It was 9:45 p.m. in Washington, 5:45 the next morning in Baghdad. Fadel Meshaal, an Iraqi freelance journalist working for a U.S. government radio station, was being interviewed from a studio on the Mall as the air raid sirens began to wail.
For the next five hours, Meshaal described the scene in the Iraqi capital for Radio Sawa's listeners around the Arab world: loud explosions, deserted streets, heated denunciations of Washington in the official Iraqi press. His reports from Baghdad were interspersed with interviews from northern Iraq with opponents of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The opening barrage of live news reports on Radio Sawa -- seen by the Bush administration as its principal means of communicating with the Arab world -- was a reminder that two wars are now underway in the Middle East. One is being fought with tanks and missiles and aircraft carriers. The other, a struggle for the hearts and minds of 250 million Arabs, is being waged predominantly through the airwaves.
"We are competing for attention with al-Jazeera," says Norman J. Pattiz, the American broadcasting magnate who created Radio Sawa a year ago as the official U.S. answer to the hugely successful Arabic-language television station. "Our mission is to promote freedom and democracy through the free flow of information."
Ibrahim Hilal, editor in chief of al-Jazeera, scoffs at the comparison. His station, based in Qatar, claims 35 million viewers around the Arab world. Its scoops -- including interviews with Osama bin Laden and exclusive reports from inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan -- are often picked up by Western media outlets. By contrast, Sawa is only just beginning to make a name for itself.
"American taxpayers are wasting their money on Radio Sawa," says Hilal, taking a break from supervising al-Jazeera's 24-hour news operation in Doha. "Arabs understand that it is a tool of the U.S. government."
In terms of audience, Sawa (the name means "together" in Arabic) is little competition. It is aimed primarily at young listeners from 18 to 25, lured by its snappy mix of Western and Arab pop music and half-hourly news headlines. Anecdotal evidence and audience surveys suggest that Sawa has fairly large audiences in Jordan and along the Persian Gulf, where it broadcasts on FM, and a respectable audience inside Iraq itself, where it can be heard on medium wave. It has had less impact in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where the signal is weaker. What really sets Radio Sawa apart from al-Jazeera, say its editors, is the way it reports the news. "We try to de-emotionalize the news," says Mouafac Harb, the radio station's editor in chief. "We don't use adjectives."
Harb, a Lebanese American who previously worked as Washington bureau chief for the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper, says Sawa's dry, almost sparse news style is an antidote to the "surfeit of emotion" commonplace in Arab journalism. Al-Jazeera routinely uses words like "martyrs" to describe Palestinian suicide bombers targeting Israeli civilians. By contrast, Sawa sticks to reporting the bare facts of Palestinians killing Israelis and Israelis killing Palestinians.
Hilal and other Arab journalists say Sawa is not as neutral as it claims. They maintain that the selection of news is heavily influenced by U.S. propaganda aims, with relatively little attention given to events that might embarrass the Bush administration, such as domestic and international protests against war in Iraq. They argue that Sawa reporters betray their bias by providing little context and avoiding phrases like "occupied territories" to describe lands seized by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
"Emotions are part of the story," says Hilal, who makes no apology for devoting attention to the suffering of Muslims worldwide, whether in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in Afghanistan during the U.S. bombing campaign or in Iraq as a result of U.S.-inspired sanctions. "The soul of the news lies in emotion. Emotion is the most important fact."
Both Sawa and al-Jazeera have reporters inside Baghdad, waiting for the main American attack. Whereas al-Jazeera has its own experienced correspondents, Sawa is relying on Meshaal, an Iraqi stringer recommended through intermediaries. It is a curious arrangement, but one that Harb says is necessary to demonstrate that Sawa is not "a mouthpiece of the U.S. government."
"We don't know the circumstances in which he is working," Harb acknowledges. "He is very accurate and professional in describing what is going on in Baghdad. He gives us the official Iraqi viewpoint, but we need that to balance our other reporting."
Harb assigned two reporters to accompany U.S. troops now moving into Iraq. Al-Jazeera has a reporter embedded with the U.S. Marines. Three other al-Jazeera reporters were assigned to U.S. forces but were barred from entering Kuwait and Bahrain by local authorities, who dislike the television station's reporting.
Both al-Jazeera and Sawa have a lot riding on the war. Al-Jazeera wants to establish itself as the Arab equivalent of Cable News Network, which made its reputation during the first Persian Gulf War. Sawa is competing with established Arabic-language radio operations such as the British Broadcasting Corp. and France's Radio Monte Carlo. If all goes well, and Congress approves a request for $75 million in funds, Harb hopes to launch an Arab-language satellite television station by 2004.
In addition to promoting Radio Sawa as a credible news source in the Arab world, Harb is waging a rear-guard battle with internal critics at the Voice of America, whose Arabic-language service was axed to make way for the new radio station. The dissidents say that Sawa's formula of pop music and news headlines offers much less analysis than the service it replaced.
"I don't know what advantage we gain by primarily playing pop music to the Arab world," said Tim Shamble, president of the VOA journalists' guild, echoing the private complaints of many VOA reporters. "You may gain a larger audience of teenagers. That's like feeding candy to kids. But I don't think we are following the mission given us by the VOA charter of representing America in a comprehensive way to the rest of the world."
Harb and Pattiz dismiss such criticism, arguing that the Arab service never reached more than 2 percent of listeners in the Middle East, according to audience surveys. They claim Sawa has a broader reach, but decline to give audience estimates for the region as a whole, citing a lack of detailed research.
"Before Sawa, the U.S. was not part of the media scene in the Middle East," says Harb. "You can have the greatest message there is -- but if nobody is listening to you, it doesn't do you any good."
Many Middle Easterners, including some regular listeners to Sawa, say the station has a long way to go before it begins to acquire the influence of stations like the BBC Arabic service, let alone al-Jazeera. "Nobody I know listens to Sawa," says Khaled Maena, editor of an English-language newspaper in the western Saudi Arabian city of Jiddah, where Sawa is only available on medium wave.
In Saudi Arabia's eastern province, where Sawa can be heard on FM from neighboring Bahrain, the radio station has more listeners, particularly young people who like the American and Arab music. But even Arab intellectuals sympathetic to the United States doubt that Radio Sawa will win many converts unless Washington changes its policies toward the Arab world, particularly over the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
"The struggle for Arab hearts and minds does not depend on cosmetic changes," says Hassan Ansari, director of Gulf studies at the University of Qatar. "It depends on substance."