On Arab TV, few tears shed over regime's fall

JERUSALEM - Saddam Hussein's rule may have crumbled yesterday when American troops triumphantly took over the streets of Baghdad, Iraq. But perhaps more important, the regime went unmourned on Arab television.

News stations from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon broadcast virtually the same images as their American counterparts - Iraqis cheering American troops, looting offices and dancing on the broken statue of Hussein.

In a major change from previous days, when broadcasts were dominated by scenes of civilian casualties and defiant Iraqi officials, Arabic-language stations repeatedly showed the caravan of armored American vehicles encircling the square in front of the Palestine Hotel and being greeted by a jubilant mob.

Questions on self-rule

While many Arabs have access to CNN, they trust what they see on their own networks, and yesterday's nonstop coverage left little doubt about the Iraqi government's fate. By nightfall, the only questions left to ask were whether Hussein remained alive and how quickly U.S. troops would leave and let Iraqis govern themselves.

"Where will this government from the West get their legitimacy?" asked a newscaster on Al-Jazeera, the 24-hour news network. "Will it be from the Iraqi people, or will it be imposed?"

An Iraqi dissident, Ghassen al-Ateyeh, interviewed from London on the Lebanon Broadcasting Corp., cautioned that the United States must fulfill its promises and give Iraq back to it rightful owners.

"If Iraq gets its own democracy, and the troops get out and leave it for the people, then everything will be fine," he said. "If that doesn't happen, then the war will have been a waste and a failure, and Saddam Hussein will be laughing in his grave."

Most Arab stations have been highly critical of the war, portraying American and British soldiers as occupiers, not liberators, a view bolstered by the Iraqis' early resistance and images of people caught in the cross fire or killed by bombs.

News stations gave hours of airtime to Iraqi officials, including Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahhaf, whose diatribes gave hope to Hussein's supporters.

Yesterday, Sahhaf and other Iraqi officials were nowhere to be seen, and there was no one left to speak for the regime or to refute the images of American troops walking through the square where Sahhaf had stood hours before and promised that the Iraqi army would slaughter "the infidels."

"The American and British armies have achieved what they said they would do," the Lebanon Broadcasting Corp. said last night. "They have destroyed the regime. The leaders have left and run away from Baghdad."

The Al-Arabia network, a competitor of Al-Jazeera broadcasting from Dubai, showed a retrospective on Hussein that was akin to an obituary.

All the stations offered live coverage of news briefings from the U.S. military's Central Command headquarters in Qatar and from the Pentagon. Then, they turned to analysts to explain what el Manar Television, run by the militant Hezbollah party in southern Lebanon, called "a monumentally historic day in the history of Iraq."

Some stations interviewed Iraqi dissidents - one criticized Arab media for "supporting Saddam's regime and his aggressions"; another broadcast reaction from across the Arab world, only briefly noting violent anti-war protests in Jordan and Egypt.

U.S. almost stumbles

But while American military officials finally got the television coverage they had long hoped for, it nearly turned bad when a Marine climbed atop Hussein's statue across from the Palestine Hotel and draped an American flag over the head.

On Arab television, that image quickly turned soldiers from liberators into conquerors.

"That should have been the Iraqi flag," said an Al-Arabia announcer. Seconds later, the flag came down and was replaced with an Iraqi flag - a version from before the first gulf war in 1991.

One major Arabic television station did not carry any coverage of yesterday's events in Baghdad. The Iraqi channel, knocked off the air by American bombs, simply showed colored bars across the screen.

The regime had gone silent.