BAGHDAD -- Iraq's hottest new television program is a reality show. But the players are not there by choice. And they don't win big bucks, a new spouse or a dream job.
Instead, all the characters on "Terrorism in the Hands of Justice" are captured suspected insurgents. And for more than a month, they have been riveting viewers with tales of how they killed, kidnapped, raped or beheaded other Iraqis, usually for a few hundred dollars per victim.
Iraqis gather at a shop in Baghdad's Sadr City to watch "Terrorism in the Hands of Justice," shown nightly on state-run al-Iraqiya television.
(Karim Kadim -- AP)
Seated before an Iraqi flag, the dejected and cowed prisoners answer questions from an off-camera inquisitor who mocks their behavior. Some sport bruised faces and black eyes. Far from appearing to be confident heroes battling U.S. occupation, they come across as gangsters.
"I watch the show every night, and I wait for it patiently, because it is very revealing," said Abdul Kareem Abdulla, 42, a Baghdad shop owner. "For the first time, we saw those who claim to be jihadists as simple $50 murderers who would do everything in the name of Islam. Our religion is too lofty, noble and humane to have such thugs and killers. I wish they would hang them now, and in the same place where they did their crimes. They should never be given any mercy."
Broadcast on al-Iraqiya, the state-run network set up by the U.S. occupation authority in 2003, "Terrorism in the Hands of Justice" has become one of most effective arrows in the government's counterinsurgency propaganda quiver.
"It has shown the Iraqi people the reality of those insurgents, [that] they are criminals, killers, murderers, thieves," Interior Minister Falah Naqib said last week.
Sabah Kadhim, an Interior Ministry spokesman, added, "The last few weeks have been incredible in terms of tips coming in from the public."
Officials launched the program, Kadhim said, after realizing that Iraqis did not believe that insurgents were being arrested. "Talking to people in the street, they say, 'Is it really true? . . . Why don't you show it?' " he recalled. "The demand for this came from the people."
The bruised faces and the death of at least one prisoner after his appearance on the show have raised questions about the men's treatment in custody. Kadhim denied the prisoners were being abused. "There is absolutely no motive for us to torture them," he said.
In recent reports, the State Department and Human Rights Watch have criticized the use of torture by Iraqi police.
"In light of our recent findings about the prevalence of torture in Iraqi prisons," said Joe Stork, a Washington-based spokesman for Human Rights Watch, "we have serious concerns that these confessions were not also coerced and that the Iraqi authorities failed to provide essential due process protections."
"Televised confessions are almost always suspect," Stork added. "Recent examples in Iran and Saudi Arabia clearly involved a high level of coercion and degrading treatment."
Such concerns have not dimmed the program's popularity.
"We had not planned for the tapes, but suddenly we had what you might call a scoop," said al-Iraqiya's Baghdad station director, Ahmed Yasseri. As a result, he said, "we have overtaken the other stations. These tapes have captured the attention of Iraqis."