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Iraqi reality-TV hit takes fear factor to another level

By Neil MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 7, 2005


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.

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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.