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WAR WITH IRAQ / COVERING THE CONFLICT

Iraqi Station Down, Not Out

The U.S. hits Baghdad's broadcast center twice, but the state channel is shakily resilient.

March 26, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The United States bombed Iraqi television broadcast facilities in central Baghdad on Tuesday evening in an attempt to knock a persistent symbol of the regime's defiance off the air, officials said.

The strikes, part of a wave of blasts that shook the city, came after a series of televised appearances by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and other officials in recent days, as well as broadcasts of images of captured or slain U.S. soldiers.

A U.S. intelligence official said the strikes reflect a new decision by military commanders to disable Iraqi television for the duration of the war. "They were planning on interrupting programming," the official said.

But it was unclear whether that goal had been achieved. Reports from Baghdad said Iraqi television was knocked off the air for a portion of the evening, but that the signal was restored around midnight Baghdad time. An official at Iraq's television station blamed a "technical problem in the transmitters" for the blackout.

A second wave of bombing was reported several hours later, and a witness said the Iraqi TV building was in flames and destroyed. However, broadcasts resumed in Baghdad this morning -- with a shaky picture and no sound.

A U.S. intelligence official noted that U.S. warplanes had to strike Iraqi transmitters repeatedly in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 because Iraq had backup equipment and was able to restore programming even after multiple bombings.

In recent days, the TV broadcasts have served as a symbol of the regime's ability to survive coalition airstrikes, reinforcing the government's message that it is still functioning and that the war is far from lost.

On Tuesday, at least four senior Iraqi officials appeared on state-run TV, often taunting U.S. and British leaders.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf called the invading forces mercenaries engaged in "cowardly" air raids on civilian districts. Alluding to the so-called shock and awe bombing campaign, Sahaf touted Iraqi resistance, saying, "Now the shock is on them."

Iraqi TV has shown images of captured U.S. soldiers, as well as at least two appearances by Hussein, in recent days.

The decision to leave the TV system intact for the first five days of the bombing campaign had baffled some current and former military officials.

"It's hard to understand," said a retired military officer who was among the senior commanders in the Gulf War. In that conflict, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, the military ordered strikes on Iraqi television the first day of bombing because it was seen as a way to sow confusion and deliver a psychological blow to the regime. Privately, officials said the main reason Iraqi television hadn't been targeted is because of concern for civilian casualties. Iraqi broadcasts originate from the Ministry of Information building in the center of Baghdad, a facility frequented by foreign journalists.

Satellite images of the city show broadcast towers near dense neighborhoods.

U.S. "Commando Solo" aircraft used to jam signals had had some success hijacking Iraqi radio programming, but aren't powerful enough to overcome the television transmissions, experts said.

Pentagon officials also said the U.S. military might need to use the television system to communicate with the Iraqi people in the aftermath of war.

"If you blow it up, you're going to lose all connectivity with the Iraqi people, and you're going to lose it when you most need it," a Pentagon official said. But other officials said it would be relatively easy for the U.S. to restore broadcast capability.

The television broadcasts also had intelligence value.

The CIA looked to Hussein's recent TV appearances for evidence that he survived last week's strikes. Though the possibly pre-taped segments are inconclusive, intelligence officials are increasingly convinced he is still alive.

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Times staff writer John Daniszewski in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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