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[] NYT 29.04.03: Iranian News Channel Makes Inroads In Iraq,

New York Times
April 29, 2003

Iranian News Channel Makes Inroads In Iraq

By Sabrina Tavernise

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 28 As the power gradually comes back on in Baghdad, 
Iraqis are tuning into television for the first time in several weeks. News 
is starting to stream into teahouses, barbershops and living rooms, but it 
is not coming from Iraq, or even America.

It is coming from Iran.

Al Alam television, a station that most Iraqis assume is owned by the 
Iranian government, is pumping professionally produced, round-the-clock 
news to televisions in Baghdad from a powerful transmitter just over the 
border in Iran, about 85 miles away. The only viewing requirement is a 
television; no satellite dish is needed.

"I am very famous in Iraq," said Haidar Ali al-Assadi, an Iraqi who is a 
principal Baghdad correspondent. "All of Iraq is watching Al Alam. Before, 
everyone knew Saddam Hussein. Now they know me."

As the Bush administration tries to win over Iraqis, nervously eyeing 
Islamic fundamentalist influence from the Shiite government and other 
groups in Iran, daily reports from Tehran are flashing from the television 
screens of every Baghdad resident with electricity.

The station, which broadcasts in Arabic, provided the only real source of 
news during the war, when the alternative was the ponderous party-line 
reporting of Iraqi state television, which few Iraqis trusted. Al Alam, 
which started in February, was an immediate hit.

"When I finished my work, I would go home to watch television," said 
Muhanad Kerim, 38, a barber with a small shop in downtown Baghdad. Without 
electricity at home, Mr. Kerim now watches at work, where today a corner 
television set was tuned to the station, while two American soldiers waited 
for a trim.

"Iraqi people never saw television like this," said Mr. Assadi, a customer 
in the barbershop. Mr. Kerim nodded in agreement. Accustomed to a highly 
controlled state media, Iraqis are intrigued by the station's Western-style 
newscasts, with interviews ranging from political pundits to average 
people, and clips of speeches by American politicians.

Not everybody likes the channel. Residents of a wealthy Baghdad 
neighborhood, a quiet riverfront stretch of palm trees and large houses, 
expressed dismay at what they called an anti-American tone and a preachy 
style of reporting. Rich, secular Iraqi Muslims like the American 
administration and fear the influence of fundamentalists.

"It's propaganda," said Faisal al-Khodairy, an American-educated man whose 
businesses includes a bank, a pharmaceuticals producer and a construction 
company. "The Iranians want to push a huge influx of Iranian views into Iraq."

However annoying residents like Mr. Khodairy may find it, Al Alam is 
virtually the only channel in Baghdad. Washington has organized a station 
that beams newscasts as well as segments from the major networks to Iraqi 
television sets briefly at night from a military plane. But many 
interviewed here today said the channel was poorly done, had fuzzy 
reception and, in short, was not worth watching.

Al Alam's dominance on the airwaves comes as frustration with the American 
reconstruction effort is approaching a high boil. With power still out for 
most of the day, stoplights not working, scant police patrols and some 
neighborhoods still lacking running water, local residents say restoring 
the city's life functions is taking too long.

This is something Mr. Assadi, a smiling man of 28, has addressed in his 
reports. He is keenly aware of his power as a television reporter, saying, 
"I am a media man, and I can make people either for or against America." 
But he said he was reserving judgment about America's intervention in Iraq.

Mr. Assadi, who used to work as a Farsi translator, is an Iraqi Shiite. He 
defended the station's reporting as evenhanded and hard-hitting. He denied 
that the station was anti-American in tone and said he actively sought, but 
rarely got, American official comment.

Regarding tone, another Iraq correspondent for Al Alam, Safa Issa, said, 
"We are free, just like Al Jazeera."

In fact, the channel has used reporters from Al Jazeera, as well as local 
Iraqis, to cover the war in Iraq, said Hoseyn Beheshtipur, the station's 
managing director, in an interview in the Iranian news media on April 16. 
The channel broadcasts by satellite to other countries, and offers 
English-language service.

Mr. Beheshtipur said the station sought "to inform the public of news that 
countries which own their media do not want to disseminate, and to act as a 
bridge between Islamic countries." He added, "We broadcast both the effects 
of the war on Iraq and news provided by America itself."

Mr. Assadi said he was trying to provide good, fast reporting. As an Iraqi 
who lived under Saddam Hussein, he has filled his reports with details of 
the sufferings of his people. He has not yet come to a decision about the 
Americans in his country.

"America is like a new friend," said Mr. Assadi, the power flickering in 
the barbershop as Mr. Kerim put the finishing touches on his haircut. "I 
just met him. I must give him a chance."

Still, he said, "the reconstruction is going slowly." He added: "The people 
are unemployed. If it's a bad friend, I'll stand against it. I hope this 
will reach your government."

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