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Iraqi Reality TV Program Trails Young Couples Planning Weddings

Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein government two years ago, a number of new broadcasters have exploded onto the scene. And, as a result, reality-based television is becoming a popular staple in a country that continues to be beset by suicide bombings, outlaws in the streets, and a U.S. occupation force. A new program seeks to depict what life is really like for young couples getting married.

Asmaa Ayad's big day has finally arrived - her wedding day. Dressed in a Western-style, white wedding-gown, she waits patiently for her fiance to arrive as friends apply some last minute touch-ups to her make-up.

Ms. Ayad says she's not nervous, which is surprising, given all that's about to happen.

When the groom arrives, he is trailed by two cameraman, filming his every move and the eruption of singing and dancing by family and friends.

For nearly two months, the young couple have been trailed by an Iraqi reality TV program. Called Congratulations, the program pays for the wedding and all its preparations for a young couple chosen by its viewers.

The episode being shot today is the last in eight weekly episodes showing all the arrangements leading up to the wedding which paid for by al-Sharqiya television, which produces Congratulations. Ms. Ayad says the approximately $10,000 that the al-Sharqiya network puts into each wedding was her main motivation for applying to take part.

But unlike some programs, this is not a contrived entertainment program posing as reality. Viewers have been invited into the bride and groom's homes and onto the streets of Baghdad to see what it takes to accomplish even simple tasks.

For an earlier episode, the director, the program's hostess and a cameraman have gone to a furniture shop to pay for a bedroom set already selected by Ms. Ayad and her fiance - and to deliver it.

Altogether, it takes about an hour to do some last minute polishing, pay for and load up the furniture into the shop's truck.

But this is an essential part of programming. Alaa Saleh, the director of Congratulations, from al-Sharqiya television, says "you see us filming in the streets, with the traffic. The viewers get to know what it's like to shoot this program. Credibility is everything. It's important to show people how we deliver the bedroom set to the bride and groom's home and to see the difficulties we face."

And the difficulties are many.

An unexpected traffic jam means that the furniture truck has for a time become separated from the television crew's van - a problem that's worked into the program with the program's hostess continuing the show within the confines of the van.

At last, she says, "we found the truck carrying the bedroom set. But there's still a problem with such dense traffic. All the ways are blocked. We don't know the solution yet."

The groom lives in al-Doura district in southern Baghdad, known for insurgent activity and tensions between Shiites and Sunni Muslim groups.

Eventually, the way becomes clear - and this episode based on a surprise visit to what will be the young couple's home begins to take shape. Still, it takes a long time for anyone to answer the door.

Finally, Ms. Ayad emerges. She says, "God saved us today. We saw a huge explosion." She then explains how a car-bomb detonated nearby sent shrapnel falling onto the house.

The program's hostess then turns toward the camera, saying "so that's why all the streets were blocked."

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad later confirmed that one of its officials escaped an car-bomb assassination attempt in al-Doura district that day - very likely to be the same blast Ms. Ayad was referring to. The embassy refused to confirm news reports that suggested the official was meeting with insurgents to open channels of communication with them.

As the deliverymen begin unloading the furniture, shock at the car-bomb quickly turns to celebration by the groom's mother and family. She says she prays for Allah to bless you and preserve the staff of al-Sharqiya - and to save them from any harm, God willing.

Congratulations is produced by the network al-Sharqiya, which means "The Eastern One." Iraq's first independent satellite television broadcaster, it is staking its future on soap operas, music videos and reality TV. Producers have no hard figures, but they estimate that millions of people across the region watch the seven weekly episodes leading up to each wedding they organize.

They say Congratulations' popularity with viewers depends on the fact that it shows people just like them.

Nineteen year-old groom Hussam Sabah earns about $150 a month working as a fireman. He is sometimes called to the scene of car-bombs and other insurgency-related violence.

But the near daily-dose of chaos has not put him off the idea of getting married. He says, he does not care about the violence, because Iraqis are used to these things happening everyday. He says it's "normal."

But Mr. Saleh knows that it's not, and what Congratulations offers its viewers is a taste of normality and encouragement in otherwise trying times. He says, "the violence shouldn't stop me from working and doing my job. You saw us when we were going in the street. We were stuck in traffic because everytime something happens, the Americans and Iraqi police block all the roads. Despite this, we go on and finish our work."

Ms. Ayad's and Mr. Hussam's wedding, which took place at a hotel, went off without a hitch. But about a week after their wedding, guests and staff at the same hotel escaped injury when a car-bomb was detonated in its parking lot.

With Iraq's insurgency showing no signs of letting up, viewers across the region know that Hussam and Asmaa are setting off on what may be an uncertain future. But thanks to a TV program, more of them can see exactly what Iraq's reality actually means.