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Arab Media Split Over Iraq Election

by Jalal Ghazi

to coverage of Iraq election

(PNS) -- Arab media is riveted on the upcoming Iraqi elections, but divided. Some print and television outlets are running paid ads urging Iraqis to vote, while others repeat the Sunni demand that the Jan. 30 elections be postponed. In some cases, media from nations long critical of U.S. foreign policy are urging Iraqis to go to the polls.

Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi Television, which tend to be more independent from state influence, stressed the confusion surrounding the identities and platforms of the candidates, as well as Iraqis' fears of going to the polls.

Abu Dhabi Television, based in the United Arab Emirates, has been devoting most of its daily news hour program "Almadar" to the Iraqi elections. "In Baghdad," a commentator says, "like most cities in Iraq, satellite dishes have sprouted on rooftops. Many Iraqis are following the media coverage on television and on the Internet, and others flip through newspapers and magazines, even in the cold Baghdad weather, looking for new information about the elections." Some, the commentator says, describe the upcoming polls as the "Election of Numbers," because each candidate is assigned a number. Iraqis complain that they do not know the candidates, who are forced to keep low profile to avoid being targeted by "armed groups."

One Iraqi man tells Abu Dhabi Television, "Honestly, who am I going to vote for? Numbers? I don't know any names, only numbers."

The report is followed by a paid ad from the "Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program" ( Two Iraqi men play checkers on a small table while their two sons sit near a television set.

Abu Umar: Look Abu Khaled, people are taking a stand by not letting terrorists scare them from participating in the elections.

Abu Khaled: Abu Umar, people are afraid of explosions and threats. They are scared to vote.

Abu Umar: (loudly) So, are we are supposed to keep living in fear while watching the terrorists destroy our country? Millions of us want to vote, and our voice must be heard. We must participate in the decision making.

Abu Khaled: What decision? We now are a minority. What happened to the country will also happen to us.

Abu Umar: What is this, Sunnis, Shiites and Turks? Iraq is for all of us and we all must take a stand.

Abu Khaled: Brother, who does not love his country?

Abu Umar: Let us give the elections a chance. Let us vote for the sake of Iraq, for the sake of our sons Khaled and Umar. If we do not participate the train will pass us.

Soft oud music (the equivalent of Western guitar) plays as the following words appear on-screen: "Your love for Iraq is your vote. The January elections are for all Iraqis... your voice is power."

Probably no television is as supportive of the Iraqi elections as Al Alam, a 24-hour Arab television news channel based in Tehran. Al Alam was established soon after the war in Iraq, and caters primarily to Iraqi Shiites. One Iraqi man tells Al Alam, "We are serving God's will. All Iraqis, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Muslims and other minorities have the duty of voting for someone to represent them in writing the new Iraqi constitution."

The man was referring to the "fatwah," the religious decree issued by the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, which declared voting a religious duty.

Relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran have been strained due to three contested islands in the Gulf. UAE-based Abu Dhabi Television has been strongly critical of Sistani's fatwa, fearing that Iran would expand its influence in the Gulf. An Abu Dhabi reporter notes that "the Shiites, who boycotted the elections in 1923 under the British occupation and insisted that they be postponed to the next year, were also obeying a religious decree at the time."

Asharq Al-Awsat, an international Arab newspaper based in London, finds a different lesson in Britain's earlier occupation of Iraq. The paper pointed out that although the Shiites took up arms against the British occupation and ultimately forced them out, they still find themselves marginalized today because they boycotted the 1923 elections. The paper warns the Sunnis "not to do the same mistake." Asharq Al-Awsat is critical of Iran's power in Iraq, and aims at encouraging the Iraqi Sunnis to vote to ensure they have a voice in the new Iraqi government.

Not all Arab television stations are critical of Iranian influence in Iraq. Syria, the only Arab country that stood with Iran during its 1980-1988 war with Iraq, still has very strong ties with Tehran. This may explain why Syrian television supports the Iraqi elections. Although Syria joins Iran in strongly criticizing U.S. foreign policy, the two countries support U.S. efforts to hold elections. More than 400,000 Iraqi refugees live in Syria, and Damascus has urged them to go to polling centers in schools and cultural centers.

Al Arabiya, based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and indirectly financed by Saudi money, aired the largest number of paid election ads urging Iraqis to vote. In one ad, Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi states, "My most important priorities are returning security and stability to Iraq and securing the borders in order to prevent terrorists from infiltrating our beloved country." Allawi then gets the endorsement of a mother from Baghdad. While her son holds a football in the background, she says, "That is the main reason I choose 285," referring to Allawi's Iraqi List party.

However, Al Arabiya also aired ads for the other main party, the United Iraqi Alliance, which has the support of Ali Sistani.

Al Jazeera aired no paid advertising supporting any particular candidate. Spokesman Jihad Balut told Al Arabiya, "Our policy demands that we do not intervene in any political process." Al Jazeera is the most-watched Arab television in the Arab world, but its office in Baghdad has been closed since August 2004 by an order from the Iraqi interim government.

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Albion Monitor January 27, 2005 (

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