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On Arab TV, view of war is different than we see

KUWAIT CITY - Pictures of American troops in the center of Baghdad, and then speculation that Saddam Hussein himself had been bombed, gave the unmistakable impression yesterday that the end of the war in Iraq has drawn considerably closer.

Arab television stations, however, have been presenting another impression about the fighting, this one being beamed throughout the Middle East.

The image of Saddam Hussein has been largely transformed from brutal tormenter of fellow Muslims to noble warrior taking on the monster that is the United States, the country that kills innocent children.

As shown on Arab television stations, the war in Iraq has little to do with saving the world from terrorism or even Iraqis from a dictator of well-documented brutality. Instead, the war is presented as part of an age-old plot to grab the oil of the Middle East, Iraq being only the first stop and innocent civilians being no hindrance.

Clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the occupied territories are packaged as part of the war coverage.

The words and images being broadcast underscore the challenge the Bush administration faces in convincing the Arab world of the United States' desire to be friend rather than foe, that the war has been waged not as an attack for oil but as a defensive measure to ensure peace, that the country can be trusted to be evenhanded with all parties in the Middle East.

While American television stations focused last night on whether Hussein and his sons had been killed, on the possible discovery of weapons of mass destruction and on coalition troops swooping into Basra and Baghdad, Arab television repeatedly told of the bravery and effectiveness of Iraqi soldiers.

And the stations showed a more definitive product of the war: bloodied old men in hospital beds, weeping women in bombed-out homes, small children who have lost limbs, a teddy bear atop a pile of rubble.

Graphic videos

While U.S. and British stations acknowledge that civilians have been killed and injured, the Arab stations devote large parts of their newscasts to pictures proving it, often with the most graphic of video footage.

American and British officials have played down problems, such as the security of troops along supply lines. They have exaggerated successes, such as announcing the "capture" of southern cities while fighting inside them raged.

But in many cases, the news yesterday as presented on Arab television was far different than spin. It was not merely slanted but was contrary to reports from virtually all independent Western reporters in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.

This was true on state-controlled stations in such countries as Egypt and Jordan - allies of the Untied States - and on independent stations such as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, which broadcasts in Arabic to 45 million people.

"Images can be more powerful than words and such pictures can be difficult to overcome," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "A quick end to the war and a quick move to addressing the Israel-Palestine problem could do quite a bit, but as long as either goes unsettled, those pictures will linger."

Striking contrasts

The contrast between Western and Arab broadcasts was striking in the coverage earlier yesterday from Baghdad. CNN and the British Broadcasting Corp. broadcast images of U.S. troops rooting through one of Hussein's Baghdad palaces, and Chris Tomlinson, an Associated Press reporter, described in detail the interior of the building.

Some of those reports were filed early in the morning Iraq time, but at 8:02 p.m. local time, Al-Jazeera - which had a reporter in Baghdad - was reporting no sign of U.S. troops in the capital. Other Arab stations reported "confusion" about whether Americans had set foot in Baghdad, giving equal weight to Iraqi claims that they had not and television video that seemed to confirm they had. (At 8:12 p.m. yesterday, Al-Jazeera announced it had unconfirmed reports that Americans had entered Baghdad.)

Americans might have seen as ridiculous, even darkly comical, the comments of Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi information minister, who insisted yesterday that Baghdad was unscathed, even as the city burned around him. He proclaimed that Americans were being "slaughtered" by the scores, with hundreds "committing suicide," thanks to the bravery of the Republican Guard.

But most reports on Arab television reported his comments unchallenged by videos to the contrary or the reports from print journalists.

In cases in which video was shown, apparently undermining his claims, he was nevertheless supported by commentary from television personalities presented as experts.

"The Iraqis control the war," said a retired military general on Jordan Television. "The Americans keep entering the cities but they are quickly driven out."

Of the video, he said: "Americans are fighting with their minds, trying to make Iraqis believe the war is lost. It is all propaganda."

The interviewer nodded in apparent agreement.

The lead story on Egypt's Video Cairo began with, "Strong resistance to Americans south of Baghdad." It made no mention of Hussein's palace.

On Arabic Network News from Libya, a commentator said Iraq was right where it wanted to be in the war. The Republican Guard had suckered the coalition forces into the area surrounding - but not within - Baghdad, said the commentator, identified as a retired general.

"The Americans and British have seen only civilians fighting them, and so they think they are winning the war," he said. "Now they will see what a fighting force is like. To this, credit Saddam, who has planned brilliantly."

Similar footage

The next story was from the Gaza Strip, with pictures that looked strikingly similar to footage previously described as scenes from the desert of Iraq.

When Al-Jazeera broadcast a story about Ali Hassan al-Majid, the Iraqi cousin of Hussein dubbed "Chemical Ali," who British military officials said was killed in Basra, it began with Iraqi denials that he was dead. It closed with, "British officials have not been able to offer proof of their claim."

The images, though, more than any of the reporting, is what most differentiates the Arab television pictures from those in the United States or on Britain's most-watched news stations, the British Broadcasting Corp. and Sky News.

U.S. and British television focus heavily on troops in the field, with many images of gunbattles and bombs falling in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Arab television spends at least as much time broadcasting footage from hospitals and showing the scene at bombing sites, documenting the toll on civilians.

At no time during the broadcasts are the differences more pronounced than in their first minutes, when the news shows are introduced.

Most of the Arab stations intersperse images of civilian victims of the war with pictures of U.S. planes dropping bombs and coalition soldiers firing their weapons, the relationship clear.

On Qatar Television yesterday, a newscast began with pictures of an Arab boy, perhaps 7 years old, lying on a hospital bed, gauze around his head holding a heavy bandage over his eye. A tear flowed from the eye that was unbandaged. A microphone was placed inches from his lips. They trembled.

"The Americans came," he said, his voice shaking, "and my father is dead."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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