The war in Iraq is a grim reality, but it is more than 350 miles north of Doha. Most of the uniforms in this corner of the U.S. Central Command belong to public affairs officers, and their mission is image.
Inside, at daily news conferences and private briefings, senior Centcom officials have been more determined to paint Iraqi forces in the darkest possible hues than to shed light on the difficult progress of the military campaign that was in its ninth day.
As U.S. commanders acknowledge they are running into unexpected resistance from Iraqi fighters, Centcom briefers counter by sharpening their accusations of Iraqi atrocities. As accounts of civilian casualties mount, briefers show video clips of their precision weapons striking tanks, armored personnel carriers and missiles. As U.S. military officers in the field report concerns about strained supply lines and troop numbers, briefers repeat the mantra they are degrading the Iraqi government's command and control.
The army's senior ground commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, on Thursday added his voice to those officers, saying that the war could last longer than strategists anticipated because of over-extended supply lines and unexpectedly stiff opposition from Iraqis using unconventional tactics.
So today, it fell to Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, with one star on his shoulders, to go before the cameras and deal with the statements of an officer with three stars on his shoulder -- and one who had the advantage of being on the battlefield in Iraq.
"We believe that we're consistent with our plan and how we designed. There will always be things that occur on the battlefield that are not precisely as you calculated them in your design," said Brooks, Central Command's tall and steady deputy director of operations who has emerged as the chief daily briefer.
He said the war looked one way "at this level, at the Centcom level. There's a different view down on planet Earth."
A day earlier, it was also Brooks's task to minimize reports from Iraq and Washington that U.S. military officers were increasingly worried about conveying supplies to troops in the face of continuing Iraqi resistance behind the front lines. Brooks had little to say except to reassure reporters that U.S. troops had adequate provisions and that supply convoys were well protected.
Another senior Centcom official was less diplomatic in speaking with reporters. He cast those reports as the ill-informed musing of former officers. In a background briefing, the senior Centcom official said, "Retired military officials, the day they retire become out of date." When it was pointed out that the same concerns had been raised by active military officers, this Centcom official said, "If ever I meet a senior military official, I'm going to kick their butt. They talk a lot."
Centcom officials are far more enthusiastic about using the podium day after day to spotlight reported abuses by President Saddam Hussein's government, a public relations strategy that officials said was worked out with the White House Office of Global Communications. Military officials at Centcom have said that Hussein's militias are dressing in civilian clothes to ambush U.S. soldiers, firing on their own citizens and terrorizing other Iraqis to fight against their will.
Off camera, military officials have promoted the theme further. Staffers working for Jim Wilkinson, a former spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee who was tapped by the Bush administration to run communications at Centcom, urged journalists to pay attention to the daily disclosures about alleged Iraqi war crimes.
By contrast, Centcom has offered little guidance to explain why ordinary Iraqis have largely refrained from cheering the arrival of U.S.-led forces as top Bush administration officials predicted.
Brooks, instead, rolled a 45-second video on Thursday of U.S. troops distributing humanitarian aid in southern Iraq. It showed an Iraqi boy waving to passing U.S. troops as he motions to his mouth, indicating he wants food, another boy giving a thumbs up and a U.S. soldier shaking hands with a local man.
"There's no coercion in any of this," Brooks said. "This is all truth. You see people who are tasting, for the first time in their lives, what freedom is."
As for the stubborn Iraqi resistance that continues to slow the U.S. and British advance, U.S. military officials have consistently blamed pro-government forces, such as Saddam's Fedayeen and the Special Security Organization, for fomenting the resistance. Centcom officials have not responded to repeated requests from reporters for information about whether other Iraqis, including regular army soldiers or elements of the wider population, are also putting up a fight out of a sense of Iraqi nationalism.
These officials have, however, changed the label of pro-government forces. By midweek, they made a decision to stop calling Saddam's Fedayeen by their name. The word fedayeen means "one who sacrifices himself for a cause" in Arabic, which has a positive connotation. So they began calling them "paramilitaries." Today, the paramilitaries became "terrorist-like death squads."
Compared to the briefings run with great bravado 12 years ago by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the previous Gulf War, the daily news conferences at Centcom are of less consequence to the media because of the extensive battlefield information provided by hundreds of journalists in the field with U.S. and British forces.
The U.S. and British military have embedded about 600 reporters with fighting forces. These journalists provide gripping snapshots of the war. At Centcom, top brass grapple with the big picture but the daily briefings have offered little more than additional snaps, albeit high-tech ones.
The military under White House guidance spent $200,000 on the auditorium for Centcom briefings, enlisting a Hollywood designer. The set includes five large plasma television screens, which Brooks has used to show video clips of precision bombs and missiles precisely striking Iraqi military equipment and command buildings. Senior military officials have declined, however, to describe with any precision the fighting taking place outside Najaf, Nasiriyah and Basra.
U.S. officials at Centcom are also now declining to discuss U.S. fatalities. Early this week, military officials parried questions about the number of casualties, saying this information could not be released until next of kin had been notified. After several days, Brooks announced he had no intention of disclosing that information at all.
"As a matter of practice, we just aren't going to announce numbers of casualties," he said, after a reporter asked about the toll during a fierce battle near Nasiriyah earlier in the week.
One defense official in Washington said part of the military's communications problem is "structural." "There's no there there," he said. "It is as formulaic as it could be."
When the official called a public affairs specialist in Qatar to offer advice, he was told press relations in Doha are not being controlled by the press officers but by military officials further up the chain of command, especially by the architects of the "information operations" campaign that was supposed to prepare Iraqis for the revolt that has yet to come.
By some measures, Centcom has gone out of its way to accommodate the world's press. Officials have set up a coffee bar in the media center serving macchiatos and lattes and a small commissary that sells pizza and souvenir stuffed bears with camouflage vests reading "I love Qatar." The military has contracted with a downtown Doha hotel for interpreters who can translate news conferences for Arabic-speaking reporters.
Public affairs officials, working on only a few hours sleep, field endless questions from knots of reporters begging information. On the door of the media center's United Kingdom press room, journalists have posted a handwritten sign: "BRITISH PRESS: 'We don't do detail.' " The sign was put up as a dig at Air Marshal Brian Burridge, commander of British forces in the Persian Gulf region. When questioned Thursday about a battle near Basra, he told reporters that his responsibilities do not include monitoring tactical details from the battlefield.
American reporters, however, continue to vote with their feet, lining up outside the door of the British military's modest public affairs office at the rear of the media center for informal briefings far richer in specifics and more timely than what the U.S. military offers. Some American reporters now repeat a mantra of their own: "Thank God for the Brits."
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman in Washington contributed to this report.