A battle waged on Iraq's airwaves

Broadcasts, leaflets part of direct approach in psychological operations

War In Iraq

March 22, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

His audience was the Pentagon press corps, gathered yesterday afternoon in a briefing room for an update on the war, but the people Gen. Richard B. Myers was really speaking to were on the other side of the globe.

"To the commanders and soldiers of the Iraqi forces, I urge you in the strongest possible terms," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. "Do the honorable thing. Stop fighting that you may live to enjoy a free Iraq where you and your children can grow and prosper."

It was another salvo in an unprecedented war of persuasion that the Bush administration has launched in parallel to the aerial and ground attacks in Iraq. Speaking directly to Iraqis, officials have sought to drive a wedge between the people and their leader, Saddam Hussein.

Myers said the fact that large numbers of Iraqi soldiers - including an 8,000-man division - have surrendered after just two days of war shows that they "are heeding our message."

The message is being driven home in Iraq through a variety of channels: On broadcasts from "Commando Solo," the modified C-130 aircraft that serves as an airborne radio station over Iraq. On leaflets that have been dropped by the millions across the country. Even, reportedly, in private telephone calls, faxes and e-mails to military commanders.

The efforts are part of the psychological operations - or "psyops" - that have taken a prominent role in this conflict. While every war has had a psychological, hearts-and-minds aspect, U.S. officials are using updated technology and the proliferation of media outlets to capitalize on spreading its message as broadly as possible.

"You didn't have Al-Jazeera before," said Jarol B. Manheim, a political communications expert and professor at George Washington University, referring to the so-called CNN of the Arab world.

But the administration isn't relying solely on the news media - it has gotten into the broadcasting business itself with Commando Solo. The aircraft have been used in previous wars - Afghanistan, for instance - and this time around have aired translations in Arabic of the administration's news briefings that have become a staple on U.S. cable networks.

Commando Solo, a fleet of six aircraft normally based in Harrisburg, Pa., has been broadcasting informational messages as well as music into Iraq. (Officials have determined that Iraqis enjoy music by Celine Dion, Santana and Sheryl Crow - the last, ironically, a particularly outspoken anti-war activist.) Leaflets have been dropped to let Iraqis know the times and frequencies that they can tune into on their radios.

Supplying Commando Solo with broadcast material is the Army's 4th Psychological Operations Group, based in Fort Bragg, N.C. They work in conjunction with Gen. Tommy Franks' U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar to develop the radio programming.

"Every day, we're looking at the situation and getting from General Franks what messages he needs to communicate to people," said Ben Abel, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command at Fort Bragg. "It's just like any marketing or communications strategy - you try to stay on message."

Indeed, the messages tend to be reiterated through the various mediums -the broadcasts, the leaflets, the administration's speeches and statements. Myers' statement at yesterday's briefing, for example, echoes a leaflet dropped this month in Iraq showing a young boy at a blackboard and encouraging soldiers to "leave now and go home, watch your children learn, grow and prosper."

Transcripts of Commando Solo broadcasts have included direct appeals to soldiers and civilians as well as translations of Bush's speeches. In fact, Bush's speech Monday night, giving Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave the country, included a direct message to Iraqis. "Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them," Bush said. "If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you. ... The day of your liberation is near."

The Commando Solo broadcasts often seek to highlight the disparity in how Saddam Hussein and his people live.

"People of Iraq," one broadcast began. "The standard of living for Iraqis has dropped drastically since Saddam came into power. ... Saddam has built palace after palace for himself and has purchased a fleet of luxury cars, all at the expense of the Iraqi people."

"Soldiers of Iraq," another broadcast began. "Saddam lives like a king while his soldiers are underpaid and under-equipped."

Leaflets have drawn similar contrasts, asking soldiers who needs them more: Hussein, shown smiling and on a throne, or their families, depicted by a crying baby and a worried-looking mother.

Manheim said the Bush administration's direct appeals to the Iraqi people is a way of putting a measured, less-offensive face on itself in Iraq even as, on the other hand, it is launching overwhelming military strikes.

"It's a smart thing to do," he said. "You still have to deal with the consequences of the day after."

Manheim said that many of the same officials who led the first Persian Gulf war are also at the helm of this conflict and using the lessons they learned previously.

"One lesson they took was that there's not a tremendous esprit de corps in the Iraqi military," he said. "If you can give them an incentive [to surrender], it's probably an effective use of rhetoric."

Still, even those who work in psyops are careful not to overstate its role.

"We have a saying," Abel said, "that the most impressive psychological operation is a B-52 strike."

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