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US soldiers bringing media to Tikrit
( 2003-10-22 14:23) (Agencies)

The media revolution that has filled the vacuum left by the destruction of Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine has so far bypassed the former ruler's hometown.

But Abdul Khader an engineer working near an antenna and transmitter tower on the ruins of a former ministry building is hoping to change that, with the help of U.S. soldiers.

In the first days after Saddam was overthrown in early April, Iraq was left without any newspapers. State-run television and radio stations went off the air.

Soon after, several freewheeling papers, radio and television outlets sprung up. People were suddenly able to buy satellite dishes and watch international channels of their choice, or listen to local radio stations now denouncing Saddam as a ruthless dictator.

But the media advancing across Iraq's larger cities missed Tikrit and the predominantly Sunni province that surrounds it.

"Media were basically nonexistent" when the U.S. troops arrived here, said Maj. Josslyn Aberle, spokeswoman for the 4th Infantry Division, which controls much of northern Iraq.

That's something U.S. soldiers are working to change.

"We want to get the message out to the Iraqi people, what we are doing to improve their lives," says Maj. Joe Cox, from the 4th Infantry Division headquarters.

Cox, from Ozark, Ala., heads a four-man team in charge of getting local media outlets from newspapers to TV up and running in Tikrit.

The antenna that was linked to Saddam's information ministry and spewed his propaganda across Tikrit was bombed in U.S. air raids. Whatever was left was looted in the nationwide unrest that followed the regime's collapse.

A first step was setting up the transmitter in Tikrit, 120 miles north of Baghdad, to carry radio and television signals from the U.S.-backed Iraqi Media Network to people across the northern Salah Ad Din province of 1 million residents.

For the past two months, Cox's team has supplied Abdul Khader's tower and has one radio and television station functioning from the Tikrit University building in this town of 120,000. The costs exceeded $100,000.

"We started from scratch, buying digital cameras, studio equipment," said Capt. Chris Ambrosio, of Garland, Texas.

Three weekly newspapers are distributed in Tikrit but are published in Baghdad because there is no printing press here. One of them, the Salah Ad Din, is the most "genuinely" Tikriti paper, dealing with local news, Cox says. The two others, Al-Youm and Al-Sabah, distributed in the neighboring provinces, are viewed as mouthpieces of the U.S. troops.

Although all the papers are funded by the U.S. interim administration at a cost of $17,000 per paper per week, Cox maintains they herald a free and independent media.

"There is no censorship. We only ask two things: you can't incite violence and your stories must be fair and balanced," said Cox, adding that criticism of the coalition forces by the papers' staff is welcome.

"When we leave, we want the Salah Ad Din to be a self-functioning paper," he said. "If I ever come back to visit Iraq, I would like to see the editor and the newspapers still working."

That won't be so easy. The entire area has been a hotbed of anti-American sentiment, and local journalists have been warned for working with coalition forces.

The chief editor of Salah Ad Din was threatened twice and later moved his family to Baghdad for safety.

Rasul Halil, one of three Iraqi policemen guarding the transmitter, points to a potholed wall from an attack five days ago when unknown assailants opened fire from behind the garage dump. No one was wounded.

Back in the engineer's office, only the AM and FM radio signals work. The television transmitter brought in last week worked for only one hour before it broke down and Abdul Khader is waiting for a replacement.

"There is so much I need but it is a beginning, a new world," he said. "I am working for my country's sake, not for the Americans."

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