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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Ruled by Rumors in Iraq

After years of often fabricated information under Saddam Hussein, many in the country will believe almost anything about the U.S.

June 05, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq -- Ali Karim is furious. He was told that President Bush wants the U.S. Army to kick everyone out of their homes, force them to live in tents and turn this volatile community west of Baghdad into a military camp.

Hussein Ali is angry too. He heard talk about America's plan to install a king to rule Iraq. "Most of the people think that America will install a king because it is beneficial to Americans," said Ali, 40, who owns a coffee shop. "We all oppose that. A lot of people will resist."

Both men have grown to hate the Americans occupying their country, in part because they believe what they have heard.

After nearly three decades in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where information was a tool the government used to help control the public, rumors remain a powerful force. Even as independent television, radio and newspapers are launched, there is a news vacuum that has helped give rumors nearly unprecedented credibility on the street.

With people hungry for clarity about the present and desperate for information about the future, rumors are frequently received as truth. But whether mundane or bizarre, street talk can cause very real problems. Rumors are fueling unrealistic expectations, undermining public confidence in the ability of the U.S. to rebuild the nation and riling an already agitated public.

It seems that the more outrageous the rumor, the more perilous the consequence.

In this conservative Sunni stronghold, for example, rumors spread that U.S. soldiers were using their night-vision goggles to spy on Muslim women. There were other stories of soldiers handing pornography to children. Irate Iraqis took to the streets, in part because of the rumors, in a wild demonstration in April that ended with U.S. troops fatally shooting at least 14 of them after soldiers say they were fired upon.

"These rumors affect the people in a negative way," said Hamza Abbas Khalif, 49, a local baker who said he really isn't sure what to believe. "They push people to use their weapons against Americans."

Of course, the power of rumors is hardly unique to Iraq. Rumors have ruined reputations, sparked riots and undermined products the world over.

But in recent times, rumors have taken on added value in the Middle East, where angry and cynical populations are especially susceptible to outlandish ideas.

It is still widely held, for instance, that 4,000 Jews fled the World Trade Center before the Sept. 11 attacks. Before that, several Muslim leaders called for a ban on Pokemon products, based on a rumor that they were part of a Jewish conspiracy aimed at Muslim children.

But Iraq may stand alone in the way it institutionalized the study and use of rumors. Hussein clearly viewed them as a tool of power. His security services monitored and collected them. His intelligence services fabricated and spread them, according to former agents of his government and documents from that period.

Maan Izzat, 62, was an editor in the Ministry of Information. Every day without fail, Izzat said, Hussein would receive a report with details of the most prevalent rumors, as well as political jokes. That was his way of keeping his finger on the pulse of the people, and of knowing when to get tough.

"I can tell you," he said, "the existence of the former regime was dependent on their knowing the rumors. What are the people thinking? It was very important for them to know what was in the minds of Iraqis.... Saddam was there because he knew what the Iraqi people were thinking."

Rumors, power and control were inextricably intertwined, recalled Hani Samaraai, a specialist in character analysis who said he worked for the Iraqi intelligence service from 1982 until 1986 before turning to careers in business and art. The service often went to great lengths to spread ideas that would help the Hussein government, he said.

"The rumors were created ... to pacify the volcano of the people," he said. "They tried to create rumors that appeared to be negative but would have a positive effect for the government."

He said the government, for example, would start a rumor campaign telling people they would receive larger amounts of free food every month. Even if it didn't happen, the government's theory was that people would hold onto the hope anyway.

Izzat recalled one day in 1995 when a friend who worked for military intelligence stopped by his house and asked if he would come to the bar at the Meridian Hotel for conversation.

"I said, 'Why are we doing this?' " Izzat recalled. "He said, 'Don't ask.' "

When they sat at the bar, Izzat said, his friend spoke to him in a loud, almost exaggerated voice. The topic was politics and the idea was to start a rumor. After some time, they made the 15-minute drive back to their neighborhood.

"We drove back and we heard people repeating the rumor," Izzat said in an interview in his living room. "That is how powerful rumors are."

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