The men with laptops sat around an unadorned conference table, chatting amicably about their plans and operations.
The scene on the newly launched Al Zawraa satellite television channel could have been footage from the boardroom of any company, if it weren’t for the ski masks the men wore and the subject of the meeting: future mortar attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq.
The renegade, pro-insurgent Al Zawraa channel, with a 24-hour diet of propaganda against U.S. forces and the Iraqi government, has become something of a sensation throughout the country. It has drawn condemnation from U.S. officials, Iraqi politicians and Friday prayer leaders.
Most hours of the day it plays footage of U.S. soldiers in Iraq being shot and blown up in insurgent attacks, often with religious chants or Saddam Hussein-era nationalist anthems in the background. There are segments warning Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to be wary of Shiite Muslims, and occasional English-language commentary and subtitles clearly meant to demoralize U.S. troops.
“Your new enlisting qualifications are kind of comical,” an announcer says in slightly accented American English, over an image of a U.S. soldier in a field hospital, a bandage on his newly amputated arm. “I mean, what are you doing? Thirty-nine years old? That’s the new age of recruiting? Are you recruiting nannies? I guess if we are patient, we might witness crippled people enlisting for the Marines.”
The station attempts to present an alternative to images of the war appearing in U.S. and other Iraqi media. It shows footage of Americans abusing Iraqis and Baghdad government officials collaborating with the “occupier.” Even Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911,” the 2004 documentary critical of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, gets drawn into the commentary.
“After all, there are honest guys in America,” the announcer says in comments directed at President Bush. “If Mr. Moore can talk to you like that, so can I.”
It’s not clear how big an Iraqi audience Al Zawraa captures. But its very presence demonstrates the insurgency’s abilities. Despite 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and intense diplomatic pressure on Iraq’s neighbors, the station is able to circumvent U.S. and Iraqi forces and stage round-the-clock broadcasts, complete with news bulletins, graphics and commentary.
Al Zawraa started out several months ago as an aboveground hard-line Sunni channel, but it was shut down by the Iraqi government Nov. 5, the day Hussein received the death penalty. Iraqi police raided the station’s headquarters after broadcasts criticized the verdict.
At the time, Mishaan Jaburi, a member of parliament said to be behind the station, disputed the sanction.
“If Saddam had ordered the killing of some hundreds of Iraqi people, the current officials in Baghdad deserve 1,000 death sentences because they cause the daily killing of more than those killed by Saddam,” Jaburi, who has been accused of embezzling state funds, told the Associated Press from Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had warned stations in July not to broadcast footage that would jeopardize the nation’s stability. But the attempt to stifle Al Zawraa backfired. It quickly reemerged as an underground station with violent, no-holds-barred content clearly meant to incite Sunnis.
Broadcast staples include images of U.S. soldiers manhandling Iraqi women, photos from the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and footage of Iraqi children burned and injured in alleged U.S. attacks.
The station also loops shaky, slow-motion footage of U.S. vehicles being blown up and American soldiers, often in crosshairs, crumpling to the ground after being shot by snipers.
One question-and-answer segment with insurgents shows them installing Katyusha rocket launchers on cars and assembling weapons to fire rocket-propelled grenades.
“And you still using this tactic?” the announcer asks.
“Oh yes. With the will of God, we will never give up,” an insurgent replies.
Al Zawraa announcers dispute U.S. casualty statistics. They insist that instead of nearly 3,000 American soldiers killed, the death toll is closer, as one said, to “30,000 miserable, poor nobodies who you have convinced that they will win a scholarship after a tiny tour in a little place called Iraq.”
They attempt to portray the insurgency as a powerful force to be reckoned with for years to come. “There will be no negotiating,” an announcer states. “For us, it’s straight and simple. We are fighting for our religion and for our soil. We will fight you while you are packing. We will fight you while you are sleeping. We will fight you as you are evacuating your last soldier.”
Some of the images of Americans being attacked are available on the Web and in video shops in Iraq. Some U.S. military officers shrug off Al Zawraa, saying it rarely broadcasts anything new.
Some viewers acknowledge the station’s sectarian biases but say it’s no different from other new Iraqi channels beholden to political blocs.
“Al Zawraa is not serving the interest of the Iraqi people,” said Zaid Farooq, a 33-year-old Baghdad electrical engineer. “They are saying bad things about the government. But we can’t blame Al Zawraa when there are other channels like Al Iraqiya,” the state-owned station.
Though Al Zawraa rarely praises or shows footage of the many insurgent attacks on Iraqi civilians and security forces, it’s the station’s sectarian agenda that most irks the Shiite-dominated government. After Iraqis held a reconciliation conference Saturday meant to heal wounds between Sunnis and Shiites, the station quickly broadcast denunciations of the meeting by the Muslim Scholars Assn., a leading Sunni clerical group.
A recent segment showed Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr sitting among a group of clerics and ordering an unseen person to “send them in there as soldiers,” a suggestion that his men had infiltrated the security forces and were taking part in death-squad operations against Sunnis.
An announcer alleged that Sadr, a critic of U.S. policies here, had stopped his fight against the Americans and was now focusing his efforts against Sunnis.
Iraqi government efforts to track down the renegade station have come to naught. No one’s quite sure where it broadcasts from or even who is behind it. Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie and a senior U.S. military official said it was broadcasting from somewhere near the Kurdish city of Irbil at one point and recently signed a distribution deal with the Egyptian satellite company NileSat.
There are indications that the Iraqi government is still looking for Al Zawraa. Police in the Sunni city of Hawija near Kirkuk raided the home of another member of Jaburi’s parliamentary bloc Sunday, arresting him and two others on unspecified security charges.
Times staff writers Solomon Moore and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.