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Startling billboards advertise for more Iraqi police

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The somber 15-foot-tall police colonel's photo looms large over the capital's cacophony of horn-tooting Iraqi motorists and rumbling American armor.

"What have you done for Iraq?" says Col. Ali, as though he has morphed into Uncle Sam for the police-recruiting poster.

"I sacrifice my life every day to rebuild my country and restore law and order," he says. "I fight the thieves, the gangsters and the terrorists—not for money, but because I am a member of the Iraqi Police."

In a new twist, Madison Avenue meets Mesopotamia in a U.S-funded, anti-terror ad campaign that's popping up this week around the capital, turning heads and sometimes eliciting giggles.

Until a year ago, portraits of only one man—Saddam Hussein—stared out from billboards across the country.

Now, Saddam is in American custody, his Baath Party is shattered, and coalition officials are using U.S.-style commercial advertising—and a dose of capitalism—to try to win public support and recruits for Iraq's embattled, budding security services.

More than 325 members of Iraq's embryonic police force have been killed in the line of duty, many to insurgency car bombs and suicide attacks that target their precincts to undermine Iraq-U.S. cooperation.

So the billboard's backside lists enlistment qualifications: Applicants must be in sound physical and psychological shape, literate in Arabic, older than 20 and without criminal records or past terror activity. Former senior Baath Party officials need not apply.

The promoter of choice is "Col. Ali," a 17-year police veteran who now serves as an instructor at Iraq's Police Academy.

Graphics designer Mohammed Hamid, 32, was amused to discover the once-unimaginable billboard Wednesday while walking past Assassin's Gate, the heavily guarded entrance to Baghdad's so-called Green Zone, where U.S. and Iraqi officials are charting Iraq's political future.

But he was also skeptical after growing up in a culture of police corruption.

"If that policeman really means those words, than the message is a good one. But I'm not so certain," said Hamid. He's seen advertising proliferate for everything from once-outlawed satellite phones to European cigarettes, even as, he grumbles, the U.S.-led coalition hasn't restored full-time electricity and day-to-day security.

U.S. officials couldn't immediately provide a price tag on the anti-terror advertising. But a coming campaign will spend more than $5 million to promote the Iraqi self-governing process on billboards, television and radio, said Rob Tappan, director of the coalition's strategic communications division.

The ads are being designed here and abroad by contractors, and at least some of the money is reaching Iraqis.

On Saadoun Street, Boghos Bedrosyan, manager of sign company Nineveh, said coalition buyers have placed generous orders for two huge anti-terror billboards by the airport, and he expects more business.

"Why not, if it helps Iraq?" he says.

Saddam's regime banned ads promoting alcohol or cigarettes, and there was "nothing about women and sex," Bedrosyan said. Imports were rare, and money was tight so the shop that pioneered backlit billboards in Baghdad produced regime posters, office signs and ads for ordinary household appliances, rice and tea.

Nowadays, there are no more restrictions. So Bedrosyan has replaced his regime work with a coalition job and makes cigarette billboards. So far, he hasn't dared make ads featuring alcohol or sexy women. "We are afraid of the religious," he says. "They'd burn them down."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+billboards

Iraq

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