Arab TV displays bodies identified as U.S. soldiers
By By Todd Richissin
Sun Foreign Staff|
Mar 24, 2003 at 3:00 AM
KUWAIT CITY - The video footage shown on television yesterday could not have been more ghastly: male soldiers dressed in shredded U.S. military uniforms, their bandages soaked red, their bodies contorted, their lives clearly ended, their deaths a graphic message from Iraqis that just as pictures of bombs falling on Baghdad represent war, so too do these images.
Few Americans have seen the footage, but it was beamed yesterday to more than 45 million Arab viewers of Al-Jazeera television, the Qatar-based news channel frequently criticized by U.S. officials for what they say is an anti-American bias. The channel has about 140,000 subscribers in the United States.
Along with the dead soldiers, Al-Jazeera broadcast interviews with five soldiers it identified as U.S. prisoners, captured during the costliest day of fighting for coalition forces since the start of the war.
Together, the clips offer a clear illustration of how differently the war is being portrayed in the Arab world than in the United States and Britain.
Al-Jazeera, by far the most-watched of the Arab news channels, clearly projects U.S. and British forces overwhelming their Iraqi counterparts, but it gives much more emphasis to the limited Iraqi accomplishments in the war, including the deaths and capture of coalition troops and the strong resistance shown in the past days in southern Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld strongly criticized Al-Jazeera for showing the dead and captured soldiers. Al-Jazeera defended its decision and called his views "hypocritical."
"I didn't hear him speaking up when stations, including ours, showed dead Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi prisoners of war," said Imad Musa, an Al-Jazeera producer in Washington. "Nobody claimed war is going to be pretty."
Another producer, Nadia Rahman, said that U.S. broadcasters had access to the footage but chose not to use it. The difference in coverage is attributable in part to differing standards of broadcasting.
The pictures were so graphic that they would likely never be seen on American news programs, whatever the nationalities of the victims and whatever the context.
But Al-Jazeera regularly airs graphic pictures of Israelis and Palestinians killed in their conflict, and two nights ago it showed dead Iraqi soldiers lined in a street, their wounds as apparent as those on the bodies shown yesterday. Its Web site includes pictures of a dead child with a huge head wound, reportedly killed by American bombs.
The station's producers said the Iraqi government invited them into a morgue to film the bodies, which U.S. officials have not confirmed were American soldiers. The station said it aired video of the interviewed prisoners after being told by Iraqi officials that they were captured near An Nasiriyah, a major crossing point over the Euphrates northwest of Basra.
U.S. officials have confirmed that at least nine Marines were killed there yesterday and that a dozen Army soldiers were missing in the area.
Al-Jazeera newscasters, introducing the video of the bodies, warned viewers of its graphic nature.
The clip came in two pieces, once showing four soldiers, once showing five. It was not possible to determine whether one soldier was added to the original four or the clips together showed nine different people.
In both clips, the dead were sprawled on a tile floor, the limbs of some resting on the limbs of others, the bodies drenched in blood and partially wrapped in what appeared to be gauze bandages.
Two of the victims appeared to have been hit in the head by bullets or shrapnel, and the faces of two others were scorched black.
All were dressed in tattered fatigues and T-shirts like those worn by the U.S. military, but no military markings definitively indicating their units or branch of service were visible.
"I would say the pictures were disgusting," Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid said at a news briefing in Qatar. He told an Al-Jazeera reporter he was "disappointed your station decided to air that footage."
U.S. officials said they were also outraged by the airing of footage of the captured troops. The video was originally aired on Iraqi television and then picked up by Al-Jazeera.
Rumsfeld and Abizaid said that because Iraqi television is state-run, airing video of the prisoners of war was a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which bar efforts to humiliate captured troops.
"It is not right, and we will hold them accountable for their actions," Abizaid said. Neither he nor other U.S. officials would confirm whether those shown were U.S. troops.
All of the prisoners spoke into a microphone labeled "Iraqi Television." Four of the prisoners were men and one was a woman. At least three appeared to be injured. Two said they were from the 507th Maintenance. All appeared terrified.
They were interviewed separately, but not all of their replies could be heard because an Al-Jazeera interpreter's voice overlapped theirs.
One of the prisoners from Texas was asked if he came to kill Iraqis.
"I follow orders," he replied.
"Why did you come to Iraq?" an interviewer asked another captive, this one who said he was from Kansas.
"I come to fix broke stuff," he said, his voice shaking, his eyes flitting from the interviewer to another person in the room.
"Did you come to kill Iraqis?" the interviewer pressed him.
"No, I come to shoot only if I am shot at," the young man replied. "They don't bother me, I don't bother them."
A soldier who identified himself as a 31-year-old sergeant from New Jersey sat bolt upright in a chair as he was interviewed, his hands in his lap. He said he was from the Army's 507th Maintenance.
A spokeswoman from the Army 507th Maintenance confirmed to the Associated Press yesterday that troops from the unit were missing.
Musa, the Al-Jazeera producer, said the interviews with the prisoners were an honest account of the war. He said complaints from U.S. officials rang hollow considering that when suspected al-Qaida members were rounded up in Afghanistan, the U.S. military allowed news crews to video the prisoners as they were led shackled and handcuffed to holding pens.
"We are a news station, and if people see these soldiers and are happy, that is up to them, and if the viewers see these soldiers and feel sorry for them, that is up to them, too," he said. "We are a news station and show news. We don't dictate emotions."
A typical Al-Jazeera newscast during this war has opened just as those in the United States. At 10 p.m. yesterday, graphics and music showed U.S. war planes taking off from an aircraft carrier, then scenes of the bombing of Baghdad, and then a graphic reading, "The War In Iraq."
The station then aired the footage of the dead soldiers, then interviews with the captured, and then comments from Rumsfeld warning that any prisoners must be treated humanely.
A reporter in Baghdad then narrated film of Iraqi soldiers and civilians reacting to reports of a downed Western pilot in the Tigris River, showing them shooting into the water, setting grass afire to try to smoke him out and running along the banks in search.
U.S. officials said yesterday that no planes or pilots were missing.
"Soldiers say they won't rest until they find him," the reporter said.
Al-Jazeera then ran a report on the fighting in the southern Iraq town of Basra, with an interview with a man identified as the commander of the Iraqi 51st Mechanized United, which U.S. officials have said surrendered.
"I'm proof we did not fall," the man said in Arabic. "Americans attacked from several areas, so Americans got hit back in several areas."
The channel showed people inside Basra shopping for vegetables at a market as if nothing were happening around them, though some were stocking up on water.
A man identified as a political analyst was then interviewed in Baghdad. Typically, only members of Hussein's Baath party are given permission to appear on television, and the man's comments were more an echo of the Iraqi president's than of somebody offering critical thought: "If Bush thinks Iraqis will receive American troops with flowers, he will see them walk into fire."
During a report about the Russians possibly helping the Iraqi military, the channel broke live to Baghdad to show more U.S. and British bombs falling on the city.