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Thu, June 5, 2003

Selling America: U.S. army units try to win hearts and minds of Iraqis

BAGHDAD (AP) - Sheik Abdul Jabar leaned forward in his chair, stroked his beard and delivered a warning to the U.S. army psychological operations soldier seated across from him.

"We don't want anyone to touch our women," the Shiite cleric said as his companions in turbans and headscarves nodded. Then came other grievances, including a vague warning about U.S. soldiers displaying pornography in Iraq.

"You talk to that soldier's boss, and immediately something will be done. I guarantee it," said Sgt. Eric Viburs, of the army's 346th Psychological Operations Company, based in Columbus, Ohio. The tension eased, Marlboros and Kufa Colas were passed around, and soon Viburs was practically family.

The Americans aren't merely interested in the sheik's friendship. They want to enlist him as a mouthpiece in the poor Shiite Muslim neighbourhood where he is a leader.

Across Iraq, dozens of three-person "psyops" teams are pursuing similar missions: befriending community leaders and using them to boost Iraqis' opinions of the United States and distribute its messages.

The army's psychological operations force in Iraq is the largest in U.S. history, with 11 companies and almost 1,000 psyops personnel in the country or in support roles in the United States, said Lt.-Col. Glenn Ayers, commander of the 9th Psychological Operations Battalion based in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Their mission is to persuade Iraqis to do the Pentagon's bidding: report unexploded munitions, vacate a building, support U.S. troops, give up.

It's a mission as old as war itself.

"You're basically trying to sell a product, and the product is 'Please surrender at your earliest possible convenience,' " said John Pike, a military analyst with, a consulting group based in Arlington, Va.

During the war, psyops detachments helped engineer the surrender and desertion of thousands of Iraqi soldiers.

They dropped leaflets describing the proper way to hand over weapons. They carried a mobile radio station that told Iraqis the U.S. invasion force was on its way.

On the ground, the teams carry Sony MiniDisc players packed with bizarre sounds: commands in Arabic, helicopter and tank noises and sonic shrieks to clear crowds. One unit in southern Iraq deceived the Iraqi military by blaring recorded sounds of advancing tanks, Ayers said.

"We got the Iraqis to look in one direction when the real tanks came in the other direction," said Ayers.

Since the war's end, the psyops mission has changed to a "safety and stabilization" message. Teams roam Baghdad asking Iraqis about their daily problems and their opinions of the progress being made under the U.S. occupation.

Information Radio, one of the U.S.-led coalition's three radio stations, broadcasts 24 hours a day. It warns Iraqis to watch for unexploded munitions, reports on moves to create a new government, explains food distribution efforts and carries other U.S. messages.

The job is similar, but tougher, than the marketing of, say, Coca-Cola, Ayers says.

"Cola is a product you already want to buy. Coke just has to convince you to buy its brand," Ayers said. "(Iraqis) don't want to buy our product. But we still have to sell it to them."

Like marketers, psyops soldiers study their target audiences.

They use groups of Iraqi prisoners who evaluate the message, often crafted by reservists who work in sales or marketing in civilian jobs. Psyops soldiers take courses in Arabic language and culture. They're comfortable in Iraqi crowds and homes.

In civilian life, Maj. Allen McCormick of West Chester, Ohio, is a marketing executive for Procter & Gamble. He devises pitches to persuade U.S. teens to buy Pringles, Cover Girl and Scope. Now he tries to persuade Iraqi teens to embrace democracy and their U.S. overseers.

Sometimes it's difficult to tell where the psychological operations begin and end.

"I don't tell them I'm psyop," said Sgt. Grey Wettstein of Ashtabula, Ohio, whose head is shaven and whose body is covered in tattoos. "They'll either think I'm into brain washing or I'm a psychologist."

There are three types of psyops missions.

White ops are true messages where the source is known. Grey ops are accurate, but the source is hidden. In a form of grey operation, one Baghdad weekly prints articles supplied by the military, most of which don't appear to come from a U.S. or military source. In exchange, the U.S. buys and distributes 70,000 of the newspapers.

Black ops are false rumours. The army is prohibited from launching them. But that's not to say they don't exist.

Before the war, some western media carried reports that, in retrospect, resemble black ops. One was that the United States might wreck Iraqi communications with a so-called electromagnetic pulse weapon. It never happened. In the second, a Kurdish group claimed former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz had defected. Aziz appeared on TV to disprove the story.

If the reports were engineered, the military says it had nothing to do with them.

"A lot of the stuff we don't deny," Wettstein said, "because it helps the situation at the time."


Should politicians step down if they're unable to live up to their promises?

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