Militia's other weapon: videos

Video has become an important propaganda tool in the Mahdi Army fight against the US, which continued Tuesday in Najaf.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Abu Mujtaba is not your typical filmmaker. He doesn't have an agent, he doesn't aspire to move to Hollywood, and his interest in film is chillingly practical. He considers Black Hawk Down a "great film," for instance, because it shows him how to kill Americans.

Abu Mujtaba is a member of the media department of Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia. He uses a tiny digital Sony Handycam instead of a Kalashnikov and is one of a half-dozen guerrilla filmmakers who record their acts of war to encourage their followers, spread their beliefs, and portray what they see as the heroism of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army.

Mahdi's moviemakers have been shooting digital videos during battles in Sadr City and in Karbala, as well as all throughout the standoff in Najaf, which continued Tuesday as Iraq's government warned the militia that it has "hours to surrender" until they are attacked inside the Shrine of Imam Ali.

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"This is part of our mission. We film in order to record whatever happens on the battlefield, because we have to get rid of the occupying forces," says Mr. Mujtaba, who agreed to speak with the Monitor on condition that his name be changed. "The TV channels always show the Americans strong, saying 'Go, Go, Go!' They never show the American deaths. So these films by the Mahdi Army show how we kill the Americans, they are not invincible."

The Mahdi Army, of course, are only the latest militant movement to have taken up video as a political weapon. From the kidnapping videos of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to the suicide bomber videos on the West Bank and video-fatwas of Osama bin Laden, video has become a phenomenon for militant Islamic movements around the world. Distributed through dumpy roadside shops and even over the Internet, guerrilla videos have become a way of bypassing mainstream media and going directly to the masses. Video can be divisive, turning away as many supporters as they attract, but their effect is powerful nonetheless.

"Their use of video is part of a larger trend. It just shows their level of sophistication," says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer in Pakistan and author of the book "Understanding Terror Networks." "This tells me that they are dynamic ... as opposed to fading old terrorist groups. Their new members tend to be middle class, well educated folks, and not poor ignorant young men."

The Mahdi Army's films are sold on cheap CDs (for about 16 cents each) and have a shaky-handed roughness similar to many a late-night police-car-chase videos in the US. But the images and the messages they contain are violent - and for Mahdi Army supporters, addictive.

Although the Mahdi movie-makers are capturing battles scenes in Najaf and throughout Iraq, the videos are sold primarily in Sadr City, a Shiite slum of 2.5 million in Baghdad, where Iraqi police don't tread and are unable to shut down the stores selling the Mahdi Army propaganda designed to recruit new members.

A video of a battle in Sadr City, recorded just six days ago by Abu Mujtaba, opens with the image of a burning US Abrams tank, disabled by a roadside bomb and then repeatedly struck by RPGs. Later, the video cuts to a crowd of Mr. Sadr's supporters holding what appears to be the blood-soaked bullet proof vest of an American soldier.

"I went to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya with this video, but nobody accepted the film," complains Mujtaba. "So then we invited them to come to Sadr City and film the fighting themselves, but they also refused that offer. It is not just me who thinks the TV channels are liars, it is the whole world."

Mahdi filmmakers say the Arab news media may be afraid to broadcast such videos because they could face official backlash from Iraqi authorities. Last month, the Iraqi government closed the Baghdad bureau of Qatar-based Al Jazeera. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi accused the station of inciting racial and religious hatred by airing footage of kidnappings and fighting.

Abu Rana, another Mahdi Army filmmaker who refuses to give his real name, says it is his responsibility to show that the Shiite militia is having successes against the Americans.

"The truth is we are killing a lot of the soldiers, hurting them, bombing a lot of Humvees and tanks," says Mr. Rana, who says he used to film weddings and special occasions before the Shiite uprising began last April. "On TV, you just see the Americans have killed a lot of the Mahdi Army. I think the news channels are cooperating with the Americans. Either they are kicked out like Al Jazeera or they obey."

To shoot video, Rana says he often has to take more risks than he does as a fighter, in order to get close to what he is filming. The work is dangerous for his family, as well. He has sent them out of Sadr City to live with relatives until the fighting stops or until he's dead. "People are telling me that my children are crying, they want to see me," he says. "When I visit them once a week, it takes me two hours to pry them off my legs."

The Mahdi Army's videos appeal mainly to the young. In one glitzy shop in Sadr City, where guerrilla CDs are the only thing for sale, the clientele is entirely male, ranging in age from 10 to 40.

Hamid Kareem, a young laborer, says that these videos are the only news he can trust. "There is no truth on TV, the media are liars," he says. "During Saddam's time, the government used to hide all the news about the Shiites and how many he had killed. Now it's all the same thing."

Imad, a 14-year-old wearing an NBA cap, says he has 20 of the videos and watches them all the time. "It makes me happy to watch the American tanks burn," he says. "My uncles are with the Mahdi Army, and I wish I could be one of them too."

Moussa, his 10-year-old friend, agrees. "I like to watch them kill the Americans."

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