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Media : Iraqis Plugging In to Youth TV : Racy rock videos, American TV shows keep viewers glued to the screen. The man behind the venture--Saddam Hussein's son.

August 03, 1993|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAGHDAD, Iraq — At precisely 3 o'clock one mid-July afternoon, millions of television sets throughout Saddam Hussein's isolated, sanctions-bound Iraq lit up with a colorful new logo and a revolutionary new theme.

"Salaam aleikum, " the young Iraqi announcer declared, Western pop music blaring in the background, "and welcome to Youth TV."

What followed here in one of the world's most tightly controlled societies was so incongruous that literally millions of Iraqis now have their eyes riveted daily to Iraqi TV's new Channel Two, where racy rock videos fill the afternoon and evening programming has featured such American TV hits as the Bruce Willis vehicle "Moonlighting."

There's a regular evening dose of professional wrestling from Madison Square Garden. Oliver Stone's epic "J.F.K." anchored the station's debut. And in contrast to the staid evening news on Channel One, heavily steeped in regime propaganda, Youth TV's 9 p.m. newscast begins with only the briefest of mentions of Hussein's latest pronouncements before cutting to unedited world news footage snatched from passing satellites. Even locally produced round-table debates are often critical of corruption and mismanagement in Iraqi government ministries.

Through all this, there was just one moment of real panic: A graphic scene of sexual intercourse in an Arabic film titled "Dreammakers" somehow evaded the government censors. But the new station's director merely apologized the next day in his equally popular daily newspaper, "Babel," and all appeared well again at the cutting edge of Iraq's neo-modernist movement.

Youth TV's director does, after all, have a familiar name: Uday Hussein. He is the elder son and potential political heir to Iraq's iron-fisted 58-year-old leader, Saddam.

In fact, Uday's latest enterprise is but one of a series of sophisticated new ventures by the leader of the regime's next generation designed to deflect dissent and reconnect Iraq's increasingly disillusioned and alienated youth both to the government and to the outside world.

It is also part of a campaign by the 28-year-old former playboy and one-time accused felon to build his own personal prestige and cultivate a youthful, progressive image that will bring renewed support from a generation of Iraqis suffering deeply from sanctions-driven hyper-inflation, international isolation and nouveau poverty.

"This new Youth TV is in a framework of Uday's campaign to raise his prestige--maybe for the future--and picture himself as a democrat," observed one veteran diplomat in Baghdad. "It's really a big step. It's very close to European programming. And it's just one of many things Uday is doing to try to change his image and that of the regime."

Indeed, under the auspices of the Iraqi Olympic Committee and its Youth Commission--both of which he chairs--the elder of Saddam Hussein's two sons has in recent months also launched a similarly hip rock radio station--"Voice of the Youth," which features the latest American and European pop, heavy metal and jazz, as well as a shrieking ghost named Casper who occasionally breaks in with news of the latest government scandal.

A few weeks ago, Uday also sponsored the first of a series of Friday stock car and motorcycle races--a weekly gathering in the blistering summer heat on the outskirts of Baghdad that pits the bravest of Iraq's motoring daredevils in afternoon competitions later aired on his new station.

And Uday's role as chief patron of the Iraqi soccer team--now considered among the world's best and a contender for a World Cup berth that would all but ensure a trip to the finals in California next year--has won him additional support from a generation desperate for distractions and glimpses of the outside world.

But for all his high-profile projects, Uday Hussein remains publicly elusive and intensely private. He shuns interviews with the foreign press. He avoids public appearances; he watched a recent Friday's races from behind the tinted windows of his black, bulletproof BMW parked near the track.

Typical of a rare Uday sighting was a recent evening at a fashionable new Baghdad restaurant, the Green Palace, where he reportedly showered the band with hundreds of Iraqi dinars and gave the owner a pistol for his fine service.

Diplomats and Iraqi intellectuals speculate that much of Uday's aloofness rests in the legacy of his own youth.

In 1989, Uday spent several weeks in jail after he killed his father's favorite bodyguard and valet, Kamel Hanna. Although versions of the widely publicized case vary wildly, the case threw Uday into open conflict with his father, who furiously and publicly vowed to prosecute his son to the full extent of the law after he allegedly beat Hanna to death with a club while in a drunken rage.

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