U.S., Saudis at odds over TV station

Times Staff Writer

Outraged by video footage of bloody attacks on American troops, U.S. officials have worked for about half a year to close down a satellite television station that promotes the cause of Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgents to millions of viewers in the region.

Yet Al Zawraa is still beaming calls for violent resistance -- thanks to one of America’s most important Mideast allies, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. and Iraqi troops chased Al Zawraa television’s staff out of Iraq last year, and this year Washington pressured the Egyptians and Europeans to stop bouncing the station’s signal from their satellites. But despite pleas from Washington, the Saudi government has declined to use its influence as a major stakeholder in the satellite company Arabsat to stop the transmissions, U.S. officials say.


The Saudi refusal offers insight to the often difficult relationship between Washington and Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and the increasingly precarious American position in the Mideast. U.S. officials acknowledge that virulently anti-American attitudes are considered normal in the region, partially explaining the Saudi stance.

The station -- sometimes called “Muj TV,” a shorthand for mujahedin -- was launched in 2005 by Mishaan Jaburi, a former member of Iraq’s parliament. Jaburi fled to Syria late last year amid charges that he had embezzled millions of dollars from the Iraqi government.

Now he uses portable TV equipment in locations around Damascus, the Syrian capital, to broadcast footage of American soldiers being shot by snipers, bombarded by mortar shells and incinerated by roadside explosives.

Recently, the station began showing “Hidden Camera Jihad,” a compilation of video of attacks on U.S. troops that has appeared on Internet message boards since late 2006, according to the BBC’s monitoring service, which monitors television broadcasts from 150 countries. The Al Zawraa program includes laugh tracks, sound effects and mocking English-language captions, the BBC reported.

To many U.S. and Iraqi officials, the material is a source of anger and frustration. To the Saudis, the station represents a point of view they must acknowledge and tolerate, especially if Riyadh wants to realize its aspiration of being seen as the diplomatic leader of the Arab world, U.S. officials said.

In an Arab world aflame with anger at the United States, “you have to be opposed to the occupation if you are to be a player,” said one U.S. official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“To us, this looks like an outrage,” he said. “To them, looking at it from the regional perspective, it’s something they need to do.... This is a deep game they’re playing. But you could say there’s a method to their madness.”

Saudi officials in Washington and Riyadh didn’t respond to requests, made by telephone and e-mail, for comment on the issue. Officials of Arabsat, in Riyadh, also did not respond to a request for comment.

The Saudis have an additional reason to support the station: Al Zawraa shares the Saudi goal of persuading Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to turn against Al Qaeda.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, the largest Sunni Muslim insurgency group and the one Al Zawraa speaks for, had been aligned with the group Al Qaeda in Iraq. But this year the two organizations split, and Al Zawraa began accusing Al Qaeda of attacking members of the Islamic Army in Iraq, failing to protect Iraqi civilians and provoking fights with foreign countries that could lead to attacks on Iraq.

“From the Saudi side, support for Iraqi Sunnis trumps U.S. pressure,” said Lawrence Pintak, who heads the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo. “For the Americans, Al Zawraa is an annoyance, but not worth jeopardizing Saudi support on the big picture.”

Arabsat, also known as the Arab Satellite Communications Organization, is owned by 21 countries of the Arab League. The most important player is Saudi Arabia, which owns about 37%, the U.S. official said.

A State Department official, who asked to remain unidentified when speaking of pending talks, said the United States “has asked a number of the countries in the Arabsat ownership structure about removing this channel from the many they broadcast. And those efforts are continuing.”

The tension over the issue fits the recent pattern of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia at a time when the two countries’ interests coincide in some areas but diverge sharply in others.

The Saudis share the Bush administration’s desire to stabilize Iraq and prevent further expansion of Shiite Muslim Iran’s power and that of its client militant groups, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. But the Saudis are distressed by what the war in Iraq has meant for their Sunni Arab brethren there, worried about the prospect of a disorderly U.S. retreat from the region and eager not to appear too close to Washington.

In February, Saudi officials embarrassed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, disrupting her plans for an IsraeliPalestinian peace initiative by their brokering of a deal for a Palestinian “unity” government that included Hamas. In March, Saudi King Abdullah denounced the “illegitimate foreign occupation” of Iraq and in April refused to receive a visit from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite and American ally.

“U.S. foreign policy, any way you look at it, is extremely unpopular in the region,” said former Sen. Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.), ambassador to Riyadh during the Clinton administration. “They have to figure out how to live in the region with the consequences of American actions, whether on Iraq, Iran, Lebanon or the Palestinian conflict.”

U.S. officials are determined to nurse the relationship along, with only murmurs of protest when they are undermined or criticized by Riyadh. Rice, in an interview this month with Al Arabiya, a popular Arabic-language news channel based in the United Arab Emirates, said U.S.-Saudi relations were “very good.”

“Sometimes we have tactical differences, but that really doesn’t matter when you’re pushing in the same strategic direction,” she said.

The U.S. official said there was a range of opinion about the Saudis within the Bush administration and that many officials found their actions “annoying or irritating.” Nonetheless, he said, many also believed that “they’ve been more helpful than not.”

One of the Saudis’ most important contributions, the U.S. official said, has been to work with other Sunni regimes on driving a wedge between Iraq’s Sunnis and Al Qaeda.

The U.S. official also said the Saudis were effectively competing against the Iranians in the uniquely Mideastern arena of “personalities, money and byzantine backroom deals.”

“They’re skilled at it; we’re clumsy,” he said.

Yet as they work against the Iranians, the Saudis are stoking the Sunni-Shiite rivalry and reinforcing sectarianism of the sort expressed on Al Zawraa, Pintak said.

“As so often in U.S. Mideast policy,” he said, “there’s an inherent contradiction.”