The World

Rumors Thrive in a Nation Shaped by Myth

The U.S. is struggling with an information war as well as a shooting war in Iraq. Many civilians think troops are behind insurgent violence.

April 27, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Hussein Ramadan sells synthetic flowers in Baghdad. He doesn't trust the United States.

"These car bombs are mostly done by Americans," he said. "When they are searching you [at a checkpoint], one is putting an explosive device in the car. Then they will chase the car, and as soon as he goes into a populated area, it will blow up. This is what has happened, not in all cases but some."

Iraq is awhirl in rumors.

Amid fires in the night and mortar rounds pounding city and village, this nation, where so much is uncertain, feeds on the half-truths and conspiracies that U.S. forces are struggling to contain in what has become an information war. The gossip on the street and the grisly images flickering across Arab television are doing as much to undermine American authority as well-armed insurgents staging ambushes on desert highways.

Reality is pliable and truth is altered to serve agendas in a society where stories, myths and superstitions have shaped public discourse for centuries.

For example, insurgents in Samarra, north of Baghdad, recently fired rocket-propelled grenades at what they thought was an Iraqi police station. The building turned out to be a water-purification plant. The blasts released chlorine into the air and sickened dozens of people. But people heard a different story: U.S. forces had sneaked weapons of mass destruction into Iraq and were using poisons against civilians.

"The rumors are really the problem of the Americans," said Hashim Ihsan, editor of Kawkab, a Baghdad newspaper. "The U.S. gave us freedom of speech but nothing else, so all many Iraqis can do is invent rumors to cope with the anxieties and fears in these dark times."

U.S. forces and the American-backed Iraqi Governing Council are countering street rumors and what they say is biased reporting by Al Jazeera and other Arabic television stations with fliers, town meetings, radio announcements, news conferences and a TV channel of their own. But the U.S. message is viewed with skepticism by Iraqis who find it difficult to understand why a country that overthrew Saddam Hussein in 19 days can't provide them with round-the-clock electricity.

Frustration leads to grumbling and talk of conspiracy: The electrical shortages are part of a secret policy by Americans and Jews to take Iraq's oil. U.S. officials acknowledge that it's tough winning over an angry tribal population so easily transfixed by exaggeration.

"The Iraqis are living in an information vacuum," said Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment of the 1st Marine Division, which has encircled the city of Fallouja. "They're existing on rumors."

The city, where scores of U.S. troops and 700 Iraqis have died in recent weeks, is a battleground of spin control. Insurgents tell residents that the U.S. is trying to destroy Islam, and American forces use loudspeakers to broadcast insults in Arabic, such as "Come out and fight like men" instead of hiding behind women and children.

For decades under Hussein, Iraqis lived in a country perverted by propaganda. Little was known about the outside world or the dealings of the government. The people's mood was controlled by innuendo planted by Iraqi intelligence operatives and by shreds of vague information that spread through alleys and boulevards. This created a parallel reality, which at its most outlandish featured last year's televised proclamation by Mohammed Said Sahaf, then Iraq's information minister, that U.S. forces were not in Baghdad, even as gunfire from advancing troops rang out behind him.

Street gossip is merging with a new phenomenon: satellite TV. Satellite dishes symbolized the end of Hussein's regime and brought the unfolding of events into living rooms. Live broadcasts by Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language channels show what is happening in Iraq, from kidnappings to suicide bombings to gun battles between American troops and insurgents. U.S. forces claim that these outlets have stepped beyond the boundaries of news gathering and are inciting uprisings and sabotaging efforts to build a democratic Iraq.

On a visit to the Middle East this month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said he "didn't have enough fingers and toes" to count what Washington considers to be Al Jazeera's numerous inaccuracies.

Al Jazeera is often first on the scene of a story. Its breathless commentary and images of dead Iraqi civilians undercut the U.S. message that the occupation is improving the country. The bloodshed the channel shows sometimes offers an eerie counterbalance to assessments by Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, who has described battles between insurgents and U.S. forces as "upticks" in violence.

Hamida Smaysam, dean of media studies at Baghdad University, said: "Everyone is watching Al Jazeera and other Arab TV stations. There's a war of information going on, and the Americans have not been able to fill the gap.

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