US and Iraq Wage War Of Words and Images

HERE are items you may have missed in your local paper, but which appeared in media outlets in the Middle East: The United States is secretly burying large numbers of troops killed in the Persian Gulf on the island of Crete.

Israeli warplanes are clandestinely operating out of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, aiding in the bombing of Iraq.

Pop star Madonna (an anathema to many in the Islamic world) is entertaining US troops in Saudi Arabia.

None is true. But all recently appeared in newspapers or on broadcasts in various Arab countries as part of what US officials call Iraq's campaign of ``big lies.''

They are a reminder that, while bombs burst over Baghdad and troops gird for artillery duels, there is another war being waged in the Persian Gulf - one fought with ideas and rhetoric and deception.

Rarely have propaganda and psychological warfare been used with such intensity or involved such complexity as in the Persian Gulf conflict, which roils with different cultures and religions and comes at a time when the world is wired for communication as never before.

(Mortars were fired on the British prime minister's residence yesterday. See story, Page 3.)

How adroitly the two sides use these tools will help shape the outcome of the war and the politics of the region afterward.

``It is really intense,'' says Charles Ameringer, a professor at Pennsylvania State University. ``The psychological war is as influential as it has ever been.''

Analysts say Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has sought to win world sympathy and buttress his political standing in the Arab world by emphasizing the ``savage'' destruction wrought by coalition air raids.

Focusing on damage

Baghdad Radio has claimed large numbers of women and children have been killed and ``massive'' destruction done to religious and other sites. This dovetails with Saddam's attempt to portray Iraq as the victim in the war and himself as the loner heroically standing up to the US.

``Before it was, `We're unscathed by the bombing,' '' says Jay Kosminsky, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation. ``Now he's focusing on the damage.''

Pentagon officials maintain that coalition forces are not attacking purely civilian targets and that the bombing campaign is not out of proportion with the stated aim of getting Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

Their statements are often accompanied by videos of ``smart'' bombs hitting targets with Swiss-watch accuracy - images that may reassure Americans, but, analysts note, play differently to Arabs.

``We are so proud of our high technology,'' says Christine Helms, an Iraqi scholar. But in the Arab and Muslim world, it is creating a ``backlash.''

Affecting peace after war

Using propaganda and disinformation, US officials say, Saddam has tried to send several messages: that Israel is part of the coalition; that coalition forces are besmirching Islam; that the US is warring with other members of the coalition.

``They are getting their word out,'' says Todd Leventhal, disinformation specialist at the US Information Agency. ``It may not affect the course of the war. But it is going to affect the peace that follows.''

Views differ, though, on how well Baghdad is doing in the war of words. Some analysts believe Saddam has been successful in communicating to the Arab man-in-the-street, which has been evidenced by the growth in anti-American sentiment in Morocco, Jordan, and elsewhere.

In a region where military loss can mean political gain, Saddam has successfully played into an Arab sense of the underdog.

``One thing he has definitely done is see that anti-Americanism is now firmly embedded in the psyche of the Arab-Islamic world,'' says Ms. Helms.

Declarations from Baghdad often convey a bluster that is almost cartoonish to Westerners.

Florid language, though, is part of the culture - ``one of the hallmarks of leadership in the Arab world,'' says Jerrold Post, a political psychologist at George Washington University.

Saddam likes to portray the conflict as a ``holy war.'' This no doubt resonates in parts of the Islamic world, but is risky for the Iraqi leader: In his war with Iran, he was supposed to be standing up to religious radicalism.

``I suppose at present you have to give the clear edge to the coalition forces,'' says Georgetown University professor Neil Livingstone of the propaganda-psychological war. ``Most of what the `bad guys' have tried hasn't worked very well.''

Others are more equivocal. The Heritage Foundation's Kosminsky, for one, believes the coalition has done well at shaping perceptions in the West. But in the Arab world, ``Saddam's propaganda machine seems to be operating virtually unopposed.''

Radios and leaflets

On the battlefield, coalition forces are using several tactics to break the enemy's will. Transistor radios have been smuggled into Iraq and Kuwait, presumably to put the Voice of America in Iraqi soldiers' ears, particularly if Radio Baghdad were to be silenced.

Millions of leaflets have been dropped offering safe haven to defectors, and videotapes distributed showing coalition firepower.

Round-the-clock bombing raids are another way the coalition is keeping mental pressure on Iraqi troops, just as Saddam uses Scud missiles and threats of terrorism as psychological tools.

``We are trying to convince them their situation is hopeless,'' says Ronald Hatchett, a Texas A&M University defense expert.

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