists from different outfits there exactly at the time it goes off! This is not a lucky coincidence. The pictures are clearly taken less than a minute after the original explosion and less than a minute apart. Also: all of the photographers are stringers, not regular staff photographers.

Interpretation: One, this was staged, the particulars of the bomb ensure it will be ineffective and safe from the distance from which it was photographed, but visually spectacular. The people running are most likely also staged. Two, the reporters were invited to see it. Three, they knew it was staged.

My only question: who are these photographers - Ali Jasim, Ali Al-Saadi and Khalid Mohammed - really working for?


UPDATE: Chester has great commentary here and here. These are exactly the questions that need to be asked.

UPDATE: Commenter JB looks at the background of the reporters who are credited with this:

A google search of the photographers shows that while Khalid Mohammed has few photos to his name, none of which show an obvious pattern, the same does not apply to the other two.

Both Ali Jasim and Ali Al-Saadi have quite a number of photos of insurgents in action with the Sadr militia and Mehdi army. Also both are credited with photos of the american corpses hanging from the bridge in Fallujah. Ali Jasim's are the most recognized as he has the snap of the people beating the men's ashes with their shoes. This would seem to indicate that they have good contacts with the insurgents and could, I am not saying that they were, have been notified that something would happen there at that time. Ali Jasim does have several pictures of bombs in which the flames are still quite active which seems to indicate the event was recent.


Well, what did you expect?

UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who commented! I have not seen the video footage of the event yet, so I cannot say anything about that yet, but I will try to find it.

The car may have been set on fire by police shooting at it, and that may have set off whatever was in it prematurely. I agree that it is not a high-explosive device. I think this is more than just a full tank of gasoline, however. Particularly, I think the first photo shows White Phosphorus particles and characteristic white smoke from an incendiary munition. (Observe the low-lying smoke on the ground where the early spray of particles falls.) Perhaps someone who is familiar with such can comment?

Commenter Seixon posted several still frames from the video footage which clearly shows three photographers standing around and taking pictures. There is obviously a fourth person recording the video itself.



Curiously in the early photos there is another person standing out in the open (not trying to get behind cover) some distance behind the car, to the right. He is wearing dark or black clothes. He's gone in the last picture.

The theory that the photographers were present in response to an earlier bombing probably does not hold water since the caption says that occured "hours earlier" and "in the same area".

Also, nobody acts in the least concerned or threatened, especially in this still from the video. Looking at that, can you believe there was gunfire in the vicinity just seconds ago?

UPDATE: I've tried to calculate if what we're seeing requires anything more than just a full gas tank exploding. The big fireball is on the order of 50,000 cubic feet. This may be a gas tank if it combusted all at once - it contains more than enough energy for that. However, from comparing with a few other photos of cars on fire that I could find, I would guess this is bigger, possibly in the 50-100 gallon range. Also the fire seems to be coming from inside the car, not from underneath. Any firefighters who would like to comment?

UPDATE: A short video of the explosion from CBS (at 40 to 47 seconds into the video). You see a man and a boy running towards(!) the car then away. Here are all of the different photos of this event that I could find: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.

UPDATE: There are a few people on the web who have suggested that the running boy was added digitally, or that other parts of the stills have been tampered with, or that the media falsely tried to present this as multiple attacks. Just to be absolutely clear, I never claimed any of these things. I don't think the photos were retouched. But there are some good questions to ask anyway.

UPDATE: The bottom line: there are two troubling aspects of this. One, why are all of those reporters there at the exact right time and place? Two, what exactly is this? Whatever it is, clearly it is not a regular car bomb. It may be a made-for-TV fire-bomb, or it may be a vehicle that caught on fire as a result of shots fired by police, and in the latter case it may or may not have been carrying additional flammables; or it may be a few other things. In any case this is not what it is represented as in the captions, namely a car-bomb attack on the nearby school used as a polling center. All of the possible explanations for what you see require bogosity, the only question is what particular kind.

UPDATE: Dan Rather's narration over this footage of the event is, shall we say, enlightening: "But the Zarqawi-inspired terror campaign is accelerating. More Iraqi civilians died today in car-bombings. Countelss others got the message that this could be waiting for them, if they vote Sunday." Thanks, Dan, for explaining it all to us.