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The Boston Globe March 16, 2003

The War of Words

Before the bombs, messages: US gains terrain on Iraqi fears

By Bryan Bender, Globe Correspondent, 3/16/2003

WASHINGTON -- US military officials say they are somewhat optimistic of the results of their psychological campaign in Iraq. The goal is to persuade the Iraqi armed forces and the population to consider surrendering; this would pay huge dividends should President Bush give an order to launch a war against President Saddam Hussein.

The operations, which officials say have been carried out for months, have ranged from the use of e-mail and telephone messages to Iraqi officers to broadcasting radio and television messages and dropping millions of leaflets that display the destructiveness of US weapons.

The campaign is an effort by US forces to win support from Iraqi civilians for its attempt to oust the Hussein regime and to persuade Iraqi soldiers that resistance to an invasion would be fruitless, analysts say. Cooperative Iraqi units would be spared.

''Saddam himself appears to have little confidence in the political reliability or military utility of the regular [Iraqi] army,'' said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank on security issues in Alexandria, Va. Even elements of more elite Iraqi units, such as the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, ''know they are dead meat,'' Pike said.

Bush administration officials confirmed publicly for the first time last week that military and intelligence officials have contacted some of their counterparts in Iraq and might be negotiating deals for their surrender in the event US military forces launch their assault into Iraq.

''They are being communicated with privately at the present time,'' Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a press briefing on Tuesday on the Pentagon's psychological operations, also known as PSYOPS. ''They will be communicated with in a more public way, and they will receive instructions so that they can behave in a way that will be seen and understood as nonthreatening, and they will not be considered combatants, and they will be handled in a way that they are no longer part of the problem.''

US officials are unwilling to make sweeping predictions of Iraqis laying down their arms, but they are confident the constant barrage of instructions, images, and threats will contribute to a quick military victory.

The PSYOPS seemed to have intensified as the likelihood of a war has become more imminent. A new tactic was revealed last week when the Pentagon said US forces would beam images into Iraq of a bomb test carried out on Tuesday in Florida. Defense officials said there were no plans at this time to use the conventional 22,000-pound precision-guided bomb, which leaves in its wake a mushroom cloud 10,000 feet high, but said the psychological terror instilled by the knowledge of its existence could make its use on the battlefield unnecessary.

''The goal is to have the capabilities of the coalition so clear and so obvious that there is an enormous disincentive for the Iraqi military to fight,'' Rumsfeld said.

Meanwhile, Iraqi airwaves are being inundated with radio and television transmissions funded and, in some cases, operated by the CIA or US military. The Pentagon has invested an estimated $100 million for radio programming in Iraq, according to ClandestineRadio.com, a private website used by US intelligence that specializes in transcripts and analysis of opposition radio stations around the world.

One leaflet recently dropped over cities, including Basra in the south, instructed Iraqi citizens to tune into ''Information Radio,'' broadcast from EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft operated by special operations forces. Other leaflets -- nearly 1 million were dropped over Iraq last weekend alone -- said ''the coalition forces support the Iraqi people in their desire to remove Saddam and his regime. The coalition wishes no harm to the innocent Iraqi civilians.''

More ominous messages urge Iraqi military forces to ''make the decision'' to support efforts to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and warn of consequences should they defend the regime.

PSYOPS strategies have been used before by US forces with mixed success, analysts said. But officials now believe that with new tools at their disposal and the spread of information technology, they now have more to work with.

The United States is hoping for a repeat of the quick invasion of Panama in 1989 to capture leader Manuel Noriega, during which an effective if crude psychological tool was ear-splitting rock 'n' roll music blasted outside Noriega's surrounded compound. Still, the only way to really gauge how well the US psychological operations have worked in Iraq will be when the decision to use force is made. ''I think it would be pretty difficult to assess that right now,'' a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said recently. ''And the best measure would be if and when the campaign occurs.'' Until then, ''you don't see the full extent, as we did during Desert Storm, where there were considerable defections [and] surrenders en masse of forces.''


Copyright 2003, Globe Newspaper Company.