Reprinted with permission.


U.S. forces battle to influence Iraqi opinion
Scripps Howard News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq _ On a bench outside the Al Fazma Ice Cream Shop, 21-year-old Ali Ahmed says with frustration that he knows the United States isn't leaving anytime soon _ he heard President Bush say so on TV.

"The Americans say they are occupiers, George Bush said that on TV, 'We came to occupy Iraq,' " says Ahmed, a builder.

When pressed on whether he was sure that was what Bush said, Ahmed is more resolute: It was the American-run TV station he heard it on. And besides, Ahmed says, "newspapers, even newspapers are saying this stuff."

Since May, Iraq's news networks and other media outlets have grown with the frenetic pace of an adolescent boy. While Saddam Hussein's security forces monitored Web use, Iraqis now can find an Internet cafe on most street corners, with active Arab chat rooms. More than 100 new newspapers publish throughout the country, operating out of small buildings and identified mostly through cloth banners draped over their front doors.

TV satellite dishes perch off the balconies of thousands of Iraqi apartments. They sell on street corners for about $150.

Iraq's airwaves have at least 20 new local FM stations that broadcast news, sports and music in Arabic. There are also half-a-dozen international radio stations like the BBC and Radio Free Iraq reaching Iraqi ears for the first time since Saddam's regime ended.

Even without a satellite dish, news from the U.S.-founded Iraqi Media Network (IMN) and Al-Jazeera pours into most Iraqi homes.

A third station, Al-Arabiya, was shut down by the Iraqi Governing Council in late November after it broadcast a tape allegedly by Saddam inciting attacks against Iraqis who support U.S. efforts here. That decision was blasted by the press, and it cemented opinion among some Iraqis that the information coming through "supported" channels is just a lot of propaganda. The "American (network) and Al-Jazeera are two faces to a single coin," said Ra'ad Gatie, a 19-year-old homebuilder.

The Iraqi Media Network was launched in May by U.S. forces, and is being built up by the Coalition Provisional Authority to become the official communications channel of the country.

Both IMN and Al-Jazeera broadcast news, local soap operas and sports, but have decidedly different political views. IMN's news is often coalition-generated, and its newscasts have a more Western appearance and delivery. Al-Jazeera's graphic broadcasts of violence, and often antagonistic approach to U.S. efforts, have led the station to be frequently criticized and warned of sanctions by coalition forces.

Riadh Jawad, a 41-year-old taxi driver, likes Al-Jazeera and trusts it. He hates the American-run channel.

"America just wants to stop every patriotic voice like Al-Jazeera," he said. There isn't direct censorship of the stations, but the coalition will fine a media outlet up to $1,000 if it incites violence, expresses support for the Ba'ath Party or encourages war along Iraq's borders. Coalition forces have a full-time staff closely monitoring the papers; as many as possible are translated daily for a media wrap-up for coalition leaders. Mostly, the coalition says, it monitors what is being said in the Iraqi press to see if it's getting its message across.

Despite the proliferation of news outlets, the war didn't change the most trusted and traditional way Iraqis get their news _ by word of mouth. Jawad said through a translator that he gets his news by speaking "with everyone who goes into his taxi." One quick road trip in a taxi leads to a discussion of local politics, or passing along a story that a previous passenger told.

At a gathering inside the coalition compound, Iraqi businesswomen heatedly debate whether they will actually begin to make money by working with the Americans. The message they believe, because they've heard stories from their friends and because someone says they've seen it in the headlines: Probably not.

"They are saying, 'All of the good contracts are going to Americans, it is what is in all the newspapers,' " whispers Lamia Qazzaz, another attendee who listens in and translates.

On the radio, even the music carries political sentiment. In a heavily Sunni portion of Baghdad, Kazim Al-Saher's new hit ballad plays on the car radio and it's in English. Al-Saher is one of Iraq's most famous pop artists. He's written love songs for years, and the lyrics in this one refer to a war in his soul. But the song is almost constantly on the air and has taken on its own anti-war, anti-occupation twists.

"In morning dew, a beautiful scene came through," his voice crescendos. "This war is over now. I feel like I am coming home again."

Local mosques hold significant sway over their followers. In the Adhamiyah neighborhood, by the Abu Hanifa mosque, there are still scars of the fierce fighting that took place during the war. Buildings are burnt out and bullet-ridden. Graffiti reading "long live the martyrs" is sprayed on storefronts. This is the section of town where fighting continued, even as Saddam's statue fell with the help of U.S. tanks. Banners in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque warn women not to come onto the grounds unless they are fully covered. The mosque is known to locals as one of the more anti-American gathering places in the city. Abdallah Ismail, a 22-year-old student, agrees to leave the prayers inside to talk about what worshippers here feel.

"A real Muslim has to resist occupation," he says of the sentiment inside. "God willing, they will go, or Islamic resistance will expel them." The U.S. information campaign knows how important the mosques are to Iraqi perception.

"Our battalion chaplain drives out to all the mosques to talk to them," said 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion Sgt. Thad Farlow. "He sets up meetings with religious leaders. It's important to get our message out."

With some of the bigger newspapers, the U.S. forces try to set up meetings to get more of their story into print. The most coalition-friendly is also the largest. It's the 30,000-circulation daily Azzaman, which was started in the mid-'90s and is run out of London. Each political party also has its own paper. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan runs the Al-Ittihad, and the Kurdish Democratic Party runs Taakhi.

But even when the press writes favorably about U.S. troops, there can be risky returns. When Azzaman covered a recent school opening here, it published a picture of a smiling Sgt. Omar Masry, with the 490th Civil Affairs Battalion, who had worked on the project. The press was welcomed. But a few days after the picture was published, the risk of exposure came full circle.

"I learned I now have a price on my head," Masry said.

(Reach Tara Copp at coppt(at)