Thursday, May 6, 2004

The shameful pictures of U.S. soldiers humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners were the final straw for Margaret D. Tutwiler. Moved out of her post as ambassador to Morocco last December to become undersecretary of state for public affairs, Miss Tutwiler was instructed to spruce up the Bush administration’s image in the Arab world in particular and the Muslim world in general.

It took her only four months to conclude this was mission impossible. She was the third “image” czarina to come a cropper in three years. Competing against the Qatar-based Al Jazeera and Dubai-based Al Arabiya and their coverage of the occupation of Iraq gave Miss Tutwiler about the same chance of success as going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

The U.S.-funded Al Hurra channel ($60 million seed money plus $40 million added by Congress to reach 80 percent of Iraq’s population with over-air transmitters) quickly lost its luster with the siege of Fallujah seen from inside the city on rival networks. The final straw for U.S. credibility were still pictures of the sadistic indignities inflicted by American military policemen on some of the 4,000 prisoners in Baghdad’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison that previously contained Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers.

Under an $82.3 million contract awarded to San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), the Iraqi Media Network, a second U.S. venture dubbed Al Iraqiya, took over the former regime’s state-owned television network.

But even before Fallujah and the incriminating pictures, the network was struggling against Iran-sponsored networks that moved into Iraq as soon as the Saddam Hussein regime fell — lock, stock and satellite networks.

For the past year, Al Jazeera — later joined by Al Arabiya — broadcast 24/7 in Arabic and blanketed the Arab world from Marrakech to Muscat. They have long supplanted CNN, FOX, CBNC and the venerable BBC (the Beeb) and offer unrelenting video of “collateral” damage in the form of dead women and children, or women and children alive but bleeding from wounds inflicted by U.S. bombs and bullets. Their people-in-the-street interviews recount hair-raising tales of American cruelty juxtaposed with U.S. soldiers breaking into homes and finding nothing except terrified women and children.

An American female soldier mugging for the camera as she pointed to the genitals of a hooded Iraqi in the buff established Al Jazeera’s credentials in the Arab world as the voice of truth.

These Arabic channels have some 40 crews between them and staff every major city. From inside Fallujah, besieged by U.S. Marines, they broadcast live from bombed-out buildings, damaged mosques and an overcrowded hospital.

Al Jazeera receives videotapes from time to time from Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri, which they edit before airing. U.S. requests for the original, uncut, raw tapes go unanswered.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has appealed directly to the rulers of Qatar to curb the excesses of Al Jazeera, the network the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, launched with a $90 million subsidy. But the emir keeps repeating he believes in freedom of the press and Al Jazeera enjoys total freedom.

But the network still gets an annual subsidy of some $30 million from the Qatari government. The satellite network’s talking heads criticize conservative regimes from the Gulf to North Africa. But Qatar’s 4,000-strong ruling Al Thani family remains off limits.

Miss Tutwiler recently accepted a senior position with the New York Stock Exchange. Burnishing NYSE’s tarnished image is duck soup next to what Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak described as a level of anti-Americanism never seen or felt before.

And that was before the prison debacle that prompted France’s Le Monde to publish a Page One cartoon that showed a U.S. military boot crushing the head of an Iraqi prisoner while the American tells him, “Repeat after me: DE-MO-CRA-CY.”

U.S. prestige has steadily dwindled since the September 11, 2001, aerial attacks against New York and Washington. Confirming the worst suspicions of the Arab world’s conspiracy theorists, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera juxtapose Israelis killing Palestinians and Americans killing Iraqis. From university professors to cabdrivers, Iraqis argue they are victims of a Judeo-Christian crusade against the Muslim world.

Long gone are the heady days of liberation from Saddam’s sadistic tyranny. The Financial Times, a newspaper read by government, academic and media elites in some 200 countries, commented, “The misjudgments of Paul Bremer and his Pentagon masters, far from steering Iraq towards freedom and democracy, have brought it to just beyond the brink of anarchy.”

Israel’s leading newspaper Ha’aretz delivered the knockout punch to the Bush administration’s image problem when Orit Shohat wrote, under the headline “Remember Fallujah,” that the U.S. was now guilty of “war crimes.”

During the first two weeks of April, the Ha’aretz story said, “the American Army committed war crimes in Fallujah on a scale unprecedented for this war. … The sight of decapitated children, the rows of dead women and the shocking pictures of the soccer stadium that was turned into a temporary grave for hundreds of the slain — all were broadcast to the world only by the Al Jazeera network. During the operation in Fallujah, according to the organization ‘Doctors Without Borders,’ U.S. Marines even occupied the hospitals and prevented hundreds of the wounded from receiving medical treatment. Snipers fired from rooftops at anyone who tried to approach.”

The article in Israel’s equivalent of the New York Times said, “The only conclusion that has been drawn thus far from the indiscriminate killing in Fallujah is the expulsion of Al Jazeera from the city. Since the start of the war, the Americans have persecuted the network’s journalists, not because they report lies, but because they are virtually the only ones who manage to report the truth. The Bush administration, in cooperation with the American media, is trying to hide the sights of war from the world, and particularly from American voters.”

The Israeli news report has been widely circulated in the Arab world — and denials, however convincing, carry no weight. The coercive utopians in Washington, from the neo-cons to the Christian Right, misled, among others, Ambassador Tutwiler. Exit Queen Tut, as she was fondly known. Her mission was indeed impossible.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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