| An Iraqi woman with her baby at a checkpoint as she tries to leave Basra. (Reuters)
Washington, March 30: Ever since the attack on Iraq began, the Bush administration has been aggressively courting the Arab news media, dispatching senior officials to drive home the message that the war is about “liberation, not occupation”.
But any positive feedback from the public relations blitzkrieg was largely swamped this weekend by visual images of death and destruction in Baghdad. The Arab press exploded in anger over the deaths of at least 58 Iraqi civilians in a busy Baghdad market. Iraqis have blamed a stray American bomb. “Yet another massacre by the coalition of invaders,” blared the front-page headline on Saturday in the Al Riyadh daily of Saudi Arabia.
As the war entered its second week, with no major Iraqi city liberated, the US was fighting what a senior administration official described as “an uphill battle” to counter “horrible” images of suffering Iraqi civilians.
The propaganda war is not going well for the US, particularly abroad. In some ways, say analysts, the public relations setbacks from the first 10 days of fighting have been more serious than the military ones. Images such as those that blanketed the Arab media this weekend are likely to resonate around the Arab world long after the fighting is over.
“The political damage is very severe,” said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor who studies Arab public opinion. “I think ultimately the US will prevail militarily. But the real issue will be what are the consequences of that victory.”
US officials say it will take other, equally powerful images — of Iraqi civilians celebrating the downfall of President Saddam Hussein — to counteract the pictures that have been dominating Arab TV screens. “You don’t lose the propaganda war one week or the next,” said a senior US official responsible for shaping outreach efforts to the Arab world.
The immediate problem is that the images of happy Iraqi civilians greeting US troops as liberators have not so far materialised in any large number.
The first day of ground fighting produced footage of a US Marine officer tearing down a Hussein portrait with the assistance of Iraqi civilians in the border town of Safwan. “Americans very good,” the Associated Press quoted one civilian as saying.
But by the seventh day, networks were carrying pictures of dozens of Iraqis surrounding the first humanitarian aid trucks to reach Safwan. Instead of greeting the US troops as liberators, they were shouting anti-US slogans. “With our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Saddam,” the crowd chanted.
It was not the story line envisaged by the commanders of the Bush administration message machine. In the next days, the public relations emphasis switched from Iraq’s imminent liberation to denunciations of Saddam’s brutality.
So far, said Telhami, the US media outreach campaign has had little impact on the Arab street. “Often when US officials go on Arab TV, they just confirm the already negative opinion of Arab viewers toward the US.” US officials say they believe the interviews do some good, at least in providing the opportunity to air Washington’s point of view.