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Cablegate: Electoral War Heats Up -- Jazeera and Furat

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 BAGHDAD 005012

SIPDIS

LONDON FOR ARAB MEDIA UNIT

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: OPRC PGOV KMDR IZ
SUBJECT: Electoral War Heats up -- Jazeera and Furat
Channel Feuds Spark Demonstrations in Baghdad

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: In the most notable example of the
intensified electoral debate in the media, a candidate's
complaints on al-Jazeera about the "meddling of" Shia
clergy in Iraqi politics sparked condemnations by Shia
Islamist media outlets and provoked demonstrations in
Baghdad December 14. Outlets of all stripes -- except
perhaps al-Fayha TV -- appear to have violated IECI rules
governing media behavior which banned political ads as of
December 14. The IECI confirms there have been violations,
but assures the public the voting process remains credible.
Sharqiya and Fayha TV have provided the most balanced
coverage, with KDP (Barzani), SCIRI (Hakim), and IIP (Tarik
al-Hashemi) outlets showing the least regard for media
ethics. New groups, including some insurgents, have used
the media to promote voting and/or non-violence. END
SUMMARY.

Media Frenzy Begins December 13
-------------------------------

2. (U) Voting and electoral coverage ramped up again
December 13 to cover voting by Iraqis in hospitals,
detention facilities, military bases and overseas. Channels
pulled out all the stops to drum up support and
participation. Most newspapers stopped publishing December
12, so voters turned to television. Most channels devoted
50-75 percent of their airtime to the election. Themes
included motivational and informative public service
announcements, paid advertising for candidates and lists,
and debates and talk shows, with the debate becoming more
heated in the final stretch of the campaign.

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Al-Jazeera Sparks a War with Shia Islamist Channels
--------------------------------------------- ------

3. (SBU) The media debate took an unexpected turn December
14 with a heated war of words between Shia Islamist outlets
and pan-Arab al-Jazeera. "Opposing Viewpoints" featured a
moderated debate between Fadil Al-Rabia' (exiled Iraqi
author) and Fuad Al Samawwi, an Iraqi politician. Rabia'
made the following points: the U.S. had erred by handing
Iraq's government to forces controlled by the Marja' (Shia
Islamic religious authorities), which kills and tortures
Iraqis through the Badr brigades; Iraq has a reactionary
religious government; the clerics are scaring citizens by
telling them it's a sin not to vote; the government has
legalized occupation.

4. (U) Samawwi countered: Iraq is not like Iran because it
does not have the system of velayat-i-faqih (guardianship of
the jurist, which advocates for an interventionist role of
clerics); the Marja' is a safety valve for Iraq; occupation
came from Arab countries and clerics in Saudi Arabia; if you
vote for the candle (555) list, God will be with you. While
the moderator clearly favored Rabia's point of view, the
station presented alternate, albeit very emotional, points
of view

5. (U) After the show aired, al-Furat TV (associated with
SCIRI and the United Iraqi Coalition, 555) reported that al-
Jazeera "violated the sacred position of Imam al-Sistani;"
viewers called to condemn the channel as the mouthpiece of
"Ba'athists and Salafists." One caller noted "Sistani needs
to just give us the word and we'll put an end to these
Jazeera reports." The presenter cautioned moderation,
advising "you don't need a sign from Sistani, just go and
vote for the right people and that will solve the problem."

6. (SBU) By mid-afternoon, al-Furat and al-Iraqiya reported
that tribal sheikhs, clerics, and officials condemned al-
Jazeera. Both stations ran reports of demonstrations in al-
Rashdiya, Husainya and Bab al-Sham (Shia neighborhoods in
Baghdad suburbs). An embassy employee phoned in to say
there were pro-Sistani demonstrations in Haifa Street.
Secular Shia al-Fayha also condemned al-Jazeera, noting that
the station "was well known for hurting people with its
impolitic manner of discussing sensitive issues. Iraqi
politicians should boycott it . . . because it is inciting
violence."

