US Cannot Tune Out Its Iraq Crisis
US Cannot Tune Out Its Iraq Crisis
You want a solution? Change the channel - it's all propaganda and lies." This is how Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, US military spokesman in Iraq, responded to doubts raised by images from Iraq broadcast by Arab television channels. Gen Kimmit's words echoed the increasing nervousness of US officials towards the Arabic satellite TV networks, which they sometimes dub 'the anti-coalition media'.
But with the recent disturbing pictures of US soldiers torturing and humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners, first broadcast on American TV and subsequently throughout the world, the US administration will find it ever more difficult to limit the flow of damaging images from Iraq. Its rapid counter-offensive to diffuse the devastating impact of these pictures demonstrates Washington's acute awareness of the media's power over the war in Iraq. In the UK, the Blair government was also swift to condemn charges of British military abuse of prisoners arising from similarly disturbing pictures - despite doubts about their authenticity.
Official criticism of the media's coverage of a conflict is not new. Governments often accuse broadcasters who transmit gruesome images of war of making an already complicated situation even worse. US officials have recently intensified their sharp criticism of leading Arabic-language news channels, including al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, for "inciting violence" in Iraq. They see the graphic portrayals of devastation and casualties, watched by millions of Arab viewers around the clock, as fanning anti-US sentiment. The formal complaint by Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, to his Qatari counterpart about al-Jazeera's coverage of US troops highlights Washington's growing concern over the channel's coverage.
Essentially, the Bush administration is fighting two battles - one on the ground, the other on the airwaves. Neither seems to be going the way Paul Bremer, Iraq's US administrator, and his bosses in Washington would have liked. Aware of the potency of the news footage, US officials are clearly seeking to discredit the networks that show it. These networks, in turn, accuse the US military of trying to intimidate them. During the recent standoff in Falluja, John Abizaid, the top US military commander in Iraq, slammed Arabic-language networks for suggesting that US troops were targeting Iraqi civilians. Accused of false and inflammatory reporting, al-Jazeera's TV crew was asked to leave the besieged city. But when civilians are caught in fierce street-fighting, can any media really be expected to look the other way?
The relationship between US officialdom and the new breed of increasingly independent Arabic channels has been marred, to say the least, by a series of incidents starting in November 2001, when US forces in Afghanistan bombed al-Jazeera's Kabul bureau, they say mistakenly. The killing or injuring since then of various Arab - and western - members of the media by US bombs or bullets have undoubtedly deepened suspicion and fuelled anger in the Islamic world, but they have also strengthened the resolve of the networks to cover the realities in Iraq - whatever the cost. With the latest satellite technology, even smaller networks such as al-Manar, run by Hizbollah, the fundamentalist group, Abu Dhabi TV and LBC have drawn significant viewers with their limited but active presence on the ground. This has increased the kind of daily coverage US officials refer to as "vicious and inaccurate". Broadcasts of al-Qaeda's threats against the US on some of these TV networks has exacerbated US anger.
To counter the flow of 'bad news' on Arabic-language channels, the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq has scrambled to launch Al Iraqiyah, a local TV station in Baghdad. The channel, however, has been criticised for biased news coverage and in the process has failed to attract many Iraqi viewers. With satellite dishes sprouting all over the Arab world, the US administration recently decided to its own Arabic-language network, al-Hurra - 'The Free One'. Broadcasting from Washington, this new channel was never likely to capture Arab TV audiences accustomed to tuning in to al-Jazeera or al-Arabiya for 24-hour news coverage. Many feel these networks reflect their sentiments, particularly in times of crises.
Washington's attempt to recast its war aims - to liberate and democratise Iraq - appears to many a futile effort to win the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim world. TV coverage of Iraq's ongoing mayhem has contributed to growing unease over US tactics, in the Middle East and beyond. To Arab viewers, images of F16s pounding densely populated neighbourhoods, or troops laying siege to entire cities, are too close a reminder of Israeli tactics against Palestinians. This has gradually reinforced among Iraqis the widely held Arab perception that America's aim is to occupy Iraq - not liberate it. They also deepen the sense of despair and frustration among Arabs and, inevitably, trigger more violence and breed terrorism. But do images of mutilated corpses generate the hostility faced by US-led troops in Iraq, as Gen Kimmitt appears to suggest, or do they merely reflect it?
While some channels focus on US casualties, and others on Iraqi casualties, the net result is that something is going terribly wrong in this "war of liberation" - even though the former Iraqi dictator sits behind bars. The latest images of Iraqis being abused in the Abu Ghraib prison - notorious as a torture chamber under Saddam Hussein - sent shock waves throughout the region. Last September, when Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, visited the prison, he praised his troops for shutting it down. Ironically, some Iraqis are now comparing the American "liberators" to Mr Hussein's henchmen.
Growing US anxiety about news coverage from Iraq explains Mr Bremer's ill-fated decision to close down al-Hawza, a marginal newspaper controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr, the young and fiery Shiia rebel. His action led to the recent cycle of violence in the Shia-dominated regions and, overnight, transformed Mr Sadr from a minor religious figure into a political force. Whether this is "Bush's Vietnam" or not, telling viewers to simply "change the channel" will certainly not fix America's problem. The daily reporting of events from Iraq highlights the absence of a clear US strategy beyond Bush's mantra that America 'will stay the course'. It also demonstrates the disconnect between the reality on the ground and the Pentagon's continued assertions that the 'situation in Iraq is under control.' So grave a political misjudgment is Washington's policy in Iraq that it begs the question: "Which channel are you watching, Gen Kimmitt?"
The writer is an Arabic-language television news anchor for Al-Hayat/LBC based in London.