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[] Mullah Bush: Pr-Ramadan-Gag,

Fighting the Image War To Gain Muslim Support 
Information Center Plans Prayer, Traditional Dinner 

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2001; Page A32 

On Monday, President Bush will greet 50 ambassadors from Muslim countries who will munch dates and sip juice, then kneel and touch their foreheads to the floor of the White House's East Reception Room. The five-minute prayer by Bush's guests will mark the breaking of a daily sunrise-to-sundown fast during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins this weekend.

The prayer and the traditional Iftar meal that will follow are part of a global effort by the U.S. government, which is struggling to build support in Muslim countries for its anti-terrorism coalition, to convey a better image to the 1.2 billion followers of the world's fastest growing religion. Officials of the White House and State Department said the administration wants to use the occasion of Ramadan to highlight its sensitivity to Islamic tradition and to point to its increasing humanitarian deliveries in Afghanistan.

"It will be hard to miss that we recognize and respect this time in their religion," said Charlotte Beers, a former advertising executive who is undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. "Mutual respect is the beginning of every dialogue. It's taking advantage of an important time in their history to say, 'We understand, we hear you, and we would like to keep this dialogue open.' "

The Ramadan public relations offensive results from a White House decision to apply political campaign tactics to war communications. The administration has created a war room, formally called the Coalition Information Center, headed by a "strategic theme team" that generates daily and weekly talking points. White House plans call for focusing on the Taliban and women's issues, "Taliban lies," the Taliban and the drug trade and, for Thanksgiving, the "Taliban vs. humanitarian supplies."

The Ramadan events and anti-Taliban messages are being researched and run from the Coalition Center in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The room, with marble-paneled walls and 800-pound bronze allegorical figures in each corner, was used for news conferences by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It is the hub of a 24-hour operation -- with branches next to 10 Downing Street in London and at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan -- to bridge continents and time zones to push the coalition's views. One fact sheet is called "The Growing Catalog of Taliban and al Qaeda Misinformation," and a daily internal bulletin summarizes "News, Message and Facts About the War on Terrorism."

Red and blue signs towering over flat-screen computers mark desks for "Terrorist Finances," "Media Monitoring" and "Investigations and Response."

The center opened Oct. 26 in response to concerns that the coalition was failing in the image war. Two dozen people are working in Washington, two dozen are in London, and a Bush administration official, Greg Jenkins, landed in Islamabad yesterday to shepherd news crews into refugee camps and other places where officials expect to see evidence of U.S. aid.

Jim Wilkinson, a 31-year-old Navy reservist who runs the war room in Washington and is known as the message "enforcer," once focused on administration communications about domestic priorities like the budget, Social Security and energy. He now finds himself answering 5 a.m. calls about Osama bin Laden videos. "At any given hour, somewhere in the world, journalists are on deadline," he said. "This war has a 24-hour news cycle, and it needs an around-the-clock mechanism to communicate."

Peter Reid, the first secretary of press and public affairs at the British embassy in Washington, now sits nearly elbow-to-elbow with Wilkinson. Reid said his government saw the effectiveness of having officials from partner countries in one room at NATO headquarters in Brussels during the Kosovo bombing campaign. "Our job is to make sure the facts get out there, and not give free rein to the lies," Reid said.

The Bush administration had rebuffed entreaties from an essential ally -- Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf -- to forswear bombing during Ramadan, posing the potential for a public relations fiasco just when Bush was trying to convince skeptics in the Middle East he is fighting terrorists, not Muslims.

"One of the things that became clear to us as we began this campaign is that we had a real deficit in the Arab world to fight against," a senior administration official said. "For so long, our basic, fundamental viewpoints have been absent -- the millions of Muslims who live happily in America, the millions of people who want to come here, our respect for religion. Those are the kind of things which over the longer term we want to be out there with, so that when there's a crisis in the region, we don't begin with such an incredible deficit of understanding."

With Taliban strongholds collapsing by the day, senior administration officials said they hope to persuade Muslims around the world that these military triumphs amount to humanitarian victories. U.S. officials will try to associate the holy month with images of Afghans celebrating new freedoms and welcoming rescue supplies.

After the Monday prayer, Bush plans to hold an Iftar dinner -- a breaking of the fast -- in the State Dining Room for ambassadors from more than 50 countries that are part of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an international group that promotes the rights of Muslims.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to hold an Iftar dinner of his own, following the precedent of his Clinton administration predecessor, Madeleine K. Albright, officials said. U.S. embassies around the world will do the same. The State Department is printing up thousands of copies of a series of posters, "Mosques of America."

This morning, Yahya Hendi, Georgetown University's chaplain and a Muslim, is to give the opening prayer at the House of Representatives. U.S. embassies around the world will distribute a videotape of the prayer in both English and Arabic.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company 

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