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U.S. puts Iraqi national TV station back on the air

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Five weeks after it was knocked off the air by U.S. missiles, Iraq's national television station sputtered back to life Tuesday night, but the landmark event went largely unnoticed.

With millions of residents in the capital still living with electricity interruptions and not aware that their state-run TV station was coming back to life, it seemed that few in Baghdad knew enough to tune in for the first two-hour broadcast.

Gone were the speeches by Saddam Hussein. Gone were the state-sanctioned news programs praising Saddam Hussein. Gone were the patriotic songs hailing Saddam Hussein as a great leader.

In their stead was an odd collection of black-and-white music videos, news stories on the electricity shortage in Baghdad, brief readings from the Koran and, most peculiar of all, a snippet of what appeared to be a British infomercial for soap.

Tucked in between, however, was something even more striking: What was most assuredly the station's first report giving voice to the victims of Saddam's ruthless regime. For 10 minutes, women and men looking for relatives taken by Saddam's security squads spoke of their search for answers.

But the story passed largely unnoticed. Despite the significance of transforming a tool of Saddam's propaganda into the nation's new public television station, the American reconstruction leaders failed to announce the event to city residents or other media in Baghdad.

Instead, the occupying forces touted the launch Wednesday of the first postwar national newspaper, Al Sabah. But that watershed event ran into immediate trouble. Even before The New Day hit the streets, its editor said he had been directed by U.S. officials to stop the presses.

"Washington ordered me to stop it," editor Ishmael Zayer said in a brief telephone interview Tuesday night. "There is a dispute over who is running the paper."

Officials at the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance could not be reached for comment.

Like Al Sabah, the new televisoin station, Iraq Media Network, struggled to get up-and-running for Tuesday's inaugural broadcast.

Iraqi cameramen and American consultants worked out of bombed out Information Ministry complex recently hit with a rocket-propelled grenade fired by someone apparently trying to undermine the new station. American bombs destroyed some broadcast equipment and Iraqi looters took a lot of it.

But American consultant Mike Furlong vowed to get the show up and, in the end, he did.

"What we want is a free and independent media in Iraq," said Furlong, the de facto information minister in Baghdad.

For those who saw it, the new station was long on music and short on news.

"New television with old programs," griped one Iraqi who saw the program.

Squeezed between the snowy music clips was a half-hour on current events. Reporters interviewed the man in charge of power who assured viewers that things would get better in two weeks, filmed frustrated Baghdad residents arguing with harried hospital workers overwhelmed by the demand, and talked with Iraqis searching for loved ones killed by Saddam.

While the interviews gave voice to Iraqis frustrated by the occupying forces, the station ignored the issue paramount in the minds of capital residents: security.

And, as the two-hour broadcast wound down, so did the power across a wide swath of Baghdad.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.