Many Iraqis Dismiss High-Priced U.S. Media Campaign as Propaganda

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 7, 2009

BAGHDAD -- The pages of Baghdad Now, an Arabic-language newspaper, portray a country on the upswing.

Iraqi soldiers and policemen are proud, capable civil servants who take weapons off the streets and doggedly pursue criminals. Iraqis of all sectarian backgrounds work in unison. The Iraqi government delivers.

The paper's editorials hail democracy. Fashion pages chronicle the latest fads in Beirut and Kuwait. There's little news of the more than 130,000 American troops who remain in the country.

That the paper has no publicly known editor, no bylines and no ads is no mistake. It is part of America's huge psychological warfare campaign to influence Iraqis' behavior and attitudes.

"The millions spent on this is wasted money," Ziyad al-Aajeely, director of Iraq's nonprofit Journalistic Freedom Observatory, said as he flipped through a recent edition of Baghdad Now. "Nobody reads this."

U.S. military officials and contractors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on billboards, pamphlets and TV and radio airtime in Iraq over the past six years to burnish the U.S. military's image, marginalize extremists, promote democracy and foster reconciliation.

Some campaigns have been designed to encourage Iraqis to turn their backs on insurgent groups and cooperate with the U.S. military and Iraq's security forces. Others have loftier themes: democratic values, sectarian reconciliation and national pride.

In a country where few things work well, where security forces have a checkered reputation and sectarian tension remains high, many Iraqis have grown dismissive of the flood of propaganda they know or assume comes from the U.S. government.

U.S. officials declined to be interviewed about the evolution and perceived effectiveness of psychological warfare initiatives in Iraq. Richard C. Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently told lawmakers that the administration is working on a strategic communications plan for that region that draws on the lessons of Iraq.

"This is an area that has been woefully under-resourced," Holbrooke told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. "The strategic communications plan -- including electronic media, telecom and radio -- will include options on how best to counter the propaganda that is key to the insurgency's terror campaign."

A Newspaper Ignored

Baghdad Now is not labeled as a U.S. military publication, although the military acknowledges it is produced by an Army psychological operations unit and distributed for free by soldiers. Piles of it are left at entrances to the Green Zone for passersby to pick up.

The headlines in a recent edition paid homage to a newly promoted police chief in Baghdad, reported that the implementation of a security agreement between Iraq and the United States is going swimmingly, and highlighted efforts at the Interior Ministry to root out corruption. A front-page ad showed Iraqis marching down a street, apparently protesting. Under the image was the statement: "The security forces protect your right to demonstrate peacefully."

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