Waging war on the airwaves


Radio: Stations backed by the CIA or U.S. military are trying to woo Iraqis with disinformation and other messages.

April 09, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

For the millions of ordinary Iraqis following the war by radio, figuring out what's really happening must be confoundingly difficult.

Official Iraqi radio and TV broadcasts have aired fevered calls for jihad, holy war, to drive out U.S. and British forces, along with accounts of imaginary Iraqi military victories.

But competing with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime are a host of opposition broadcasters, most of them organized or financed by the CIA and U.S. military. They, too, have broadcast disinformation, including premature reports of Hussein's death.

"The level of propaganda broadcasting we're seeing today really is `shock and awe' on the airwaves," says Nick Grace, a Web producer in Silver Spring who in his spare time helps run ClandestineRadio.com, which tracks unofficial broadcasts worldwide.

His network of volunteer listeners includes Arabic speakers in Tunisia and Egypt who closely follow the propaganda wars in Iraq.

Opposition radio

The anti-Hussein broadcasters include U.S. government-financed operations such as Radio Free Iraq, which works from the Prague, Czech Republic, headquarters of the Cold War stations Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

Less conventional but also clearly labeled is "Information Radio," U.S. military broadcasts from EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft and portable transmitters, part of a program of psychological operations or "psyops."

The messages resemble those on the astonishing 40 million leaflets - about two apiece for every Iraqi man, woman and child - dropped from U.S. planes or handed out on the street. Iraqi soldiers are advised not to fight.

Civilians are told that the Americans will liberate them from their oppressors.

Murky affiliations

The cacophony of voices includes at least five more broadcasting operations that do not fully reveal their location, financing and affiliations on the air.

Some speak for Iraqi opposition groups; all are believed by monitors to have ties to U.S. or British intelligence, Grace says.

According to monitors for ClandestineRadio.com and another tracking site, the Finland-based dxing.info, the oldest of the stations is the Voice of the Iraqi People, which uses transmitters in Saudi Arabia and first was heard in 1991.

In addition to broadcasting U.S. psyops messages, the station has aired such scoops as a 1990 tape purportedly of Hussein and his top generals discussing plans for the invasion of Kuwait, says Grace.

From Kuwait

Three stations appear to broadcast from 50 kilowatt transmitters in Kuwait allegedly controlled by the CIA, Grace says.

Their Arabic names mean "The Future" (first heard in 1996 and associated with the Iraqi National Accord, a group of Iraqi defectors), "Two Rivers" (appeared in 2001) and "Radio Tikrit," named for Hussein's hometown.

Most intriguing is Radio Tikrit, which debuted in early February with pro-Hussein rhetoric before gradually adding content bitterly opposed to the regime, says Tarek Zeidan, an Egyptian oil company worker who listens for ClandestineRadio.com. The evident goal was to draw Iraqi listeners with a safe message - and then coax them into opposing the regime.

Radio Tikrit's broadcasts seem specifically targeted at members of Hussein's Baath Party, featuring reports on Baath leaders executed after falling out of favor with Hussein. DXers - hobbyists who listen to distant radio stations - speculate that its horoscopes may contain coded messages for U.S. agents inside Iraq.

Enlisted troops

A fifth station, calling itself "Voice of the Liberation of Iraq," was first heard Feb. 21, broadcasting from the Kurd-controlled north of Iraq on frequencies also used by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

"It plays martial music and seems to be aimed at enlisted soldiers," Grace says.

Like the leaflets - some of which, Arabic speakers say, were written in oddly antiquated language - the radio broadcasts are uneven.

"Information Radio," says Zeidan, the Egyptian listener, "plays lots of cheerful songs while bombs are falling all over Iraqi heads. I don't get it."

A warning

Listeners to the usually pro-American Two Rivers Radio were shocked March 22 to hear a man who sounded like an Iraqi Shiite declare: "Well, today or tomorrow you may see Iraqis happy with the Americans coming to free them from Saddam. But if the Americans are here to replace him with a clown of their own, and do not switch Iraq from a country ruled by dictator into a democratic nation - like they did with Germany and Japan after WWII - I swear to Allah, Iraq will be their grave!"

Was the outburst a calculated attempt to remain credible by seeming to distance the station from the United States? Or did an announcer simply take the opportunity to speak his mind? There's no way to be certain.

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