Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Silencing Saddam

Iraqis looking for signs of a collapsing regime wonder why the Americans have yet to stop the government television.
By Julie Flint

Iraqis hoping for a swift end to the US-led war against Saddam Hussein had little to cheer about in the first week of the conflict. "Coalition" forces ran into desert storms and suffered their first casualties, and Arab television stations showed stomach-twisting pictures of dead and captured American soldiers. In vain did US generals insist that everything was going according to plan. The Iraqis they said they were fighting for simply didn’t believe them.


The gloom lifted somewhat on Wednesday when Iraq’s state-controlled television was knocked off the air, albeit briefly, after broadcasting uninterrupted throughout the first week of war. In that time, Saddam Hussein, or someone who looked very much like him, addressed the nation twice. Sundry ministers came, spoke and went. Although nervous, and often on the verge of losing its temper, the regime was clearly still in business. For Iraqi supporters of war who had hoped that the conflict would be short and sharp, even the attempt to silence the voice of the Leader, Teacher, Thinker, Hero and Holy Warrior was a small, much-needed victory in a week of accumulating disappointments.


In the 1991 war against Saddam, television was one of the Allies' first targets. Why not also in 2003? Iraqis asked.


"Iraqi television is a propaganda channel," said Salah Shaikhly, a former governor of the Iraqi central bank and currently in charge of media and foreign relations for the opposition Iraqi National Accord. "Allowing it to continue to broadcast doesn't give much comfort to people who might be thinking of doing something about Saddam. If I was with the government and saw these people alive and well, I'd stay with the government. If I was against the government, I wouldn't do anything because its key figures are clearly very much around still."


Immediately after the strikes against television headquarters in central Baghdad, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) denounced the attack, saying there was no evidence that the station was being used for military purposes - the only justification for targeting it under international rules of war.


But that was not how many Iraqis saw it. With evidence that at least some of his command-and-control capability had been knocked out, Saddam used television to give a progress report on his various divisions - interspersing military detail with exhortations to patience taken, oddly, from a poem written in praise of the camel. As American troops raced to Baghdad, senior vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan went on air to accuse Jordan of "plotting" against Iraq. Once the regime had finished with America, Ramadan said, it would deal with Jordan.


"All these ministers are speaking in a very threatening tone of voice - especially against neighbouring countries," said Shaikhly. "They are saying: 'We're going to pull you into the m. . . . We're going to do this and that to you.' Unfortunately, this doesn't encourage people to oppose the regime."


The IFJ dismissed suggestions that Saddam was using television to send coded messages to his own army. Once again, Iraqis who were in a position to know begged to differ. A senior opposition figure said at least one strongman of the regime - former military intelligence chief Wafik Samarrai - had organised his defection through coded messages beamed into Iraq from a television station outside. If Samarrai had used television, he asked, why not Saddam?


Iraqis who know Saddam well, and who have worked closely with him, say there is still no incontrovertible proof that Saddam is unharmed. They believe the first "Saddam" seen after the war began was a double. It was not so much the oversized and rather comical glasses, they say, as the beret: it just didn't look right. They believe the second appearance may well have been Saddam himself. But they have identified no fewer than 72 edits in the broadcast and speculate that it was a patchwork of pre-recorded statements that covered every possible eventuality in a war whose opening moves were well-known in advance. Significantly, the Saddam in this broadcast spoke in generalities and gave no dates.


"The debate over whether Saddam is Saddam, and whether the real Saddam is alive and well, doesn't really matter when you are considering the impact on the people," said Shaikhly. "Every time you switch on the television you see meetings and ministers - all of them speaking in a very challenging tone. Ordinary people don't know how it's done. They don't know about pre-recordings and splicing. They think this is happening here and now - and they understand that Saddam is still in charge."


Some Iraqis believe the United States is reluctant to win yet more disfavour in the Arab and Islamic worlds by causing civilian casualties in bombing Saddam off the air; others insist that footage broadcast by the regime is in some way useful to the war effort against it. Opposition leaders in Washington and London have asked why Saddam is allowed to continue broadcasting, but have received no clear answers.


"Everybody I have spoken to has asked this question," said Shaikhly. "Television has been and still is a very great tool in the hands of the regime. When his television is taken off the air, he will follow soon, too."


Julie Flint is Iraqi Crisis Report co-ordinating editor and a former IWPR trustee.


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