Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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May 28, 2003

Psychological Strategy Special Report

Coalition-sponsored Media Face Major Challenges in Post-War Influence Operations in Iraq

Analysis. By Dr Michael Knights, GIS. Successfully shaping Iraqi public perceptions became, in the period immediately after the cessation of conventional hostilities in the US-led Coalition War in Iraq in April 2003, vitally important to the United States Government. This was particularly the case since other well-known means of influencing the public  — re-establishing stability and the supply of water, power, and a welfare state — were, even by late May 2003, taking longer than expected. Iraqi public opinion was still balanced on a knife’s edge, with the population undecided about how it viewed occupying Coalition forces.

During this window of opportunity, Iraqi public opinion was expected to remain highly-susceptible to influence operations using broadcast media, yet the Coalition was arguably slower to shape the media environment than either indigenous political actors or neighboring Iran’s State-sponsored media network.

In Ba’athist Iraq, the ownership and operation of media, particularly broadcast media, was strictly controlled by the Government. Uday Hussein, Saddam’s increasingly marginalized elder son, directed the more lively and interesting media such as the newspaper Babel, providing him with an alternative powerbase of some significance and a means of speaking directly to the country’s large and politically-important youth.

In the Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq, free media flourished. Many newspapers appeared, including some in Arabic. There were also private television stations, some of which had broadcasts in Arabic which could be readily seen in much of Iraq, including Baghdad. And external radio broadcasts were supported by the US, Saudi Arabian, Jordanian, and Iranian governments, including some by Iraqi dissident groups. In 1998, the US Government established Radio Free Iraq as part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and it broadcast into Iraq on shortwave and medium-wave. Radio Free Iraq’s medium-wave broadcasts were phased out from 2000, as more priority was given to the new Radio Sawa, with its lively music format aimed at young people with limited news broadcasts. Radio Sawa has a specific service aimed at Iraqis; indeed, it had a correspondent in Baghdad under the former Saddam Administration. It appeared, by May 2003, to still enjoy a considerable audience among those who appreciate its music.

Despite all this, the Ba’athist Government was able to dominate control over access to news. It banned dishes needed to receive foreign satellite TV. The collapse of the Saddam Hussein Government opened the floodgates to the diversification of Iraq’s internal media and prompted a relocation of many external broadcasting bodies.

Indigenous media developments

Political factions and ambitious individuals inside Iraq have rapidly broadened the range of media available in Iraq, recognizing that media profile is synonymous with political power in Iraq. All the major political factions present in Baghdad have established newspapers, which are quick to set up and can be produced cheaply enough that impoverished Iraqis prefer them to the dribble of expensive imported papers now appearing in Iraq.

The first postwar daily — a Basra and later Baghdad issue of the London-based al-Zaman — will be published by Saad Bazzaz, who had been editor of al-Jumhuriya before he fled the country in 1992; thereafter he worked with the US Government and published the London-based paper Azzaman. Broadcast media — where the financial and technical entry requirements are more demanding — are now developing.

The deposed self-styled mayor of Baghdad, Mohammed Zubeidi, drew his initial legitimacy from the fact that he established the first local radio broadcasts after the fall of the Saddam Government. The main Kurdish and Turkmen parties have established new radio stations and even some TV stations in Baghdad and Kirkuk, extending their coverage to new parts of the country.

The Iraqi Communist Party now transmits within Iraq, albeit for only one hour a day, split evenly between Arabic and Kurdish dialogue. Najaf TV was recently established, while the recently reconstituted Mosul TV proved to be a platform on which local politicians sought to establish their credentials. This prompted the local US commander to deploy a translator and censor to the television studios to prevent further politicization of the medium, as occurred in the Balkans. It is unclear what control if any the US authorities were — as of late May 2003 —  exercising over other radio and TV stations.

Iranian broadcasting activities

The Iranian Government also moved quickly to establish a range of broadcast media operations specifically aimed at shaping opinion in Iraq. In the sphere of radio, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) supports the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) Voice of the Mujahedin, which recently shifted from short wave to medium wave, making the station easier to receive and far harder to jam. In Iran’s south-western Khuzestan province, Iranian radio continues to broadcast three Arabic-language stations.

