KIRKUK, Iraq _To Maj. Doug Vincent and other soldiers fighting the information war in this generally tranquil town 150 miles north of Baghdad, there are good rumors and there are bad rumors.
Good rumor: Sunglasses worn by U.S. soldiers are actually equipped with X-ray vision to spot grenades and guns under clothing.
Bad rumor: Kurdish fighters first caught Saddam Hussein, but U.S. forces drugged the fallen dictator, stuffed him in a hole and took worldwide credit for the capture last month.
Both assertions are false, yet both are still passed along through the graffiti-and-gossip network developed by northern Iraqis to communicate with one another despite the former regime's ever-present intelligence agents and ban on Internet use. Now, Vincent and other military information experts are capitalizing on the underground system to spread pro-American messages, ferret out intelligence and gauge unrest in northern areas, where resistance is subtler than the constant attacks faced by soldiers in Iraq's more violent central region.
Troops are discouraged from correcting the local legend that a nightly alarm from the U.S. military base in the city means U.S. soldiers have their guns trained on all moving targets. And Iraqis will just have to keep guessing whether air-conditioned uniforms are the real reason American soldiers keep their cool on 12-hour shifts.
But soldiers are doing all they can to make sure the real version of Saddam's capture hits the streets. When doubtful residents question why their former president looked so disoriented in images of his arrest, troops sometimes say it's because of newfangled electrical weapons that temporarily stun the victim.
"Yes, it's science fiction. Yes, it's a little bit of an elaboration, a tiny lie," said Vincent, a public affairs officer for the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade. "But Iraqis love the rumors and the gossip. It's going to get out one way or another."
The U.S. military also catalogues and studies messages spray-painted across Kirkuk's walls in hopes of finding the names of rising resistance leaders or fledgling political factions. Once the intelligence is gleaned, however, Vincent's weekly graffiti patrol works quickly to replace "Hurray for jihad!" with messages such as "Saddam is a donkey!" or "Work together in peace" that look as if they were written by Iraqis. If the pro-American message is untouched a week later, he said, it's a good sign that opposition forces have moved underground or out of the area.
"One of our favorites was `Suicide is love,'" Vincent said, referring to pro-insurgency graffiti his team recently removed. "Good name for a band."
Before Vincent arrived in June, the U.S.-led coalition's outreach to Iraqis amounted to an all-English radio-news broadcast and rock music enjoyed mostly by homesick American soldiers. Vincent immediately set about revamping the information campaign, which now includes a popular weekly call-in radio show with an Iraqi doctor, a regular spot for the Kirkuk police chief to deliver updates on coalition activities and bulletins on job and food programs.
After U.S. raids on Iraqi homes—a surefire way to create enemies and further tarnish the coalition's image—troops from 173rd pass out fliers explaining the operation and apologizing for the intrusion. Vincent then sits back and lets neighbors spread the word that U.S. soldiers aren't so bad after all.
"Now, if we get a house stacked with (rocket-propelled grenades), they're not getting a flier saying sorry for the inconvenience," Vincent said. "But all the squads have a Mr. Personality, the gregarious guy who's good with people. That should be the last guy out of the house, the one saying `Thank you, peace on your home.' We've gotten invited to stay for tea after raids."
Vincent's campaign drew mixed reviews from Kirkuk residents last week. Many welcomed the generally friendly demeanor and helpful information of troops who occasionally visit local kebab cafes and joke around with the locals. Others, however, said they were offended at the effort spent on spreading falsehoods and spraying graffiti when hundreds of residents are still jobless and hungry.
"Sure, they have a good relationship with us, but that doesn't mean they understand us," said Warya Abdul Kader, a 24-year-old college student. "They can write and gossip all they want, but it's useless. What can we take from a radio program? We need to feed the poor."
In Kirkuk's main commercial district, two elderly Turkmen tailors share workspace where their customers often include U.S. soldiers who needed patches sewn onto uniforms. On Sunday, the men argued over which rumors surrounding the coalition were true.
Ali Merdan said he doesn't believe the X-ray sunglasses rumor, but he's convinced U.S. forces drugged Saddam to stage his capture. His partner, Ali Rida, said the sunglasses story could have some merit, but allowed no dispute over how Saddam was caught.
Either way, the men said, U.S. troops would do better to shape their information campaign on the business model that has sustained their tiny shop for more than 30 years.
"I never ask for more than I deserve for my work and I never, ever cheat people," Ali Merdan said. "That's the true way you build relationships—on trust and honesty."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-RUMORS