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Benador Associates Public Relations

LOSING THE COMMON MAN
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
May 21, 2004

WHY don't the Americans trust us? Why don't they talk to us? Even before yesterday's raid on the home of Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi Governing Council, more and more Iraqis have been asking such questions.

"It is as if we are being scripted out of matters that concern us," says a member of the Committee for Reconstruction and Development in Baghdad. "Several European companies have been enlisted to work out urban development plans that should be decided by us."

Another official complains that Iraqi journalists and managers are systematically shut out of Coalition-financed media ventures. The Coalition's official TV station, al Iraqiyah, is almost entirely run by Maronite Christians from Lebanon. Some 80 percent of its programs are made in Dubai by Lebanese, Egyptian and Iranian producers. No Iraqis around. The accent is Lebanese, as are the music program.

Lebanese and Egyptian re-runs provide a good part of the fare, much to the chagrin of the Iraqis. It offers shows on Lebanese cooking, something Iraqis either don't know about or dislike. Other programs include body-building lessons for ladies, something Iraqi women regard as indecent.

The new programs treat Iraqis as morons who must be fed Arab-style propaganda with every news bulletin billing Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer in the same way that Saddam Hussein was billedin his heyday.

Not surprisingly, the costly TV station attracts no more than 12 percent of the audience share in Iraq — far behind that won by Iranian and Qatari satellite channels.

"Being ruled by mighty America is one thing," says Saadoun Qurban, a Baghdad businessman. "But being bossed over by people from tiny Lebanon is quite another."

Are there Iraqis to run their own media? Yes, plenty. In fact, Iraqis are the stars of the most popular Arab TV channels, including the controversial Al-Jazeera.

Another complaint: American leaders seldom bother to appear on the Iraqi station. President Bush went on the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya to speak of his horror about Abu Ghraib, which happens to be in Iraq. And it was in an interview with Al Ahram, the Egyptian government's newspaper, that the president offered his apologies over the prisoner-abuse scandal.

Iraq has 150 new newspapers, almost all of them better than Al Ahram, if only because they aren't propaganda sheets for an unelected government. Yet they can't even get an interview with Bremer's driver, let alone President Bush.

Worse still, Bush presented his first Abu Ghraib apologies to Jordan's King Abdullah. The Iraqis regard themselves as potential leaders of the Middle East and resent being treated as if they were under the tutelage of the King of Jordan or anyone else.

"Would it not have been better for the president to call the head of the Iraq Governing Council or, better still, to invite him to the White House, to offer an apology?" asks a member. "And was it not odd that the first move to make up for Abu Ghraib was an invitation to the Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraie to visit Washington? This means that Iraqis are tortured, but the Yasser Arafat gang are rewarded."

The list of senior Americans who appear on Qatari, Saudi and Lebanese TV channels to explain U.S. policies reads like a Who's Who of the Bush White House. But they systematically shun Iraq's new, privately-owned and free media, which is the most robust in the so-called Arab world today.

Needless to say, most of the contracts granted since liberation have gone to non-Iraqi companies and businessmen. The Kuwaitis have received a share far in excess of the actual size of their country. (Until recently, Bremer even had his laundry done in Kuwait.)

There are Turkish, Iranian, Jordanian, Lebanese and even Syrian companies and businessmen all over the place. The CPA believes that they are more welcome than companies and businessmen from the West. The Iraqis, however, feel all that as a humiliation.

"The Americans don't even trust us as their man-Friday," complains Saleh Ali, a Baghdad businessman.

To make matters worse, the Coalition now wants to bring in Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat, to rule Iraq in the transition period.

"Iraq was a state and a founder of the United Nations when Algeria was a French province," says Ali. "Is there no Iraqi capable of doing the job that they have reserved for Brahimi?"

Contrary to the generally held view that Iraq is an "artificial country" with no sense of identity, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis have strong patriotic sentiments that cut across ethnic and religious differences. They set the concept of "Uruqua" (Iraqi-ness) against that of "Uruba" (Arabness) to claim a special leadership place for their country.

The Iraqis complain that America and its allies have never tried to address the Iraqi masses. Contact is limited to tribal and religious leaders, plus a few dozen officials in and around the Governing Council.

In most cases, Iraqi masses hear about Coalition decision through other Arab countries. And they resent that.

"We were supposed to be special friends," says Khalid Kishtaini, a novelist. "In practice, however, the Americans seem to take us for granted while courting other Arabs at our expense."

Why has the Coalition marginalized Iraqis in so many domains?

One reason may be the fact that the Coalition has imprisoned itself in fortress-like buildings, reducing direct contact with the Iraqis to a minimum. This is a pity. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis have a sense of gratitude toward America and its allies, although they may be reluctant to say so in front of TV cameras. A small minority of terrorists and anti-U.S. insurgents has succeeded in preventing the people-to-people contact needed to build lasting friendships.

Will John Negroponte, the man chosen to be the first U.S. ambassador to liberated Iraq, understand the situation and try to establish a rapport with the people of Iraq? Maybe — if it is not too late already.

Amir Taheri is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.

 

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