Winning Iraqi hearts, one song at a time?
A two-week old US-sponsored radio station fills an information vacuum in this chaotic country.
"Ask not what your country can do for you..." crackles the baritone voice from the transistor radio, in Arabic with a slight Midwestern twang, "...but what you can do for your country." It's "Colonel George" an Iraqi-born marine, presumably a John F. Kennedy fan, and a special guest on the Voice of the New Iraq, a US-run station in town.Skip to next paragraph
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"That's a nice way to put it," notes an elderly Iraqi woman, Harbia Ismayel, as "George" goes on to admonish Iraqis to "...sweep the street in front of your homes ... bring your children back to school and ... remember, above all, that it is you yourselves that need to take responsibility for building the new Iraq."
Ms. Ismayel shakes her head, and like those standing with her outside the annex of the former Iraqi TV and Radio building downtown, waits and wonders if and when she can go back to work. "Nice. Nice. But what about America's responsibilities?" they demand. "Electricity, security, work, and salaries. It is all fake promises. Just words."
As the US winds down its military campaign in the region and turns to winning the hearts and minds of millions of suspicious and angry people, both in Iraq as elsewhere in the Arab world, radio and TV are among its favored tools. Radio Iraq, as it's known, debuted two weeks ago, and like the US-based pan Arab station Radio Sawa before it - is intended to entertain, as well to explain the US' agenda in the region and, well, spread a little pro-American cheer.
But so far, it seems that while the tunes are appreciated, the jury is still out on the US message. For many, it is all "just words."
The buildings which once housed Iraq's three state run radio stations and two TV channels are no more. Bombed by the US and then looted by the neighbors, the only thing that remains of the archives of Saddam Hussein speeches or the canned applause tapes are ripped cassette ribbons tangled in the debris.
At the spared annex building Tuesday, as US tanks rumbled by, employees loitered waiting for information or instructions while the former station directors met upstairs to hatch a comeback plan. All the radio and TV equipment - cameras, receivers, mikes, monitors, vehicles - was destroyed during the war, as was the infrastructure of the station's former employer - the ministry of information.
"How exactly we are to get back on our feet is totally unclear," says Bassam Sami Abdel Wahab, a director at one of the national radio stations for the past 23 years. His last day at work was the day the Americans attacked Baghdad. He left a song - "nationalistic and patriotic, but I can't remember which," he says - playing on the sound system even as he locked the door behind him.
Now, he would like to get back to work - and is even ready to join Radio Iraq if asked - but he knows the adjustment will be hard. "I have 23 years of experience in filling orders on what news to broadcast," he admits. "I am a little weak on editorial decision making."
In the absence of any authoritative voice speaking to the public in Iraq, Radio Iraq, beamed nationwide from a transmitter in Umm Qasr, has come to fill that gap. Its signal is weak and it repeats shows mercilessly, complain listeners, but tuning in is practically the only way to find out which schools are open or where various ministry workers should report to work.
Radio Iraq warns children not to pick up unexploded ordnance, encourages policemen to put on their uniforms and get back to work, and begs for patience as the electricity lines fail to get repaired - and all this in between playing traditional Iraqi songs and running long interviews with "George." The station is being set up by Robert Reilly, a former Voice of America director, and is paid for by the Pentagon.