A High-Priced Media Campaign That Iraqis Aren't Buying
Many in Baghdad Dismiss Effort as U.S. 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."

Another edition included a cartoon showing a maimed insurgent leaving Iraq as a smiling refugee returns.

"This is so wrong," Aajeely said with a chuckle. "The people in charge of this are not professional journalists.

"They do it the same way the prior regime did its newspapers," he added, referring to publications that hewed to the narrative Saddam Hussein wanted to push.

A U.S. Army officer in Baghdad, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could express criticism of the product, said the Iraqi soldiers at his outpost mock the publication and are more interested in the editorially independent Department of Defense newspaper, Stars and Stripes, and in the magazines soldiers get in the mail.

"They say it's childish," the officer said. "Baghdad Now makes a good fuel source at the Iraqi checkpoints."

During the early years of the war, most U.S. psyops campaigns were closely linked with specific military objectives, such as asking people to cooperate when soldiers searched their homes. In recent years, the campaigns have become more sophisticated and have taken on broader themes that are in line with the U.S. objective of leaving behind a stable, democratic Iraq.

Public Relations Contracts

In 2004, reeling from the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal and wrestling a burgeoning insurgency, the U.S. military hired public relations firms -- including some that were apparently established to compete for the contracts -- to improve its image.

One of them, Arlington-based Lincoln Group, came under fire in 2005 for paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories conceived and written by U.S. military officials. The communications firms have come up with campaigns that military officials have said are designed to appear as Iraqi-generated initiatives.

Pentagon officials say the campaigns allow them to push back against insurgent groups that have made the media a key battleground.

Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups in Iraq regularly post videos that feature denunciations of U.S. troops and their presence in Iraq.

Propaganda produced by a group called the Future Iraq Assembly has become omnipresent. The group's slick Web site says it is "an independent, non-governmental organization, comprised of a number of scholars, businesspersons, and activists who share a common and firm belief in freedom and progress for all the Iraqi people. It is simply the 'watchful eye' over Iraqi interests."

It lists no members and no contact information other than a generic e-mail address. A e-mailed request for an interview did not draw a response, and the military declined to comment on its affiliation with the group.

"Most people think it's American propaganda," said Wamid Nadmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. He said the messages of hope and political reconciliation are well-intentioned but disconnected from Iraq's reality.

"There's no talk of the atrocities committed by the local police or the people who have spent years in prison" without being formally charged, Nadmi said.

Ridiculed in the Arab World

As'ad AbuKhalil, a political science professor at California State University who writes the Angry Arab blog, said the campaigns are ridiculed in the Arab world.

"They have a very crude tone and content, and the narrator sounds like Saddam's own propagandist," he said. "The Arabic used also is awkward, clearly translated from English texts most likely drafted in some office on K Street. One is struck by the extent to which the ads show Iraqis as Westernized and secularized."

One television campaign produced in 2004 under the title "We stay" showed a long line of U.S. military vehicles and helicopters fading into the horizon. A small group of Iraqi children watches as the contingent disappears. For a few seconds, they appear wary. Then they smile and start kicking a soccer ball.

An ad launched this year featured Iraqis from different regions listing the things that united them. The billboard component had a split image of a man's and a woman's faces, under the words: "Despite our differences, Iraq unites us."

Of a couple of dozen Iraqis interviewed about the ads, the overwhelming majority said they find them ineffective.

"All Iraqis know that these organizations are supported" by the U.S. government "with the aim of normalizing the occupation," said Abdul Kareem Ahmad, a lawyer in Salahuddin province. "I say to the Future Iraq organization: If those funds had been given to the poor and the widows, Iraq would have become a pioneer in social welfare. Millions of dollars go into the pockets of war profiteers who believe victory in Iraq can be won through the media using underground movies."

Noor Sabah, an engineer in Fallujah, said her friends and relatives ridicule the ads.

"These commercials are boring, poor and annoying," she said. "Everyone knows they're American -- not Iraqi-made."

Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Aziz Alwan, Zaid Sabah and Dalya Hassan contributed to this report.

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