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Iraqi TV Targets Insurgents

Times Staff Writer

A distraught mother, dressed in black, stares into a TV camera and declares, “I smashed the terrorist” with a shoe. “He killed my son.”

The camera then focuses on the alleged murderer, Mohammed Adnan, who is facing both the grieving woman and her sobbing grandson.

The teenage boy says that Adnan, whose left eye appears swollen, was dressed as a police officer when he came to their home last fall and took away his father, who was never seen again.

The professional-looking videotape, which began airing recently on the government-owned Al Iraqiya television network, is among the more dramatic in an ongoing series of insurgent “confession” videos that have galvanized Baghdad.

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The one-hour tapes constitute a sort of reality TV whose aim is to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Aired twice a day, they serve as a counterpoint to the now-familiar images shot by insurgents of cowering hostages and beheadings. They are also a centerpiece of an intense government campaign designed to convince an edgy population that the fledgling government and its hard-hit security forces are making Iraq safer.

“Terrorism in the Grip of Justice” is the title of the series, which began airing shortly before Iraq’s national election Jan. 30. While it’s not clear just how truthful the videos are, the provocative images seem to bolster skeptical Iraqis’ confidence in a government often assailed as ineffective against lawlessness and violence.

“It’s a good thing because it makes me feel there is a working government developing day by day and that the security situation is improving,” said Fadwa Khalifa, a 22-year-old college student in Baghdad. “But I also fear that it all may be a lie.”

The video clips are a big hit in entertainment-starved Iraq, where safe pastimes are few. Venturing out to a park can expose one to car bombs, kidnappings, drive-by shootings or other perils. There’s not even the need for an expensive satellite TV to catch the videos, which air on the workaday government-run channel, accessible to anyone with a television set and a cheap antenna.

The program’s popularity has not been lost on the insurgents, who have launched a public relations counteroffensive denouncing the tapes as a hoax and threatening in pamphlets to impose “God’s justice” on employees of the government-funded network.

Raeda Wazan, a reporter for a sister station of Al Iraqiya in the northern city of Mosul, was kidnapped Feb. 20 and later killed. It is unclear if her abduction was related to the airing of the tapes, but her husband said a note denouncing her as a “traitor” was found pinned to her body.

Despite the killing, Al Iraqiya officials have pledged that they will not succumb to intimidation. “Showing these terrorist videotapes is a moral commitment for us to the Iraqi people,” said Karim Humadi, news director for Al Iraqiya.

There is no immediate way to verify the information broadcast or determine how much of the “confessions” are coerced or invented. U.S. officials say they have nothing to do with the tapes, generally shown in Baghdad at midday and repeated in the evening. In Washington, an intelligence official said that analysts couldn’t “rule in or rule out” the claims on such tapes but that they didn’t view them as a major windfall.

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Martial music and images of mosques and other holy sites are interspersed with scenes of violence at the beginning of each broadcast. The Shiite Muslim call to prayer accompanies the opening of the daytime showing; the slightly different Sunni version of the prayer plays at night.

Most episodes have been shot in violence-plagued Mosul, where an enterprising commander of an Iraqi Interior Ministry force known as the “Wolf Brigade” serves as host.

“The Wolf Brigade found the terrorists in their den,” the commander, sporting three stars on his epaulets and identified only by his nickname, Abul Waleed, proclaimed proudly during a recent show.

“We caught these terrorists without firing a bullet,” Waleed says at one point. “We didn’t destroy the city like the Americans did in Fallouja.... This is purely an Iraqi operation.”

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The Wolf Brigade is one of several Iraqi counterinsurgency units hurriedly dispatched to Mosul late last year as rebels made a bid to overrun the city. Mosul’s roadways and lots were littered in November with the corpses of insurgents’ victims, usually Iraqi security men, translators and others deemed to be collaborators with U.S. forces and the American-backed interim government. Most of the city’s 4,000-member police force walked off the job.