Iran also broadcasts on two TV stations dedicated to Iraqi viewers – Sahar TV and al-Alam. Sahar TV’s two channels are satellite only, and are aimed at promoting the Islamic Republic in the Arab world. The new al-Alam is both terrestrial as well as satellite, utilizing antennae as close as 90 miles from Baghdad. This technically well-produced, lively, and popular 24-hour channel rivals satellite channel al-Jazeera in its formula – interspersing news with pop music videos – but is far more accessible in Iraq, where satellite dishes are unaffordable for most.

The political tone of Iran’s radio and TV broadcasts into Iraq focuses on opposition to US “occupation”, exaggerating civilian casualties and using the slogan “war for control” to describe Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Coalition attempts to shape the media environment

Though the US had more than a decade of experience of broadcasting radio messages into Iraq, and the issue of “winning the information war” had been a known focus of the US Office of the Secretary of Defense, Coalition attempts to shape the media environment in Iraq have been slower than fast-developing indigenous and Iranian broadcasts. Aside from US Army newsletters, the Coalition was, by late May 2003, only just establishing a 50,000 print-run daily newspaper called al-Sabah. Like most newspapers, this was expected to only be available in Baghdad, highlighting the importance of radio and television in reaching the broader population.

The US effort remains divided along bureaucratic lines. During and immediately after the war, the main US effort was Lockheed Martin EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft flying for a few hours a day over Iraq, broadcasting both radio and Towards Freedom TV, a CIA-run station transmitting on Iraq’s Channel 3 frequency. The Commando Solo broadcasts have been described as hard to receive, fuzzy, and at best uninteresting, despite the fact that the US had a long-standing Radio Free Iraq with a large staff.

The Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) Indigenous Media Project is another part of the effort. Key figures include ORHA co-ordinator Robert Reilly (formerly of Voice of America) and Radio Free Iraq’s Ahmed Al-Rikabi. On April 17, 2003, ORHA established the Iraq Media Network, which was to oversee the shift from airborne transmission of broadcasts to ground-based broadcasts using truck-mounted Special Operations Media Systems (SOMS-B).

Ongoing broadcasts include Information Radio, Voice of New Iraq Radio, and a new TV station. As well, Britain established Nahrain TV in Basra. These stations would now begin to transition from part-time (five to six hours a day) military-run psychological warfare operations channels — which can be heavy-handed and not very interesting — to full-time sources of entertainment and news that can sustain popular attention. Meanwhile, some of the Radio Sawa and Radio Free Iraq staff have left ORHA to rejoin their stations.

A third effort is being undertaken in the sphere of former opposition groups and sponsoring intelligence services. The Sunni officers movement, the Iraqi National Accord (INA), continues to produce three stations — Radio Sumer (formerly Radio Tikrit), Two Rivers Radio, and The Future (known as al-Mustaqbal) — in co-operation with the CIA and Jordanian intelligence. Voice of the Iraqi People, run from Jeddah by Iraqi expatriates and the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, continues to promote Saudi policy in Iraq after over a decade of operation.

Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC), still waiting for $4-million of withheld State Department funding, continues to lack a dedicated radio or TV service and may wait for a licensing body to be established to gain direct access to broadcast media without having to use CIA or State Department transmitters in Kuwait or Department of Defense SOMS-B equipment.

The key drawback to the ORHA, State Department, and opposition broadcast media is that they are seen to be heavy-handed organs of the US and other foreign powers, that they are technically backward, that they are not 24-hour operations, and that they have failed to produce interesting programs, and that they are not in tune with the linguistic and cultural requirements of Iraqis. In comparison, local media and Iran’s savvy television broadcasts provide an attractive means for local and foreign political groupings to unobtrusively promote their policies and shape public opinion in Iraq.

With Iraqi public opinion towards the coalition’s presence balanced on a knife’s edge, the US and its allies need — if they are to be successful in shaping outlooks in Iraq — to act quickly, both to speed up their own efforts to fill the information vacuum which exists in Iraq, and to regulate rather than censor Iraq’s media. A national Iraqi communications regulation agency seemed urgently to be needed to issue permits for new newspapers and radio or television stations.