The propaganda war between Washington and Baghdad escalated dramatically yesterday with the airing by Iraq of television pictures of captured U.S. soldiers, some of them under interrogation and the bodies of others crumpled on the floor.
The pictures, which were transmitted around the world by the Arab satellite television station al-Jazeera, were the latest salvo in a war of images that is taking place parallel to the ground and air invasion of Iraq. Although some U.S. media outlets carried still pictures of the captured soldiers, most refused to run the television footage after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld argued that it violated international conventions on the treatment of prisoners.
Ever since planning started for the invasion of Iraq, Pentagon officials have operated under the assumption that the information war is almost as important as the real war. In an attempt to balance and dilute what they describe as a campaign of deceit and misinformation by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, they accredited more than 500 U.S. and foreign journalists to accompany U.S. forces.
The goal of the propaganda war is clear, according to political analysts. In their different ways, both sides are trying to sap the political will of the enemy by appealing directly to public opinion.
The United States has sought to split the Iraqi elite, and undermine support for Hussein, by portraying the outcome of the war as a foregone conclusion. It is a message the Bush administration has rammed home in a variety of ways, from millions of leaflets dropped over Iraq to television images of Iraqi soldiers surrendering. Although the motivation of Iraqi leaders was less clear, they could be calculating that images of dead and captured U.S. soldiers will turn the American public against the war, just as similar images did in earlier conflicts in Vietnam and Somalia.
The first few days of war have already produced conflicting images. From the point of view of the Pentagon, some are positive: Iraqi soldiers surrendering, key bridges across the Euphrates River being seized, Iraqi civilians applauding invading U.S. troops. Other images have been wrenching: Baghdad buildings erupting in flames, suffering civilians, a U.S. officer killed by a hand grenade hurled by one of his own soldiers.
Almost by definition, according to military analysts, a war waged on live television is a war in which political and public relations considerations become inextricably bound up with military tactics and strategy. From the U.S. point of view, how victory is won is almost as important as victory itself.
"Our military commanders face a dilemma," said Michael Vickers, a former U.S. Special Forces officer now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. "They want to win decisively and achieve their objectives, but they have to do it in a way that will win people over to our side."
In practical terms, this means keeping U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties as low as possible and avoiding images that could inflame an already tense political atmosphere in the Middle East. Even as U.S. bombs and missiles rained down on government targets in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, Pentagon officials were emphasizing the care they were taking to avoid civilian casualties.
By giving reporters access to the battlefield, the Pentagon is reversing three decades of ever-stricter controls. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, many military commanders favored keeping reporters at arm's length, believing that the media had helped undermine popular support for the Vietnam War. Reporters also experienced great difficulty getting close to the fighting in Afghanistan in 2001, which was largely waged by secretive Special Forces units.
Pentagon officials said the new information policy reflected lessons learned during the Afghan war, when reporters complained about being kept away from the action by U.S. soldiers. A senior defense official said "hundreds of people" had a stake in formulating the policy. By the time it was formally presented to Rumsfeld late last year by Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke, Rumsfeld's official spokeswoman, "it was not a hard sell," the official said.
"We need to tell the factual story -- good or bad -- before others seed the media with disinformation and distortions," the Pentagon said in a Jan. 3 memorandum to field commanders.
The new policy has caused the Pentagon some heartbreak, as reflected in the attention given yesterday to an overnight incident in which a soldier of the 101st Airborne Division in Kuwait used hand grenades to attack his own officers in their tents. As Rumsfeld noted in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," photographers and cameramen with the troops immediately took pictures of the incident, transmitting images of the tragedy around the world.
By and large, however, the new openness is producing positive results, officials said. "This is a war for truth," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "The goal is to have accurate, truthful reporting from the battlefield. From my perspective, that is occurring."
Al-Jazeera editors argued that the images of the captured American soldiers under interrogation are just as "truthful" as the images transmitted by reporters attached to U.S. military units, according to Fox News. They noted that U.S. media outlets have been running pictures of Iraqi prisoners of war, including one on the front page of yesterday's Washington Post of an Iraqi prisoner being blindfolded as he was led away by U.S. soldiers.
Almost as important as domestic American opinion is opinion in the Arab world, already overwhelmingly hostile to a U.S. attack on a Muslim country. In 1991, the U.S. military had to deal with the "CNN effect," a reference to the live television coverage of Baghdad by Cable News Network. In this war, the Pentagon is trying to cope with the "al-Jazeera effect."
Al-Jazeera, which made its name with interviews with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and wall-to-wall coverage of Palestinian-Israeli violence, makes little secret of its opposition to many Bush administration policies in the Middle East, including the war on Iraq. The Pentagon yesterday accused al-Jazeera of incorrectly reporting that the United States had targeted "mosques and cultural centers" in Baghdad.
In an attempt to influence al-Jazeera, the Pentagon offered the television station four slots with U.S. military units. Three al-Jazeera reporters were unable to reach their units because they were denied visas to Kuwait and Bahrain, which have accused the station of biased reporting. But one al-Jazeera reporter is traveling with the U.S. Marines as they advance through southern Iraq.
"Al-Jazeera has a hunger for news, just like the American networks," said Brig. Gen. Andrew B. Davis, the director of public affairs for the Marine Corps. He cited a recent conversation with an Egyptian newspaper editor who said Arab viewers would never believe images of smiling Iraqis embracing U.S. troops broadcast by Fox or CNN. "But they will believe those images if they see them on al-Jazeera."
Some analysts say that the omnipresent news media have replaced U.S. allies as the most effective constraint on the actions of an otherwise all-powerful U.S. military. Former NATO commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark recalled that European leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac were constantly second-guessing the decisions of U.S. military commanders in Kosovo, telling them which targets were politically acceptable and which were off-limits. The result was a war run by a particularly fractious committee.
This time around, France is not part of the U.S.-led coalition and Chirac is no longer a factor in the military planning. But military analysts said the Pentagon appeared to have made a conscious decision to avoid hitting civilian infrastructure targets, such as electricity grids, bridges and major highways, to avoid the impression of waging war against Iraqi civilians.
"The political constraints are different in form but similar in substance," to those in force during the Kosovo war, Clark said. "It doesn't much matter whether the guidance is coming from a head of state or your own political adviser. The effect is the same. You can't strike targets recklessly, or you will have a very adverse worldwide impact."
Staff writers Vernon Loeb and Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.