BAGHDAD — Forget the worm-eating contestants on "Fear Factor." And don't look for teen singers trying to become the next "Iraqi Idol." Here in Iraq, reality TV has a grittier visage.
In one recent opening scene of "Terrorism in the Grip of Justice," viewers see a group of tired, scruffy men sitting on bare ground, squinting in the glare of floodlights and waiting to confess.
The camera then pans to Abul Waleed, the mustachioed, red-bereted commander of the elite Wolf Brigade police squad. Waleed is addressing about 30 terrorism suspects hauled in during Operation Lightning, a massive Iraqi-led sweep (now in its second week) aimed at rooting out car bombers and other insurgents in Baghdad.
"Grip of Justice" dominates the 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. time slot in Iraq - at least anecdotally. There are no Nielsen ratings here.
It's broadly popular and considered a key tool in fighting the insurgency. But critics say the show violates prisoner rights by publicly humiliating suspects before they are proven guilty. As domestic detainees, these men are not covered by Geneva Convention rules for prisoners of war. But even so, "the Iraqi government is still bound to treat prisoners in a dignified way under international human rights law," explains Naz Modirzadeh, assistant professor of international human rights law at the American University in Cairo (AUC) "Public humiliation is a no-no."
But supporters say the nightly show helps Iraq fight an insurgency that has no qualms about using video-tapes of beheadings to sow terror. Many Iraqis say they welcome the program as proof that their government is doing something - anything - to make the country safe.
Commander Waleed, who first pitched the idea for a reality show about the work of his force to local TV producers in the northern city of Mosul late last year, says he "wanted to expose the falsehood of jihad," or holy war, against the US-backed government. "Terrorists are sick spirits," he says. The show was soon picked up by national network Al Iraqiya and quickly became a sensation, with families and friends gathering nightly to watch detailed confessions by the insurgency's formerly mysterious gunmen, car bombers, and kidnappers.
Viewers here say the show is "watched by everyone," even those who sympathize with the insurgents. Some observers say the airing of the "Grip of Justice" on the state-run and -funded Al Iraqiya three months ago represented a major turning point in the Iraqi government's battle for hearts and minds, capping the success of the Jan. 30 elections. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly called the network US-funded. The US Embassy in Baghdad says US funding stopped in April.]
Col. Thomas Hammes, an insurgency expert at National Defense University in Washington, called the show a "powerful first step" in undermining the insurgency. "Obviously, the first thing the government has to do is convince people that it can govern, so that they see the value of coming forward with information," he says.
US officers in Iraq say that the nightly show has encouraged more Iraqis to come in with intelligence tips.
Yet the show may also be raising Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions. Hard-line Sunni rejectionists list the Wolf Brigade and its Shiite commander among their prime enemies in the new political order. As the show has gained fame, preacher Abdel Salam Qubaysi has condemned the televised humiliation of Sunni prisoners, thundering in one Friday sermon, "Al Iraqiya is not Iraqi."
The most familiar part of the show are the confessions, which frequently link suspects to atrocities reported on the news. There is little doubt among Iraqis that the captives really are terrorists. Iraqi journalist Salam Jihad, who was detained by insurgents for several hours on a desert highway late last year, says he later saw one of his captors turn up on the show.
In a recent episode, three insurgents sat sullenly, confessing to their role in the kidnappings and murders of Shiite residents around Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. One suspect, named Muhsin, holds up a photo of one alleged victim.
"And how did you kill him?" the interrogator demands. "By shooting," the 22-year-old Muhsin says.
But because some of the suspects bear visible cuts and bruises on their faces, and confessing terrorists often also admit to drunkenness or sexual deviancy on the show, critics question the legitimacy of both the interrogation techniques and the confessions. The Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights has filed complaints with the Interior Ministry and has asked the judicial council to review the show's legality.
"We think all detainees must go to court before any interview on TV," human rights official Saad Sultan says.
Wolf Brigade members, however, say that any official legal proceedings can come later. And rank and file Iraqi police interviewed make no apology - either for exposing suspected terrorists on television or for beating them up beforehand.
"Human rights advocates should think more about the rights of the Iraqis killed by car bombs," says Yasser Qurayshi, a civilian aide to Commander Waleed. "The Wolf Brigade fights terrorism, without regard to specifics about religion."
On a recent evening in the south Baghdad's heavily Shiite Muwassalat district, neighbors gathered at a house with a private generator to keep the power on.
Momentarily turning from the show, resident Dhiya Kimit says the on-air interrogations are "only a minor rights violation" by the brutal standards of Iraq's recent history. "In Saddam's time, if someone was a criminal, then three or four of his family members would be punished," he says. "In this case, only the criminal suffers."
A Sunni Arab viewer, who requested anonymity, says that "terrorism is a new experience for Iraq." He watches the show regularly with his wife and daughter. "Suicide bombings and kidnappings have only been happening here in the last year or two. So people want to know why?"
He says the show compares favorably to the more contrived programming of Saddam's time. "This show is an example of government accountability," he says. "This is democratic."