Trial by television

A once dull government mouthpiece in Mosul becomes a popular reality show -- "Terrorism in the Grip of Justice" -- in which captured insurgents confess live on-air.

By Rory Carroll
Published March 28, 2005 2:52PM (EST)

Twenty minutes to show time and studio technicians are loading the tape for transmission to Baghdad when mortars thud outside. Four hit the lawn, three hit the motorway, carving craters but causing no casualties. The staff resume work, unfazed by the latest assault on the television station.

Aired twice a day, "Terrorism in the Grip of Justice" is a popular reality show, but those firing 62 mm mortars do not like it and have made the Mosul headquarters of the state channel Al-Iraqiya arguably the most dangerous posting in broadcasting. With watchtowers at the gate, sandbags on the roof and American soldiers patrolling the corridors, the two-story building resembles a fortress, but that has not stopped insurgents from bombing, kidnapping and murdering the Iraqis who work inside.

"I don't think they like the program very much," says the station's director, Ghazi Faisal, 52, with monumental understatement. Most of the staff have fled, but their boss remains, a mix of resignation, defiance and pride. He does not stop munching his kebab when the mortars land. "I'm the terrorists' most wanted man in Mosul."

Launched in January, the one-hour program features captured insurgents confessing to a variety of alleged crimes and vices, including pornography and booze. Cowed and crestfallen, they admit attacking security forces and raping and beheading civilians.

The impact has been electric. Al-Iraqiya was once widely scorned as a dull Iraqi government mouthpiece; all that changed in January when Mosul started feeding the confessions to the main studio in Baghdad, giving the network a national prime-time hit.

Iraqis switch on their televisions at midday and 9 p.m. to catch the latest confessions, which are then debated in homes, offices, taxis and cafes. Akin to "Jerry Springer" meets "Newsnight," it is the government's most effective propaganda against a rebellion still raging two years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

American officials say they have no involvement in making "Terrorism in the Grip of Justice" but welcome its impact. President Bush has ramped up spending on "public diplomacy" to win foreign hearts and minds in his war on terror.

The televised confessions are the brainchild of a commander of the Wolf brigade, a branch of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Known only by his nickname, Abul Waleed, he phones Faisal at Al-Iraqiya to send a camera crew to his police station when there is a fresh batch of prisoners ready to be filmed.

Visually, the result is often dull: a line of ordinary-looking men in chairs taking turns to answer an unseen inquisitor. But the effect is utterly compelling. Once insurgents were seen only masked, armed and standing before a trembling hostage in videos they posted on the Internet, holy warriors exuding power and confidence. Al-Iraqiya turns the tables, showing alleged rebels unmasked, twitchy and humiliated as they detail grisly murders and, to widespread astonishment, tales of drunkenness, gay orgies and pornography.

They took up arms not to fight the occupation, or for Islam, but because they were common criminals who wanted money. Executing someone earned $100, says one man. He practiced decapitating chickens and sheep before moving on to policemen and soldiers.

Critics say the program violates the Geneva Convention and question the veracity of what are clearly intimidated prisoners. Sometimes the inquisitor confesses on their behalf and they merely nod, eager to agree.

The Interior Ministry says the show was an emergency measure and hints that it will soon be reviewed. Meanwhile, the security forces are delighted, crediting the change in public mood with a flow of intelligence tips.

There tends to be an especially strong response after shows that confront alleged killers with victims' relatives. "You burned my heart!" wailed the mother of a murdered son, jabbing a large, unshaven man in the chest. "May God burn your heart! What kind of religion do you have?" He stared at his feet, avoiding her eyes.

Human rights activists worry that the program marks a return to Saddam-style public humiliations and coerced confessions, which undermine subsequent trials. Others complain that a complex insurgency that includes Islamic radicals, former regime loyalists and Arab Sunni nationalists is being depicted as nothing more than a coalition of thieving scumbags, a caricature that could deepen religious tensions.

Shiites and Kurds tend to be fans. "Before these guys were like ghosts. Now we see their faces and realize that they are criminals and drunkards from our neighborhoods. We want them hanged," says Ahmad, 29, a Kurdish interpreter for U.S. forces in Mosul.

There are no ratings figures to confirm the anecdotal evidence of popularity. Nor is there independent confirmation that the men are and did what they say they are and did. Some have the swollen and bruised faces and robotic manners of those beaten and coached by police interrogators off-camera.

Without doubt, genuine rebels loathe the program, as evinced by the mortar attacks. "It is really scaring them; it opens up their security and takes away their anonymity," says Capt. Jason Hogan, an intelligence officer with the U.S. battalion tasked with protecting Al-Iraqiya's regional station in Mosul.

A maze of alleys bisected by the Tigris River, Mosul is Iraq's third city and an insurgency crucible; as the program's popularity has grown, so have threats against station employees. Warnings posted in mosques and distributed in pamphlets have kept about 50 of the 60-strong staff at home. Last month, masked gunmen kidnapped a newsreader, Raeda Wazzan; according to her husband, she was found dead a week later with four bullets in her head. Gunmen also tried and failed to snatch a producer.

Studios are dotted with mattresses for those who sleep at work rather than risk the journey home. Three staff members were slightly wounded when a mortar hit the main entrance, but the big fear is kidnapping. Most declined to be named or photographed. Those who still turn up say they do so for the monthly salary -- over $400 -- and to defy the insurgents. Khalid Abdulla, 42, is a comedian and scriptwriter who now doubles as a janitor, cleaner, tea maker and electrician: "We are five doing the job of 55."

In addition to acting, his colleague Mohammad Haddad, 32, produces and directs their show, a mix of chat with sketches that are increasingly direct in lambasting insurgents. Their shows have not criticized the occupation, even though a U.S. patrol mistakenly shot and killed Abdulla's brother last December.

It is no secret that the television station relies on Washington largess. Built in 1969 to broadcast light entertainment and Baathist regime propaganda, the Mosul network was bombed by coalition planes in the Gulf War and again in 1999. In the chaos of the March 2003 invasion it was looted, but it reopened months later as part of the Iraqi Media Network, which is funded by the U.S. and operates from the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.

The few technicians and journalists who still come to work at Al-Iraqiya in Mosul are greeted by similarly high security: coils of razor wire, concrete barriers and 23-ton armored vehicles called Strykers parked on the lawn. A garrison of 95 Iraqi soldiers is bolstered by a platoon of U.S. infantrymen, who spend their free time in the canteen playing dominos and practicing first aid.

Last week, the Guardian met a Texas engineer, a small, wiry man in a big helmet, who was plotting more elaborate defenses against possible snipers and suicide car bombers. An entire stretch of motorway may be sealed off. One technician said: "We are embarrassed to have the Americans here, but it does make us feel safer."

Rory Carroll

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