On the Air, the Voice of Sunni Rebels in Iraq

By MARC SANTORA and DAMIEN CAVE

New York Times

January 21, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 21 — The video starts with a young American soldier patrolling an Iraqi street. His head is obscured by leaves, so a red target is digitally inserted to draw the viewer’s eye. A split second later, the soldier collapses, shot. Martial music kicks in, a jihadi answer to John Philip Sousa. The time and place of the attack scrolls at the bottom of the screen.

Such tapes, along with images of victims of Shiite militias and unflattering coverage of Shiite leaders, are beaming across Iraq and much of the Middle East 24 hours a day, broadcast by a banned Iraqi satellite television station that has become a major information center for the Sunni insurgency — and the focus of a cat-and-mouse hunt that has exasperated and infuriated American and Iraqi forces.

Making the situation even more galling for the authorities, American and Iraqi officials say that money stolen from the United States probably helps pay for the station.

“They do not have programs but buffoonery, blaspheming and support for terrorism,” said Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, a senior member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party. “The source of funding for the channel is theft.”

The channel’s founder, Meshaan al-Juburi, is a former Sunni member of Parliament who was indicted last February on charges of embezzling millions of American dollars meant to pay for a vast pipeline protection force he had been assigned to help build with recruits from Salahuddin Province. He was accused of collecting salaries for thousands of soldiers who did not exist.

He denied the charges and went into hiding, fleeing to Syria.

But the American and Iraqi officials said he funneled some of the money to Sunni insurgents, and they suspect much of it helped him shift the programming on his channel, Al Zawra (“the gate” in Arabic), from popular music videos and dance shows to gruesome and detailed death scenes.

Iraqi officials said Mr. Juburi made the switch to irritate his critics, and to try and buy himself protection from prosecution.

“He started showing the insurgency videos just to be close to the resistance,” said Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab and speaker of Parliament. “Because the only thing that can save him from punishment is for the Iraqi government to collapse.”

Iraqi officials banned the station on Nov. 5, focusing on its anti-Shiite footage and accusing it of “agitating the people against a large Iraqi sect with killing and genocide.” Since then, the station has become a pirate outfit, fleeing new, makeshift headquarters at least twice.

Some top American military officials say they have aggressively tried to find where the broadcasts originate to put an end to them, but so far they have failed.

Baha al-Araji, a Shiite member of Parliament familiar with efforts to cut off the station, said the Iraqi government had also asked Nilesat, the Egyptian broadcaster responsible for transmitting the station via satellite, to cancel its contract with Al Zawra. So far, the company has refused, and the Egyptian government has rejected requests to intervene.

Iraqi officials said Nilesat promised not to renew Al Zawra’s contract, though they did not know when it would expire.

The station’s popularity is being aided by growing fears among Sunnis in neighboring countries of Shiite domination in Iraq, fears Al Zawra stokes through the often gruesome videotape of what it identifies as death-squad victims.

As neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere continue to be purged of Sunnis, the broadcasts prominently list the names of areas that have been taken over, advocating bloody vengeance. And even as America considers sending more troops to Iraq, in part to protect Sunnis from being slaughtered, the channel is meant to inspire resistance.

Mr. Juburi’s critics said he has a history of parlaying political favor into personal fortunes. Iraqi officials said he made millions as a cigarette supplier under Saddam Hussein, and later ingratiated himself with Americans searching for Sunnis to bring into Iraq’s new government.

Mr. Juburi now lives openly and comfortably in Syria.

He refused requests for an interview, but has often appeared on other Arab satellite channels to defend the station. Earlier this month on Al Jazeera, he debated Sadiq al-Musawi, a Shiite Iraqi political analyst, condemning Iraq’s government and what he described as an ambitious effort to “defame” Al Zawra.

In an interview conducted via e-mail, a representative of Al Zawra, who did not reveal his name, said that the station’s leaders had been a direct target of the Americans, and forced to move twice. The representative railed against the Americans and the Shiite militias, as well as the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

“Our media’s message is to broadcast the voice of the resisters to the American and Iranian occupation, to reveal the crimes of Badr Organization and Moktada’s army and the gangs of Maliki,” the representative said, citing two prominent Shiite militias, “and document it and work on forming a legal directorate to prosecute them in international courts for the crimes of genocide against the Sunni Arabs in Iraq.”

When the station shuttered its Baghdad office several months ago, it was thought to have moved its operations to Salahuddin Province, northwest of Baghdad, in the Sunni heartland. The governor there said publicly that he was ordered to make sure he did not play host to the station, noting that the Americans had delivered a “stern” message on the subject. In December, Kurdish officials denied reports that the station was operating out of a Christian neighborhood in Erbil.

The station does not have much structure or style. Grainy clips of grisly violence, running in loops and sometimes in slow motion, are interspersed with news bulletins featuring just two commentators — a woman, who wraps and covers her face, and a man in a full battle fatigues whose face is uncovered, and who appears to be about 30 years old.

They regularly accuse Iraq’s Shiite-led government of being a front for Iran. Mr. Mashhadani, the Parliamentary speaker and a Sunni, is often called “Mashhadi” — a reference to the Iranian town of Mashhad, Iran’s holiest Shiite city.

The station also frequently offers critical coverage of the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr, including broadcasting a clip that the station says demonstrates his militia’s infiltration of the Iraqi Army. Mr. Sadr is shown sitting with aides, discussing how many militiamen he can spare to be a part of the Iraqi Army. In the end, he says that he will supply two divisions. The source of the video is unclear.

In an odd twist, at the same time as the broadcasts promote attacks against the Americans and the Shiite militias, the station’s main commentator, the man in fatigues, encourages other Shiites to join the struggle.

In fact, the commentator, who reads his diatribes from an undisclosed location, is himself a Shiite, according to a Baghdad couple who identified themselves as his parents.

As the station’s agenda shifts from focusing strictly on the Americans to rallying Sunnis to prevent Shiite control of the country, the potential of the message to stir up more bloodshed is that much greater.

But the representative of the station seemed confident that it would stay on the air.

“Al Zawra represents all factions of resistance against the Iranian and American occupation,” he wrote. “And it is committed to broadcasting their messages and activities without any interference or discrimination.”

Khalid al-Ansary and Qais Mizher contributed reporting.