Hearts, minds, leaflets: War's psychological side

As the government tries to centralize its information war, pamphlets and radio target ordinary Iraqis' pride.

Inside the Pentagon, officials are busy drafting e-mails to Saddam Hussein's inner circle, prying at loyalties in an effort to rattle the regime.

American military aircraft are dropping millions of leaflets over Iraqi towns and broadcasting radio messages urging Iraqi soldiers and citizens to reject Mr. Hussein's rule.

As Washington masses thousands of troops in the Persian Gulf region for a possible invasion, it's waging a parallel campaign on the information front. Mobilizing a range of overt and covert tools, the campaign aims to prevent all-out war or, if conflict comes, end it more swiftly.

Yet the impact on Iraqis remains questionable. The US lacks credibility, says Middle East expert Judith Kipper: "[Iraqis] blame the US as much for their suffering in the past 10 years as they do Saddam."

At the same time, the campaign's efficacy is hard to measure, says Col. Charles Borchini (Ret.), a veteran commander of military psychological-operations units. "Clearly, what is most important is that our actions are tied with our messages."

The operations are hampered by a lack of coordination, ongoing turf battles, and a bureaucratic reluctance to try bold initiatives. An underlying problem, officials say, is the potential blurring of diplomatic, military, and intelligence roles as Washington seeks novel ways to shape opinion and bolster its war on terrorism.

'Real coordination is not being done'

Recent steps to centralize the disparate elements of information warfare have gotten bogged down. The concern is over weakening the fire wall between government offices whose credibility depends on disseminating truthful, so-called "white," information, and those dealing covertly in deceptive or "black" propaganda.

"Ideas aren't being exchanged and real coordination is not being done, because people on the 'white' side might blow it out of proportion," says a defense official.

One prominent example is the Pentagon's now-defunct Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), set up last year to oversee the spectrum of "information operations." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld abruptly disbanded the office when its reported plans to plant false news articles with foreign media came to light last February.

Today, the chilling impact of the OSI controversy endures. "The OSI flap has adversely affected what we need to do," says the defense official.

Campaign goes on

Still, administration officials see this war of persuasion as vital to shaping any ground fight, as well as its political aftermath. The handling of Iraq, they know, will be decisive in their broader battle to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world.

So new initiatives are under way. An office of "Information Activities" has replaced OSI at the defense department. Two new sub-cabinet-level "policy-coordinating committees" are focusing on information strategy. And this month, President Bush approved a Pentagon plan to manage military "Information Operations" (IO) from the US Strategic Command at Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base.

Bush and other top US officials are also stepping up direct appeals to the Iraqi people. "I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq," Bush said in his State of the Union address Tuesday. "Your enemy is not surrounding your country - your enemy is ruling your country. And the day [Hussein] is removed from power will be the day of your liberation."

Mr. Rumsfeld announced last week that all his press conferences will now be broadcast into Iraq by Commando Solo, modified Air Force EC-130 cargo planes. The aircraft, part of the 193rd Special Operations Wing, can broadcast real-time radio and television and are currently operating along Iraq's borders, an Air Force spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials are seeking to discredit Iraqi propaganda - especially wartime tactics putting civilians at risk - outlined in a White House report entitled "Apparatus of Lies: Saddam's Disinformation and Propaganda 1990-2003."

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this month condemned Iraq's reported plans to recruit human shields. Similarly, Rumsfeld has criticized the placing of Iraqi military equipment near civilian areas, a practice apparent in videos taken by US aircraft.

"The Iraqi regime puts military capabilities - airplanes, tanks, ammunition - in direct proximity to schools and hospitals and orphanages and mosques," he said.

Pentagon plans to place American and foreign reporters with US military units in a war are also aimed, in part, at countering Iraqi deception, Rumsfeld acknowledged during a recent television interview.

Appeals that tap Iraqi self-interest

Meanwhile, the US military is expanding "psychological operations" (PSYOP) aimed at turning Iraqi troops, citizens, and power brokers against Hussein. Millions of leaflets dropped over Iraq since November have warned soldiers not to fight, and urged people to tune into five-hour daily US radio programs broadcast by Commando Solo planes. The 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., produces the messages with help from Iraqis.

Leaflets and broadcasts appeal to the pride of Iraqi troops. "Soldiers of Iraq, Saddam does not care for the military of Iraq," says one recent broadcast. "Hussein uses his soldiers as puppets, not for the glory of Iraq but for his own personal glory." Hussein, it notes, ordered that returning Iraqi war prisoners have their ears cut off, and he had land mines placed behind Iraqi troop positions in the Gulf War.

In the case of war, leaflets would likely be coordinated with bombings of specified positions, warning Iraqi troops to flee or die - a strategy credited with inciting tens of thousands of Iraqi surrenders in 1991.

A new Pentagon e-mail campaign is also appealing to the self-interest of senior Iraqi officers and others who make up the regime's inner circle, in an effort to drive a wedge between them and Hussein, defense officials say. Iraq reportedly responded to the e-mails by tightening Internet access.

Military deception, including false troop maneuvers, is another key information tool - one that can be facilitated by an unwitting media, Rumsfeld says. In 1991, the US-led alliance successfully concealed the main thrust of its attack by staging highly publicized mock amphibious landings of Marines off Kuwait's coast. It also used metal and fabric decoys of M-1 tanks.

Similarly, a recent flurry of Pentagon announcements on troop deployments could mask which units would play a central role in an invasion - and when. "With the avalanche of information coming out of the US, the Iraqis reach the point where all they know is we aren't coming from Mars," says Daniel Kuehl, a professor of information warfare at the National Defense University. "Information overload is a new form of fog or friction."

During a war, US forces would disrupt Iraqi communications with electronic jamming, computer-network attacks, and, perhaps, new microwave technology. Iraq's state-controlled media would be replaced initially by US broadcasting; plans are under way to set up nongovernment Iraqi media soon after, Pentagon officials say.

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