Sunnis No Saints
-----------------

7. (SBU) Sunni stations both commercial and party-funded,
pan-Arab and Iraqi) focused on urging the "departure of
occupation forces" and putting an end to Iranian meddling.
There were possibly inappropriate religious references to
guide voters. Baghdad TV (Iraqi Islamic Party) superimposed
on its screen the Koranic verse "tomorrow is close for those
who wait," implying that Sunnis should go to the polls to
seek revenge (presumably against the Shia-led government).
Baghdad TV on the 13th also aired an ad which depicted a
snake curling out of Iran to encircle Iraq. Likewise,
Baghdad TV was the only channel we monitored carrying AFP
reports about the discovery by police in Wasit province of a
truck entering from Iran with fake ballots.

Sharqiya Gives Airtime to Rebut Furat TV
----------------------------------------

8. (SBU) The Sunni-Shia (or secular/Islamist) tension
carried over to Sharqiya, which December 14 became the
"Voice Against al-Furat TV." Al-Sharqiya reported that Aziz
Al-Yasiri, head of the Iraqi Democratic Current (772 list),
denied media rumors that his list had joined the 555 list.
Yasiri phoned in to condemn "an unnamed channel" (al-Furat
TV) for making false claims.

9. (U) Sharqiya also carried denials of PM candidate Hazim
al-Sha'alan, of the National Forces Parliament (511 list),
that his list had withdrawn from the race. Sha'alan said he
had forwarded complaints to the IECI. The gripes were not
just inter-ethnic. Mohammad Jassim Khudayer, the head of
the (Shia) Islamic Da'wa Movement 553 list (and ironically
the deputy director of al-Iraqiya TV) also turned to
Sharqiya to deny rumors that his list had withdrawn from the
race. He demanded that the IECI put an end to media
violations.

Violence and Claims of Fraud Featured on Most Media
--------------------------------------------- ------

10. (U) There were several claims of violations of IECI
regulations governing media coverage. U.S. sponsored al-
Hurra was apparently among the violators. We received a
call late December 14 from Maysoon Ad-Damlooji (the deputy
Minister of Culture) who alleged that al-Hurra was airing an
interview with Hussein Shahrastani stumping for the Shi'a
list 555, in violation of the IECI's ban on political
broadcasts as of December 14. Ironically, there were
reports in independent al-Dustoor on December 13 that
Damlooji herself violated IECI regulations by bringing
theater and cinema contacts from the ministry to meet with
Allawi and received payments for their effort.

11. (U) Al-Arabiya broke the news of the death of Tawfeeq
al Yasiri (Sunni candidate) in Ramadi December 13; however
the station rebroadcast an old interview in which Yasiri
accused the MOD and MOI of planning his arrest, apparently
trying to implicate the government in Yasiri's death.

12. (U) Sharqiya reported that gunmen assassinated
candidate Mizhir al-Dulaymi in Ramadi on 13 December. They
aired an interview with Ayad al-Samarrai (IIP) in which he
noted that violence will not prevent Iraqis from voting.
Still, Dulaymi said voters expected fraud by the government
and he condemned the use of religious symbols in the
campaign. Sharqiya also seems to have violated the
"blackout." One contact reports the station carried a press
conference of Prime Minister Ja'aferi during the blackout;
the station also replayed an interview with Al-Sharif Ali
Bin Hussein mid-day on the 14th.

13. (U) Most stations carried warnings by Abd-al-Aziz al-
Hakim, head of the Unified Iraqi Coalition [UIC] list, that
he feared attempts vote-rigging. Iraqiya gave more details,
noting that Hakim said his party would "not remain silent
about vote-rigging" like it did in January.

14. (U) Moqtada Sadr supporters also turned up the heat,
possibly violating IECI rules against incitement. Hadi al-
Amiri, secretary general of the Badr Organization,
affiliated with Sadr, told al-Iraqiya that he did not accept
the IECI decision to allow Ba'athists to take part in
elections "even though the De-Ba'athification Committee
opposed the candidacy of some Ba'athists." Amiri said that
Badr would not accept the Ba'th Party and warned that his
organization "might oppose their inclusion with force."

