- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqis not only got to vote in multiparty elections yesterday for the first time in 50 years. They also got to watch themselves do it on television and hear instant analysis from their countrymen.

Emerging from the strict government censorship and control of the media under former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq now has three well-funded television networks in addition to dozens of low-budget TV stations controlled by political parties.

Those stations yesterday offered nonstop coverage of the balloting from around the country as well as commentary from around the world.

Al Sharqiya, a popular Iraqi satellite television station, cut from live coverage from the streets of Baghdad to footage of the elections in Basra and Mosul — where local athletes urged city residents to vote — and back to the convention center in Baghdad, where Iraqi officials held press conferences and government VIPs cast their ballots.

“This day means to me that candles burn for all of Iraq’s martyrs,” said Ibrahim Jaffari, head of the Shi’ite Dawa Party, in one interview. “They didn’t sacrifice for nothing.”

Television also became a way for Iraqis to connect with their countrymen living abroad. Al Sharqiya, for example, showed scenes of jubilant Iraqi Christians wearing traditional outfits as they cast ballots in Detroit.

Local television became a forum for ordinary Iraqis to express their emotions to their compatriots. During a call-in show on Al Iraqiya, a government-financed television station, a man who identified himself as Sameer from Nasiriyah excitedly exhorted “all honorable Iraqis” to get out and vote.

“Today is a wedding for all Iraqis,” he said, as the screen showed scenes of Shi’ites in the slums of Sadr City chanting religious songs as they headed home from the polls.

Al Fayha, a new Iraqi satellite television station that is gaining in popularity, spent much of the day broadcasting scenes of joyous Iraqis going to the polls while taking calls from Iraqis in the diaspora.

In the lead-up to the election, Al Sharqiya played nonstop advertisements urging Iraqis to take part in the vote. “Kurd and Arab and Sunni and Shi’ite will never betray their country,” said an ad produced by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

Candidates on all 111 tickets in yesterday’s election had been given free two-minute slots to present their platforms on Al Iraqiya.

The impact was necessarily limited, with about 70 percent of Iraqis owning televisions, but electricity turned off for hours every day.

But even so, a caller from Sweden yesterday praised the Iraqi television stations as an alternative to the negative tone set by Arab news channels based in the Persian Gulf — which are perceived by many as too sympathetic to the insurgency.

“This is a victory for all Iraqi people,” said Taha al-Basri, “and for all channels in Iraq against Al Jazeera and all the other terrorist channels.”

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