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Insurgent channel back on the air in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—When Iraqi government officials pulled the plug on al-Zawraa TV earlier this month, they thought they'd finally stamped out a channel known for reporting live from "occupied Baghdad" and declaring Saddam Hussein's death sentence "a sad day for Iraq."

Two weeks later, however, the Sunni-owned station is back, and bloodier than ever.

"Virtuous clerics, tribesmen, merchants, farmers, work together as one hand to liberate Iraq," a crawl at the bottom of the screen urged Monday. Saddam-era martial music boomed as an insurgent video montage began: a sniper hitting an American soldier snacking on a sandwich, a U.S. Humvee bursting into flames as it hit a roadside bomb, Sunni Muslim militants vowing to overthrow Shiite leaders who are portrayed as agents of Iran.

"This is as violent as it gets," said Bassam al-Husseini, the senior government adviser who'd sought the order banning the channel for its coverage of Saddam's trial. "Now they've become officially irhabiyah," he added, using the Arabic word for "terrorist."

Al-Zawraa TV is the station of choice for nostalgic Baathists, militant Islamists, Iran-hating Sunnis and anti-American Arab nationalists. Driven underground by a court order on Nov. 5, the day Saddam was sentenced to death, the satellite news channel has re-emerged in recent days, broadcasting from an unknown location and devoid of any pretense of neutrality.

Its theme song is borrowed from an old Iraqi TV miniseries, and its content is unbroken, 24-hour insurgent propaganda.

"We'll fall man over man until our hair is gray, and this land will not be touched," the lyrics say, usually accompanied by startling footage of attacks on U.S. troops.

"I'm so happy to hear these nationalist songs again and to see the armed attacks against the Americans," said Tamam Abdul Samad, 28, a Sunni engineer from the southern Shiite city of Basra, which borders Iran. "When I hear it, I jump and dance. This channel represents Sunnis as well as patriotic Shiites."

Al-Zawraa's ability to broadcast round the clock in defiance of the government is yet another example of the increasing technological prowess of insurgents and their supporters. U.S. military officials sort through Internet sites, message boards, text messages and TV channels every week to monitor the ebb and flow of insurgent chatter. But that doesn't mean they're able to counter it.

"These extremist elements can literally go out and say what they want, post what they want," Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said at a news conference Monday. "They have absolutely no responsibility to the press or anybody else to come back and clarify it, validate it, justify it, to be held accountable to it. Whereas, in fact, it's the exact opposite for us."

Al-Zawraa was launched in November 2005, the brainchild of Mishaan al-Jubouri, a Sunni member of the Iraqi parliament who fled to Syria recently amid allegations of corruption. The station claims it won't run al-Qaida videos and doesn't condone attacks on civilians; its allies are Iraqi nationalist fighters who strike only military and government targets, it says.

In a telephone interview from Damascus, Jubouri said the main goal of the station is to urge resistance to what he calls the "U.S.-backed Safavid occupation," a reference to the Persian Shiite dynasty that ruled Baghdad in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. "Safavid" is now a common slur to describe the Shiites in charge of Iraq, many of whom spent years in Iran as exiles.

"When we were broadcasting in public from inside Iraq, we had to respect Iraqi law. But when the Iraqi government broke the law and closed the channel for no legitimate reason, they turned us into a channel that broadcasts in secrecy," Jubouri said.

Jubouri said the station's Baghdad offices remain shuttered and his six correspondents on the run, roaming the Iraqi countryside in a satellite truck, from which they beam their programming to an Egyptian satellite distributor called Nilesat, which then retransmits the channel across the Middle East.

Jubouri said the new pro-resistance format has increased the number of viewers "100 times over." He said the channel receives thousands of e-mails and text messages every day.

"We are now broadcasting from places the Safavids can't reach," he boasted.

To many Sunni Iraqis, it's the perfect antidote to the Shiite-run stations that regularly deride Sunni clerics as terrorists, air interviews conducted in Persian-accented Arabic and support militias blamed for scores of sectarian killings.

In predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq, former military officers watch from cafes, and ordinary families tune in from home for the songs, speeches and spirit of the days when Iraq was a place of law and order, albeit one built under the crushing weight of a brutal dictatorship.

"This channel wasn't popular or aggressive before the decision to close it," said Jamal Abdullah, 29, a teacher from the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.


(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.