IECI Notes Media Violations, but
Says Overall Process is Sound
---------------------------------

15. (U) The IECI announced December 14 that voting would
begin in Iraqi at 7:00 am December 15. IECI official Abdul
Hussein al-Hindawi denied reports of fake ballots entering
Iraq from Iran. He also tried to allay concerns about
fraud. "It is impossible to guarantee the honesty of an
electoral process unless you have honest electoral
officials, monitors, and the UN." He noted all three were
in place for this election. He said 6280 electoral centers
had been set up with 33,000 voting stations. Hindawi also
indicated that "some entities violated the media blackout
period; they will be punished and their names will be
announced this evening." The IECI called on the government
to remove electoral posters before voting begins.

Overseas Voting
---------------

16. (U) Most channels carried extensive coverage of
overseas voting, especially al-Iraqiya and the Kurdish
channels (KurdSat and KurdistanTV). Sharqiya reported
December 13 that "Iraqi expatriates in 15 Arab and foreign
countries headed to polling centers to choose new members
for the Iraqi parliament." Al-Iraqiya reporters in Amman
said turnout there was higher than in January. Iraqiya also
ran stories promoting Iraqi security forces' capabilities to
secure election sites.

More Calls for Restraint and
Participation from all Sides
----------------------------

17. (U) Insurgent groups joined key religious figures to
urge if not voting at least non-violence; this should boost
turnout. Sharqiya carried statements of the Islamic Army in
Iraq (an insurgent group) asking followers to not attack
electoral centers. At the same time, the group said it does
not support the political process.

18. Al-Arabiya TV on 13 December interviewed by phone Ahmad
Abd-al-Ghafur al-Samarrai, head of the Sunni Waqf in Iraq.
Samarrai said that a large number of Sunni Muslim scholars
issued a fatwa urging people to vote. Asked if he was
concerned "that some Sunni areas have declared a state of
emergency," Samarrai says the Iraqis are sensible and "they
have realized the danger of non-participation."

19. (U) Sharqiya carried a statement by Ayatollah Mohammad
Taqi al Modarissy, an influential Shia cleric in Iraq's
south, calling on Iraqis to participate in elections and to
elect "the right people" to represent them.

Sharqiya and Fayha Strike the Best Balance
------------------------------------------

20. (U) Sharqiya and al-Fayha had the most balanced
coverage in this intense election phase. Sharqiya aired ads
for all sects and affiliations. These ran the gamut from
home videos for a small Sunni party in Mosul to Allawi's
sophisticated spiel. Sharqiya -- unlike Iraqiya -- also
carried ads critical of the coalition. Salih Al-Mutlaq's
Iraqi Accord Front aired an ad showing US tanks and bullets
and blood on a wall, with the comment: "Iraqis did not
suffer from the occupation, they suffered from its
aftermath." At the same time, Sharqiya aired security
promotions which are usually only seen on Iraqiya.

21. (U) Sharqiya aired a thoughtful interview with Vice
President Adel Abdul Mahdi (United Iraqi Coalition 555)
List) in which he noted that "people who claim Iraq is
splitting apart are wrong; Iraqis have been united for
thousands of years. Concerns about natural resources are
also misguided. In fact, Western areas are richer than the
south. People who object to Kurdish federalism and
federalism in other regions simply fear change. But we must
move on, this experiment will work." Sharqiya may have been
the only station to pull off direct debates between
candidates, although not the most well known. They
moderated debates with Ali Debbagh and Mohammed Jassim al-
Khudayer (each the head of a second tier list) debating
other candidates for office.

22. (U) Al-Fayha (privately financed, Shia, secular) also
portrayed a wide array of opinions and information. One
talk show host on the 13 reported that some coalitions tried
to bribe voters, and the station carried interviews in which
citizens complained about excessive campaign expenditures.
It also aired an extensive interview with influential
secular Shia editor of al-Sabah newspaper, Mohammed Abdul-
Jabbar, in which he discussed the importance of public
broadcasting and media freedoms. The station delved into
tricky economic questions that received little attention in
other outlets. Fayha also went public to condemn stations
that broke the media blackout; it was the only station we
monitored which appeared to respect all IEIC guidelines,
while also trying to provoke thoughtful review of issues.
It also condemned the al-Jazeera broadcast.

KHALILZAD

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