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4 Iraqis in a fortified radio station preach a message of unity

BAQUBA, Iraq—In one of the most violent provinces in Iraq, two Shiites and two Sunnis kicked off their first broadcast of a new radio and television station on Sunday. Their message is one of peace, and they hope it will help quiet the sectarian violence that has shattered their lives in the bloody province of Diyala, which has a Sunni majority.

Inside a U.S. army outpost southeast of Baquba, cut off from the outside world with Iraqi and U.S. soldiers surrounding them, the three men and one woman restarted the station, which formerly operated under Saddam Hussein and, later, under the Iraqi Media Network.

"I feel we are standing on the pages of the history books. It is time to make our mark. I am carrying the most effective weapon in this war. It is my microphone and it will carry my voice," said Samir Khamies, 28, a Sunni from Baquba and co-founder of the Independent Radio and Television Station.

Their funding comes from advertising revenue bought by the U.S. 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division in Diyala to send out coalition messages. The brigade invested $36,000 to start the station. A Global Outreach Team from the U.S. Embassy was commissioned to help. They used jumper cables and a 12-volt battery to restart the radio transmitter, and they use a tower built for Saddam to preach a message of unity.

But the price is dear.

Rafed Mahmood moved his wife and two young children into the station with him to protect them from revenge killings. The families of the three other members have moved to other provinces to avoid retribution.

Their hometown of Baquba, 40 miles north of Baghdad, has slowly been taken over by the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida linked group that last year declared an Islamic state in several Sunni and mixed-sect provinces. But the provincial council is filled with members of the Mahdi Army, loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and fighting rages.

Policemen are being executed in the middle of the city, homes are being torched with residents still inside, buses of civilians are attacked and even children are not spared.

Provincial leaders said tens of thousands of Sunnis and Shiites from Diyala are fleeing their homes to take refuge in neighboring provinces. In March, 700 U.S. soldiers were added to reinforce the brigade in what is becoming one of the bloodiest provinces in Iraq.

Mahmood, 31, the Shiite general manager of the station, once managed 55 people there. But the station was attacked about nine months ago, and a number of the employees were either killed or fled.

"My family was displaced, my home is now in the hands of the terrorists, they have taken over my father's shop and my uncle's as well. It must end somewhere," Mahmood said. "We are weary of being pushed around. I was never free under Saddam. Now the terrorists, insurgents and death squads want me to live in fear again. I will not."

U.S. troops provide fuel and food. Water and daily commodities must be brought into the city and delivered by the army. Now that they have appeared on TV as far west as Fallujah and south to Hilla, these four Iraqis can no longer walk the streets of their native Baquba. Their lives are at a standstill inside this desert outpost.

They hope their words will change things.

"We have suffered enough. This conflict between Sunni and Shiite never existed before," Mahmood said. "I know what to say to them. They are my family, they are my neighbors, they are my friends. We grew up together, I know how to touch their hearts."

Mahmood said he would remind them of the days that Sunni and Shiite children played marbles together, or the time that a Sunni woman chatted with her Shiite neighbor and passed biryani, a spicy rice dish, over the wall.

On their first day of broadcast, the governor of Diyala, the police chief and U.S. officials from the military and embassy, including Ambassador Daniel Speckhard, deputy chief of mission, looked on.

Abdul Lateef, a pretty, slim young woman and the only female in the group, said her family supports her risk.

"My passion is to broadcast hope," she said.


(Issa is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.