Winning Iraqi hearts, one song at a time?

A two-week old US-sponsored radio station fills an information vacuum in this chaotic country.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"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.

"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."

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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.

"We are the voice of the new Iraq. We are the foundation of the new national station. We would like to create free Iraqi radio and tv stations and that's where we're heading," says Ahmad al Rikaby, Radio Iraq's director of news. Prior to this job, he was the London bureau chief at Radio Free Iraq, a US-funded operation.

US officials say a new nationwide Iraqi television channel and an independent newspaper - both to be run, as is Radio Iraq, by previously exiled Iraqi journalists along with reporters recruited from within the country - will start up later this month.

AREGIONAL forerunner of Radio Iraq (but separately run) is Radio Sawa - a $30 million effort to bring young Middle East listeners 24 hours of US programming a day. Radio Sawa (Arabic for "together") began this year, is produced out of Washington, and reaches tens of millions of listeners throughout this region. It is the most popular station in Amman, Jordan, and a hit from the West Bank to Cairo to Kuwait City.

Alternating between top Arabic and English hits, Sawa hooks listeners, especially young ones, and then sandwiches in such programs as "The Free Zone," a weekly discussion of democracy and human rights in the region and "Ask the World Now," a show in which listeners can pose questions to US policymakers. Brief news flashes every half hour present an array of stories about the region - all carefully crafted from a US viewpoint - and clarify the current US polices in Iraq.

Radio Sawa plans to custom-tailor its programs to specific Arab countries and regions. Baghdad residents interviewed say they've heard of Radio Sawa, but can only catch it late at night.

There are many Arab leaders who do not like Radio Sawa, but the days of jamming short-wave broadcasts from the outside world are over and little can be done to stifle the flow of information though modern technology. Nonetheless, the establishments in many Middle Eastern countries believe the US will see little gain for its efforts. "Chances are the Arab youth will ... take the US sound and discard the US agenda," argued an editorial in Egypt's Al Ahram newspaper last week.

"We are no dummies and can see through these messages," says Mr. Abdel Wahab, the out-of-work radio director. "It would be better if real Iraqis - the ones who live here, suffer with the people and know what they want - like me - were in charge. But I don't think the Americans are interested in that."

"Some of the things Radio Iraq and Radio Sawa have to say are interesting," he continues, "...but we would prefer a balance. We don't mind being in dialogue with the Americans. We just don't want to be treated like fools - told that we are being helped by the Americans when we can see with our own eyes the mess they are creating."

It's the end of the day at the old TV and Radio building in Baghdad and people are drifting home with no news about their return to work. Someone has tacked up a sign on the brick wall beside the building calling on all former employees to gather this coming Saturday for a coordination meeting - to create a union, an exercise prohibited under the former regime.

Meanwhile, "George" is winding up his hour-long interview - to be repeated twice again during the day - and reminding Iraqis how much they actually have in common with Americans.

"I am keen to meet up with my Iraqi relatives in Baghdad. I have never seen them, but I am sure we will immediately hug and kiss, for today we have common goals and common dreams." he says, wistfully, forgetting the word for 'common' and using the English instead. "A saalam aleikum," he concludes - may peace be with you.

"And with you," replies Ismayel to her transistor radio. She steps over some rubble and begins her long walk home.

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