Remember the brave statements of Iraqi Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf during the early months of war in Iraq in 2003? Al-Sahhaf faced much derision in the imperialist press for his claims that the imperialist troops would be caught in a quagmire in Iraq from which they would never escape. Today his comments are no laughing matter, with the imperialist troops firmly embroiled in an unwinnable war.
For a further reminder of the claims made on the outbreak of war and the situation that was presented to the world at that time, Control Room, a documentary by Jinane Nouijaim, is well worth watching. Although unfortunately the documentary ends on a pessimistic note, with a tacit acceptance of defeat in the light of Bush’s declaration that Baghdad had fallen and the war was won, Control Room has a positive message in spite of itself. That message comes from the Iraqi people themselves, whose claims at the outbreak of the war that the imperialist aggressors would be defeated in Iraq are now being vindicated.
The documentary follows Aljazeera(*) correspondents covering the preparations for war and the invasion of Iraq. The Arab TV station has correspondents in cities across Iraq, including Baghdad, but its head office is in the Qatari capital of Doha, close to the US’s biggest base in the Middle East, which serves both as an operational HQ and as the main propaganda outlet for the military.
Tight control over media reporting of the invasion of Iraq was and is an important aspect of the imperialist military machine, essential for bolstering the fast fading illusion of an altruistic war fought to bring ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ to the Iraqi people. Aljazeera’s presentation of the war, on the other hand, allowed glimpses of the true nature of the invasion to escape through the net. The channel’s coverage, broadcast across the Arab world, was a major thorn in the side of the imperialists’ war effort, exacerbating already inflamed opinion amongst the Arab masses and even filtering into the media in the imperialist heartlands as a result of the controversies created.
Aljazeera pierced through the myth of a war for freedom and democracy, showing Iraqi civilians targeted by coalition weapons, pictures of dead US soldiers and interviews with POWs captured by the resistance. The Arab news channel was the only one to show US and British troops met not with warm embraces but with crowds of angry Iraqis, including a crowd of Shias in Southern Iraq (painted by our media as the most anti-Saddam section of the population) taunting troops with the refrain “you lose the war”. Images of the aggressive tactics employed for dealing with Iraqi civilians during house raids and roadside checks belied the ‘winning hearts and minds’ campaign. Interviews with Iraqi resistance leaders exposed the untruth of the early US military claims of advances on Baghdad and control of the Baghdad airport.
As a result of its coverage of the war, Aljazeera was criticised for inciting rebellion and labelled “anti American”. Donald Rumsfeld declared: “We are dealing with people who are prepared to lie to the world in an attempt to further their case and, to the extent that people lie, ultimately they are caught lying and they lose their credibility.” The irony of his words seem not to have occurred to Mr Rumsfeld!
Various attempts were made to dilute or silence Aljazeera’s message. When diplomacies failed, the station came under outright attack. On 8 April 2003, three missiles were launched by US forces, one hitting the Aljazeera base in Baghdad and killing reporter Tarek Yakkoub; a second striking the base of an Abu Dhabi station; and the third hitting the Palestine Hotel where unembedded international journalists were known to be camped.
The attack had the desired effect, causing Aljazeera to withdraw from Iraq and confine its broadcasts to the Qatar base, and sending a message to journalists remaining in Iraq that they should toe the line or risk becoming targets.
Behind-the-scenes footage captured by the documentary gives further insight into the manipulation of the press by the military, including the way in which news concerning the much-trumpeted impending takeover of Baghdad was suddenly buried under the diversionary tale of the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch. The media circus that was the toppling of Saddam’s statue in central Baghdad was revealed to be a stage-managed event involving a very small group of young imported men (demonstrated by their foreign accents and the fact that one unfurled a pre-1991 Iraqi flag).
Despite access to the true picture of the invasion of Iraq, the documentary ends in an acceptance of defeat. For all their insight, the documentary makers and Aljazeera correspondents are unable to imagine a scenario where the Iraqi people prevail over the seemingly invincible invading forces and bring about their own liberation.
Watching the documentary two years on, with the US and Britain firmly bogged down in a war that is far from over and which is steadily sucking the money, resources, man power and morale of the invaders, there is every reason to be confident of an Iraqi victory. The claim that the war would be over in a matter of weeks is now shown to be a fantasy.
While Aljazeera may have been shocked by an apparent defeat, the Iraqi people have always known what lay before them. Inspiring words are spoken by resistance leader Abdul Jabhar Al-Kubeisi who, before the commencement of war declared: “No, they won’t take Iraq, not while we are still breathing. They might take over some cities but will they be able to keep control? Like Afghanistan, the pipelines are easy to destroy. Every time they rebuild them we will destroy them.”
Overall, this is an excellent and well balanced film. Since the documentary makers and Aljazeera correspondents are all thoroughly imbued with bourgeois prejudice, their analysis leaves a lot to be desired, but, coming as they do from the oppressed countries, the journalists the film follows are forced by events into taking an ever-more anti-imperialist stance, and the audience is carried along with them.
The makers are also to be commended for their courage in attempting to cut through the all-pervasive power and lies of the imperialist war machine. Control Room puts some very valuable material into an accessible and watchable format and opens up an alternative view to an audience in the imperialist heartlands that is much in need of enlightenment.
* Aljazeera is a privately owned, Arabic language television station based in Qatar. From its beginnings in 1996 it has grown to become the most popular station in the Arab world with over 40m viewers. Aljazeera represents that section of the Arab bourgeoisie opposed to US and British imperialism, which results in a view of world events that is very often at odds with the ‘reality’ presented by the imperialist-controlled press.