WITH U.S. FORCES NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq—Mudhhir al Zahery, a dapper 47-year-old Iraqi in a sweater vest and dress slacks, stood in the mud and gravel and stared at the young U.S. Marines walking around with their M-16s.
A reporter with a Baghdad-based newspaper, Zahery was about to take his place in the U.S. battle plan to win control of Fallujah. One of six Iraqi journalists who'll be "embedded" with American and Iraqi troops, he'll file reports that American commanders hope will persuade Iraqis that insurgents in towns such as Fallujah are anti-Iraqi terrorists, not nationalist resistance fighters.
"When I left (home), I said goodbye to my wife, and she was crying because Fallujah is very dangerous," Zahery said. "My family is praying to God that the war does not happen."
1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said many of the problems American soldiers had faced in Iraq, particularly in Fallujah, were the result of a disinformation campaign waged by insurgents to drive a wedge between the population and the American presence.
There've been a litany of apocryphal stories about U.S. troops using binoculars capable of seeing through women's clothing and intentionally shooting into ambulances full of wounded civilians.
"If (insurgents) can get Iraqis to believe that, it will make their cause," Gilbert said.
Iraqi reporters, military officials hope, will counter such tales.
The strategy comes with some risk. Zahery works for a newspaper, al Sabah, that was started with U.S. funding and is widely considered pro-American. His view of Fallujah is that it's being held hostage by foreign terrorists.
But another of the journalists, Mohammed M. Mohammed, is a correspondent for al Diyar, an independently owned Iraqi news channel, and believes that Fallujah is being defended by local freedom fighters against a foreign threat.
"It's the same principle as the Palestinian people," he said. "All of the people in Fallujah are fighters."
Whatever their views of the conflict, the men were concentrating more than anything on how cold and uncomfortable they were.
They'd been taken by helicopter from Baghdad to a base near Fallujah on Tuesday night, where they made their way to a floorless tent. Despite receiving a long list of equipment to bring with them, they showed up with the clothes on their backs and not much more. A Marine public affairs officer walked around the base looking for blankets.
The reporters were being shepherded by two American men who identified themselves as private contractors.
One of them, who gave his name only as Ryan and carried a pistol at his waist, said the reports the Iraqi journalists filed gave "the Arab world a perspective other than the U.S. media and Al-Jazeera," the Arab satellite news channel whom many in the American military loathe as being sympathetic to the insurgency. Gilbert said Al-Jazeera was invited to embed but didn't respond.
Standing outside his tent, Hakim Ateah Jaber, a cameraman for the U.S.-funded Iraqi news channel al Iraqiya, pondered whether objectivity was possible in Iraq these days, with beheadings and kidnappings increasing by the week.
"I will show what I can from this side," he said, waving his hand to indicate the Marine encampment in front of him. "And if I can show the other side too, I will."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-MEDIA