Rules of evidence and warnings against self-incrimination don’t appear to be much of an issue, as Iraqis remain glued to their screens while emotionless insurgents speak of serial beheadings and other atrocities. The program occasionally switches from confessions to insurgents’ tapes of the same beheading or other form of killing.

“They should hang these criminals in the Baghdad city center,” said Karim Zubeidi, 47, a government employee in the capital and an aficionado of the TV series.

Though many view the episodes in stunned fascination, some watch specifically to seek information on loved ones who have joined the growing ranks of the disappeared.

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The banality of the cold-blooded murder has also struck a chord with many Iraqis fearful that their country has gone terribly astray.

As one suspect speaks calmly of beheadings, confederates sometimes sit in the background listening with interest, like businessmen taking in sales techniques.

In one video, purported insurgents say one after another that they were paid by Syrian intelligence and trained in Syria and Pakistan. The Syrian government has denied any involvement.

In the same tape, a man identified as an insurgent explains matter-of-factly how he and his colleagues slaughtered animals as practice for their grisly tasks. Another says his group kidnapped and raped women in Mosul as a form of intimidation.

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Yet another prisoner speaks about the need to perform a certain number of beheadings before being considered by insurgent chiefs as an emir, or prince, the equivalent of a cell leader. It was a steady job, he says, and paid as much as $30,000 a month to the top operatives. Others received a paltry $200 for a hit, he adds.

Those confessing often say they didn’t know the true identities of many of their confederates and superiors. Cells were divided into teams -- kidnap specialists, execution squads, bomb makers and even media-savvy associates responsible for photographing the insurgents’ handiwork and producing images for Web postings.

Many on the tapes say they were engaging in religiously acceptable jihad. Interrogators react with indignation, as do the relatives of the dead.

To demonstrate the authenticity of the programs, authorities in Mosul gathered a motley lineup of suspects against a cinder block wall in a video aired Tuesday. Civilians described as family members of the dead were brought to confront the detainees.

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“This is the killer of my son,” a sobbing mother in black announces, tapping a bearded man on his left shoulder.

“You are an animal!” continues the mother, clutching a black and white photo of her son, identified only as “the hero Bashar,” in her left hand. “You are the dregs of society! You have burned my heart! May God burn your heart! What kind of religion do you have?”

Soon, the alleged insurgent is himself sobbing, evidently shamed by the mother’s indictment.

Later, the mother explains that the family had been watching the series for possible news of her son’s slaying. When a man admitted the killing of a “Bashar,” the family, she said, contacted authorities.

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Several other black-clad mothers clutching snapshots of their sons likewise curse the bearded men identified as insurgents. The camera finally shifts to a panorama of people described as relatives of the dead, gathered in a group, all bearing snapshots of slain men and women. Some display their loved ones’ tattered identity cards.

The scene was reminiscent of those involving the mothers of the disappeared from the so-called dirty wars of Latin America in the 1970s and ‘80s.

In another video, officials bring a “terrorist” to face the family of Samir Mohammed Haider, a father of seven who authorities said was slain last fall.

Adnan, the alleged killer, was a former second lieutenant in the Mosul police, authorities said. The Mosul force, like many here, experienced sizable insurgent infiltration.

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Adnan had made his own purported confession some days earlier; the victim’s son, watching the scenes on TV like so many Iraqis, was stunned to recognize the suspect as the policeman who had come to his home one day in October.

“This is the man who came to our door and asked for my father,” the son tells the camera, before breaking into tears.

The victim’s mother explains the welt above Adnan’s left eye, making clear that it was not the authorities who beat the accused.

“Just for the record,” she says, “it was I who hit him.”

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On Tuesday, the commander of the Wolf Brigade said all suspects would be turned over to Iraqi judges. On camera, some have asked to be put to death for their crimes. It is a wish that may soon be granted.

“These terrorists committed horrible crimes on a scale you will see nowhere else in the world,” Waleed assured viewers. “The law will not be merciful with them.”

Times staff writers Bob Drogin in Washington, Raheem Salman, Said Rifai and Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Mosul contributed to this report.


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