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First independent TV station in Iraq hits airwaves

NAJAF, Iraq—If entertainment critic Clive Barnes got it right, democracy is taking root in Iraq.

A grassroots group of amateur cameramen and producers in this Shiite holy city are pioneering what Barnes once called "the first truly democratic culture," launching what may be Iraq's first independent television station since the end of state-mandated broadcasts last month.

Armed with Handicams from their home and broadcast devices looted from a television station controlled by one of Saddam Hussein's sons, the 16 volunteers who run An Najaf TV are bringing Iraqis something Americans now take for granted: a chance to watch Iraq on television.

Viewers here can't seem to get enough.

One recent day, hotel clerk Hassan al Aboudi was glued to his 13-inch television set, mesmerized by endless video footage of Shiite men chanting religious slogans and beating their chests to mark the death of Islam's prophet Muhammad about 1,300 years ago.

That he could watch an identical scene just by looking out the hotel lobby window seemed lost on Aboudi, 35, who stared blankly at a visitor who pointed this out.

"This is An Najaf TV," he said. "Watching this, one feels free."

The channel, launched April 28—Saddam Hussein's birthday—is the brainchild of Ali Kashif al Rata, 43. Rata briefly operated an independent AM radio station in Najaf in March 1991 after the first Persian Gulf War, only to have the station blown up by Saddam's helicopter gunships. Rata was forced into hiding.

While he ran the radio station, Rata said he was "pressured to let pro-Iranian parties" broadcast. His new TV station, he said, is politically neutral. He's turned away many groups seeking to promote their agendas, he said, adding, "It's best not to say who they are."

The volunteers aim to deliver programming like Al Arabia in Dubai, a station that mutes its politics and is socially conservative in its broadcasts, Rata said. The staff is all men, but Rata said he plans to recruit at least two or three women reporters "to cover women's issues."

Rata doesn't know when he'll be able to pay his workers, but for now, the newfound freedom of expression and natural adrenaline keeps everyone going during 16-hour workdays.

"We do this for the love of Imam Ali," said one volunteer cameraman, Maher Ibrahim, 31. Ali, whom Shiites revere as Muhammad's first successor, is buried in Najaf.

A wedding photographer by training, Ibrahim and his brother, Ehsan, 38, wear computer-generated tags with the station's logo and ride around in a blue-and-white minibus to gather news.

The station, which broadcasts in the afternoons and evenings, reaches viewers as far as Babylon, 40 miles away, although its most loyal following appears to be in Najaf.

Here each afternoon, eager viewers crowd around television sets in shops, restaurants and homes to watch hours of Shiite pilgrims, chamber of commerce meetings and, more recently, the unearthing of mass graves of Shiites executed by Saddam after their failed 1991 uprising.

The programs are short on commentary and long on footage, pieced together by inexperienced volunteers on a makeshift editing system and hand-me-down television sets.

Besides local news, the station broadcasts Bugs Bunny cartoons in English, the sermons of Najaf religious leaders and videotapes volunteers bring from home.

Particularly popular this week was a rerun of Abu Dhabi television's documentary on the rise of Saddam and his oppression of Iraqis. Under his regime, watching such shows on banned satellite dishes meant hefty fines and jail time if caught.

"We see they are beginners," Aboudi said. "Still, this station is better than what we had before because we get a chance to see what is really happening in our city and our country."


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