Exiled Iraqi opposition leaders are set to begin transmitting television programs into Iraq from London. Funded by the U.S. Congress, the broadcasts are part of an effort to undermine Saddam Hussein, who continues to maintain a firm grip on the impoverished country.
Can an hour a day of uncensored television help topple Saddam Hussein?
The London-based Iraqi National Congress, the main opposition to Saddam, thinks so. That is why they have arranged to beam news, commentary and music by satellite TV to Iraq. Since satellite dishes are available in Iraq, the audience could be substantial.
The project is off to a good start, says David Wormser, director of Middle East studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. The Iraqi opposition is keeping to schedule with funding by the U.S. Congress. A major goal is to reach the Iraqi elite and start them worrying. "To Saddam's people in Baghdad who are watching and monitoring, the signal would be basically, "you better watch yourselves," he said. "We are beginning to get in on the ground. We are beginning to penetrate your area, and you are alone."
TV may be worth a try, says Lee McKnight, professor of international communication at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. But he is doubtful. An examination of such broadcasts over the years has convinced him they rarely lead to a change of regime. It takes a steadfast effort over a long time to be effective, as in the case of U.S. radio broadcasts during the Cold War.
Baghdad's elite remain controlled and fearful, "Do they want their kids gossiping about what they saw on Iraqi opposition TV the night before at school? If they watch, it is probably going to be in secret, even from their own family," he said. "If I were an Iraqi singer, would I want my video on this channel? It is going to be very difficult for them to have very much of a program, other than overseas Iraqis talking to themselves."
Despite rumors of ill health, Saddam Hussein is still firmly in charge, says David Wormser. It will not be easy to dislodge him, particularly in view of the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. "He has always tried to divert attention from his own troubles to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and it serves his interest to change the subject, rather than it being his repression and his thuggishness in the neighborhood," said David Wormser. "He is trying to make the point that the West and its ally Israel are the problem."
He is doing a pretty good job of that, says Michael Hudson, professor of international relations and Arab studies at Georgetown University. The Iraqi ruler is rather deftly exploiting the issue of Palestinian suppression. "President Saddam Hussein has once again made an explicit kind of pitch to support the Palestinian resistance in this case to promise generous cash payments to the families of martyrs, families of Palestinians that have been killed by the Israelis during the uprising," he said. "There is no doubt that he is getting a good deal of political mileage out of this."
Ultimately, says Professor Hudson, events in the region may prove more decisive than U.S. funded television broadcasts or other forms of Iraqi opposition.