Radio Free Iraq falls on deaf ears

There is no reason to suppose that the latest US-inspired attempt to beam propaganda into a hostile country will have any effect, writes Andrew Marshall
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The Independent Online
WHEN the Cold War ended, it seemed as if the lifespan of the radio stations that beamed news, views and propaganda across borders was coming to an end. But the battle of the airwaves is continuing in the Middle East.

A new American radio station broadcasting to Iraq is due to start operating in the autumn. Radio Free Iraq is the latest in a long line of efforts to break Saddam Hussein's monopoly on information. Its critics, however, say it symbolises nothing more than America's bankrupt policy towards Iraq.

Previous attempts to establish clandestine stations in the region have not been a success; they have disappeared or declined as the groups and the policies behind them collapsed. "What's most important for covert activities, including broadcast programmes, is continuity," said Nick Grace, a US specialist on clandestine radio. "Unfortunately, the Clinton administration did not handle its covert operations against Iraq well."

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the CIA established the Iraqi National Congress, an assembly of anti-Saddam groups headed by Ahmed Chalabi, a banker. A Washington-based public relations firm, the Rendon Group, was hired to produce a global publicity campaign, and helped establish two clandestine stations, the Iraqi Broadcasting Corporation and Radio Hurrieh (Freedom). They broadcast from a CIA transmitter in Kuwait, with additional facilities in northern Iraq, Cairo and Amman. But America broke with the INC after a failed uprising, and support for the radio stations was cut off. When Iraqi forces moved in to Kurdistan in 1996, the IBC was shut down, and Radio Hurrieh was taken off the Kuwait transmitter last year.

The US then switched its support to the Iraqi National Accord, a group thought by many in the Iraqi opposition community to have strong links to British intelligence. It ran a radio station from Amman and London from 1996 called Al-Mustaqbal (The Future). The INA is also believed to be behind Iraqi Army Radio. But in 1996, it suffered a similar fate to the INC when Saddam's forces marched north, and Jordan also ceased its support. The station resumed broadcasting from Kuwait via the CIA transmitter in 1997.

The INC was furious that the rival body was getting funding and attention, and the shift sparked a bitter row in Washington over US policy. The INA stations continue to broadcast, but only for a few hours a week, from the Kuwait transmitter and from converted Hercules transport aircraft, EC-130s, called Command Solo. The US hopes that the latest effort will have a slightly better chance. The initiative came from a restive Congress, concerned that too little was being done to unseat Saddam. It has voted $5m for the station.

Radio Free Iraq will be run by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an amalgam of the two stations which during the Cold War broadcast American news and views behind the Iron Curtain. It will be based in the Czech Republic, from where other RFE/RL activities are run, though there is also likely to be a base in London, where many Iraq exiles are located.

Clandestine radio broadcasting by governments and opposition groups was a boom industry during the Cold War, and it seemed that once the Berlin Wall had fallen it would disappear. But the continuing profusion of wars, the ease of radio broadcasting and its ability to reach large numbers of people in developing countries has kept it going. Iraq is the hottest radio war by far, with around 20 stations beaming alternative views, according to Mr Grace. The Clandestine Radio Intel Web, one of the best sources of information on the Internet, lists several including stations based in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq itself.

Iraq's own radio infrastructure was badly damaged by allied air attacks during and since the Gulf War, leaving an information gap. The various opposition factions use radio as a means of establishing credibility.

Radio Free Iraq will be different from the earlier efforts. It will be overt, with publicly acknowledged support from the US government. And it will be under the management of RFE/RL rather than any individual faction, which the proponents of the station say will make it more independent.

While it can't on its own force political change, "it can be a catalyst for political awareness amongst Iraqis," said Rend Rahim Francke, executive director of the Iraqi Foundation. "You need to break the isolation of the Iraq people." Alongside the cash for the radio station, Congress voted another $5m for development of democratic institutions in the Iraqi opposition - and there may be more where that came from.

But this is small beer. And the critics contend that the administration is just twiddling its thumbs, unable to develop a new policy after its covert efforts went up in smoke in 1996. US support for the INC and INA stations was part of a CIA-designed policy aimed at unseating Saddam Hussein. However flawed that policy was, as yet there appears to be no broader strategy behind Radio Free Iraq, which, say critics reflects a broader vacuum. "It appears that they [the US] don't know what they want," says Warren Marik, a former CIA officer involved in Iraq.

The critics charge that plans for the station have been watered down and will do little good. In particular, they are critical of the fact that it will be based near Prague, and placed under Radio Free Europe. Many argue that it should be run by the INC, which still has its own facilities.

Iraq is not the only target for the political broadcasters. As well as RFE/RL and Radio Marti, directed at Cuba, the US is also starting Radio Free Asia, aimed at China and North Korea, and Radio Democracy for Africa. Optimists say radio is a cheap way of getting a message across with few risks. Cynics say it is just a substitute for action. "When the going gets tough, the tough turn on the radio," said one cynical diplomat.

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