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Controversial Iraqi Television Program Airs Confessions of Alleged Terrorists


In Iraq, a controversial television program is broadcasting confessions by individuals accused of responsibility for the wave of violence in the country. The program is popular with many Iraqis, tired of the continuing instability two years after the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

A man, appearing disheveled and uncomfortable, sits on a wooden chair in a dim room of what appears to be a police station.

As an interrogator peppers him with questions, the man says he was part of a gang that kidnapped and murdered Iraqis during the past two years in order to create a split between Shi'ite and Sunni Iraqis. But he says his acts were not holy war. They were blasphemous.

Police say his name is Ramzi Hashem and he carried out the bombing nearly two-years ago at a Shi'ite shrine in Najaf that killed senior Shi'ite cleric Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim and 100 followers.

During the interrogation Ramzi Hashem also admits to committing rapes and taking drugs. Prisoners in other interviews on the program say they were paid an average of $150 per killing and after committing 12 murders were given the title of prince (emir) and paid a salary.

Victims of the violence have also been interviewed.

A widow with five children says her husband, a restaurant owner, was taken away one night by men calling themselves mujahedeen. She says they tortured him for four days before dumping his dead body behind her house.

The woman says she recognized one of the abductors as a former Iraqi police officer named Shukhair who has appeared on the same program and confessed to more than 100 murders.

The hour-long program is called Terrorists in the Hands of Justice. It appears nightly on the government-owned Iraqia network.

It has gripped the attention of the general public, angry over the violence that has killed thousands of Iraqi civilians and 1,200 foreign troops.

Iraqi officials say the show is changing people's initial perception of the insurgency as a noble struggle for freedom, to the view that the violence is primarily the work of criminals hired by enemies of the new government.

Hasanin Faiz Jaber, a 28 year-old laborer, says he watches the program every day. He says it feels good to see that the government is working to improve security.

Sameera Polis, a 35 year-old office worker, watches to learn who is behind the violence, but she says it scares her when the criminals talk about targeting ordinary people like herself.

An Iraqi journalist who has investigated some of the confessions, Sa'ad al-Izzi, says he was impressed by the program at first.

"But later on the credibility of that show and the credibility of those confessions became a little bit doubt[ful]," said Mr. al-Izzi.

Mr. Sa'ad says some of the victims named in the confessions later were reported to be still alive and some of the prisoners appear to have been beaten. Police deny torture is used to extract the confessions and many prisoners say on camera that they are well-treated.

In addition, many of the prisoners are from the Sunni group, which dominated the government of deposed President Saddam Hussein and whose members are said to spearhead the resistance.

Mohammed Ali, a 50 year-old retired Sunni, says sometimes the program makes him mad. He says they should broadcast the trials of the prisoners, not the confessions. This would remove doubts about the program.

But 40 year-old driver Ahmed Jassem says the confessions are not fabricated because he knows some of the victims. He says the program sends a powerful message to the criminals that they may be captured at any time.

Journalist Sa'ad al-Izzi says the confessions have de-mystified the insurgency.

"Most of those guys are criminal gangs, are doing everything just for money," he said. "It is not for ethnic, or sectarian or religious bases. They are mostly low-life criminals getting paid for criminal activities."

A leader of a Sunni group that advocates peaceful opposition to the Iraqi government, Professor Naebil Younis, says the program is misleading the Iraqi people.

"These criminal groups, they have nothing to do with the resistance," he explained. "In fact, one of the problems of the resistance is some people think this is the resistance, which is not really, not the truth."

But Shi'ite parliament member Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum says the program is informative and should continue.

"It is not fabricated. It is fact," he said. "The ones who killed the Iraqi people are not sincere people, are not Iraqi only, are terrorists from inside cooperating with the former Ba'ath regime."

The program has also aired confessions of alleged foreign terrorists. One prisoner said he was a colonel in the Syrian intelligence services who worked undercover in northern Iraq. He said he carried out scores of attacks using ransom money from kidnappings.

The Syrian government vehemently denies the report and has lodged a formal protest with the Iraqi government. The program has heightened resentment by many Iraqis toward neighboring countries, which they feel benefited from the Saddam government and now support the insurgency.

Independent observers say there is no Iraqi law against such a program, as long as the prisoners are not abused and receive a fair trial. But some wonder whether the merits of discrediting the insurgency outweigh the risks of aggravating social tensions as Iraqi leaders try to forge a government of national unity.

In any case, the program is highly popular and often dominates conversations in coffee shops and on the street. And it is spawning imitators. A similar program, called The Real Terrorism, recently aired on another Iraqi channel, Kurdistan TV.

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