What the Kurds Watch on TV

SULAYMANIYAH, Kurdistan—In a busy, cavernous teahouse full of Kurdish merchants playing backgammon, the television showed the scene of a British APC pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein. In the teahouse, loud with the smashing din of dominos, a furling cloud of smoke hovers just below the ceiling; the floor is thick with ashes and cigarette butts. Now, Saddam—bronzed, arm outstretched—toppled through a rigid arc onto his face. The clattering dominos stopped for a moment, and everyone cheered.

Outside my hotel, a group of university students gathered to protest the Arabic channels’ coverage of the war. There were not very many protesters, but they held up unequivocal banners that read, “Freedom Yes, Baath Dictators No” and “Arabic Channels Must Show Their News About Iraq Clearly and Put Things in Their Correct Context.”

Dana Assad Mohammed, a student journalist with curly hair and an indignant air, had organized the rally.

“Those channels defend Saddam,” Dana told me. “We want them to defend our nation. Especially Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Only Kuwait TV is good.”

He explained that the Arab channels had reported that American missiles had targeted civilians during the bombing campaign against Ansar al-Islam—the terrorist group—in the mountains. This wasn’t true, he said. The bomb craters corresponded exactly to Ansar bunkers and command posts. Also Arabic channels showed the hospital pictures from Baghdad of the casualties from American bombing, but when a child was killed by Iraqi shelling into Chamchamal, once on the Kurdish front line, they said nothing. “I am against their news,” Dana railed. “Because it shows the war negatively.”

I suggested that freedom of the press should entitle the stations to their opinions, and he pointed out that he was exercising his own freedom of speech by demonstrating against their opinions.

Kurds tend to be Kurds first, Iraqis grudgingly second. They see Iraq is an Arab nation, and, after 12 years of autonomy, they don’t want to live in an Arab nation. They dislike the Arab channels that present a pan-Arab view of American invaders killing innocent Muslims. “They don’t feel that they belong to this country. We have seen so much cruelty from it,” explained Asos Hardi, the erudite editor of Howlati, Kurdistan’s one independent newspaper. “How can you feel that you belong to a country that has refused you?”

Hardi agreed that the Arab channels reporting from northern Iraq often paint an inaccurate picture. “For example, the correspondent of Abu Dhabi TV in Erbil was doing a live link. He was explaining that the Iraqi forces had pulled back from their positions and that Kurds had occupied them. I heard him repeat this several times, but when the link was over, the presenter turned to the camera and said, ‘And now we remind you of our main news: The Kurds have begun attacking Iraqi positions.’ ”

Before the war started, Al Jazeera got into trouble with Mam Rostum, a PUK commander in Chamchamal. Mam Rostum is a colorful character, an uneducated, brave peshmerga fighter who joined the militia in 1967. Mam Rostum said he saw Al Jazeera reporting that Chamchamal was full of American troops, which wasn’t then true. According to various reports, Mam Rostum was furious—and he beat up the Al Jazeera corespondent. “If they come anywhere near this place again I’ll shoot them myself,” he says now.

Al Jazeera left Sulaymaniyah soon after. “Of course the PUK wasn’t right to throw them out,” says Hardi. “If you believe in freedom of the press.”

Although the Arab channels present negative close-ups of civilian gore, Hardi believes, the local PUK channel and Kuwait TV show the war far too favorably. “Kuwait only shows American victories. Nobody does anything about their inaccuracies.”

Abdel Hamid is the correspondent for Kuwait TV in Sulaymaniyah. He says Kuwait TV is on the side of the coalition because “Kuwaiti people have faced the disaster of Saddam Hussein, and they know the Iraqi people face what we faced.” He did find it ironic that Kuwait TV was the only Arab channel that the students had allowed to film their demonstrations against Arab channels. Apparently, the Kurds really like Kuwait TV.

“They often won’t let us pay in taxis or in restaurants,” Hamid says. “The Kurds have built a ground station to transmit into northern Iraq, into Kirkuk and other cities still controlled by the regime. Kuwait was the only channel they allowed to broadcast throughout it.”

Unlike Kuwait, the rest of the Arab world thinks that the Americans have unleashed unnecessary aggression against an Arab state. For the Abu Dhabi correspondent, Amro Abdel Hamid, it’s clear. “This is an Arab country and for whatever reason foreign forces have invaded it; this is the principle.”

In general in the Arab world, there’s a polarization: Those against the war, who see unilateral American aggression, and those in favor, who think that whatever the price, Saddam must be destroyed. Every Iraqi I have met is of the latter view.

Bakr Shirza Mirza is a carpenter and a Shiite whom the Arabs deported in 1980 from Baghdad. He was exiled in Iran, and he now lives in Sulaymaniyah. Mirza is old and poor and has no teeth. We sat in the teahouse with the war on the telivision in the corner. “We hate Al Jazeera,” Mirza said. “It only says bad things about the Americans. Of course, I am sad to see civilians hurt. We are very sorry for them, but it is part of the process of war.”

Scenes of Saddam touring Baghdad came on the screen. It was an Arab channel, but the BBC and others also used the footage from Iraqi TV. On the screen was a crowd, guns and fists in the air, shouting “Nam, Nam, Nam Saddam!” Saddam appeared in benevolent-paternal Stalin mode, holding a baby.

“Do you think it’s him?” asked Maki Ahmed, Mirza’s friend, also a Shiite. Nobody here knows.

“Saddam is finished, insh’allah,” said Ahmed, finally, answering his own question. “Let him walk about; it doesn’t mean anything.”