Military’s ‘Weapon of Mass Persuasion’

Times Staff Writer

When 17 Iraqi soldiers crossed the Kuwaiti border and surrendered Wednesday, it was hardly a mass defection. But U.S. military commanders hope it’s the start of an exodus inspired by the intense propaganda campaign they waged in the run-up to war.

With e-mails, millions of leaflets dropped from the sky and even phone calls, intelligence and psychological operations officers have been attempting to persuade Iraqi solders, and especially fighters in the elite Republican Guard, to give up.

Leading the charge is Commando Solo, a fleet of specially fitted C-130 cargo carriers bristling with sophisticated electronic equipment that has been broadcasting U.S. radio programs to enemy lands since the Vietnam War.


Daily broadcasts urge Iraqi soldiers to go home, surrender or at least hold their fire. The transmissions, beamed from the aircraft and picked up on local AM, FM and shortwave radio, start with Arabic and Western music, then segue into soothing messages about America’s good intentions and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s misdeeds.

“We are telling them we have nothing against the civilian population,” Sgt. Melvyn Noble, one of the Commando Solo team members, said in an interview this week at U.S. Central Command’s regional headquarters in Doha. All the crew members are Air National Guardsmen out of Harrisburg, Pa.

The broadcasts aimed at Iraqi soldiers aren’t subtle: They ask what point there is in defending and sacrificing on behalf of a corrupt and brutal regime that steals the nation’s wealth while the people starve.

Leaflets are another weapon. About 17 million have been dropped to date, including 2 million on Wednesday. Those contained the first specific instructions on how to surrender and urged Iraqi soldiers not to harm civilians, not to use weapons of mass destruction and not to set the nation’s oil fields afire.

One message instructed troops to surrender by parking their vehicles in a square and to stand at least a half a mile away.

Officers were told they could keep their sidearms, while other soldiers were instructed to disarm completely.


Good Track Record

It’s too soon to tell whether the campaign is working, Noble and the others say, but during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Commando Solo transmitted “Voice of the Gulf” radio, tens of thousands of Iraqis who gave up cited various propaganda as having influenced their decision, Noble said.

(To counter “Voice of the Gulf,” the Iraqi regime in 1990 launched “Baghdad Betty,” who, in the tradition of Tokyo Rose in World War II and Hanoi Hannah in Vietnam, attempted to undermine American military morale by warning soldiers of the dangers they faced, from desert madness to death at the hands of the enemy.)

Psychological operations by Commando Solo date back years. Blasting of music was used to flush out former Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, when international peacekeepers wanted to quiet radio stations that fomented ethnic hatred, Commando Solo transmissions helped jam the signals.

In Iraq this time around, the flights have been concentrated over southern Iraq but may be expanded to the Kurdistan region in the north, officers said.

Nocturnal Work

Missions are always at night. “Basically, we are looking at prime time,” said one of the pilots, a lieutenant colonel named Mike. Most of the men, who call themselves “electronic warfare officers,” did not want to give their full names because of the sensitive nature of their work.

An 850-foot spool-wire antenna drops from the belly of the carrier and amplifies Commando Solo’s 10,000-watt transmissions. The crew punches in hourlong tapes that have been prepared by specialists at Ft. Bragg, N.C., delivering the military’s spiel on a clear signal that can be heard for miles.


“We are the weapon of mass persuasion,” Mike said.


Times staff writer John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.