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Army halts media campaign

Form letters called abuse of program

WASHINGTON -- Identical letters to US newspapers extolling the successes of the American occupation of Iraq and signed by individual troops do not warrant a formal investigation, US Army officials said yesterday.

An Army spokesman said the unit responsible for the letters has been instructed to stop the campaign.

The Boston Globe was among at least 11 small and large newspapers from Massachusetts to California to print letters from soldiers in the 503d Airborne Infantry Regiment, stationed in Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Gannett News Service first reported that the form letters were not written by the soldiers who signed them, but instead by senior officers seeking to insert a more upbeat message in the Iraq war coverage by US media.

But Army spokesmen said yesterday no evidence has been found that the soldiers were forced to participate. "There was no arm-twisting involved," said Joe Burlas, an Army spokesman. "It was not organized by headquarters. We didn't know about it."

At least two soldiers, however, reportedly did not know the letters were going out under their names. One spokesman acknowledged that an Army Public Affairs Office program designed to make hometown newspapers aware of the activities of local soldiers had been abused.

Normally, soldiers fill out a form for the Hometown News Release Program listing their high school, local newspaper, and other information that is used by the San Antonio-based operation to write up a short news story that is then forwarded to the local print media. In this case, it seems many of the 400 or so form letters that were ultimately mailed are believed to have been attached to the soldiers' Hometown News Release Program form. Those soldiers who said they never signed the letter to the editor may have filled out a separate hometown news release form, officials said.

"Some guy should have caught this," said Major Steve Stover, an Army spokesman. "This was [an abuse] of the Army Hometown News Release Program."

The letters first appeared last month, including one published in the Globe on Sept. 14 and signed by Private First Class Adam Connell, 20, of Sharon, a member of the 2d battalion of the 503d regiment.

"Kirkuk is a hot and dusty city of just over 1 million people," the letters stated. "The majority of the city has welcomed our presence with open arms. After five months here, the people still come running from their homes into the 110-degree heat waving at us as our troops drive by on daily patrols of the city. Children smile and run up to shake hands, and in broken English shout, `Thank you, mister.' "

The letters also reported a series of successes, including the reestablishment of the fire department, the building of a new police force of 1,700 Iraqi officers, the construction of water treatment and sewage plants, and the distribution of oil and gas.

Connell's purported letter was forwarded to the Globe by his mother, Amy. Reached by phone yesterday, she said she suspected her son was not the author of the letter but sent it to the paper anyway: "I knew it wasn't written by my son. It's not his vocabulary. But it was a positive letter that had to get out to the American people."

The Globe's editorial page staff, which checks the veracity of letters to the editor before printing them, had called Connell's mother before publishing it.

"Our policy is only to have original opinions by the person who signed the letter," Robert Turner, the Globe's deputy editorial page editor, said yesterday. "So it is disappointing when we find a letter that was not original." The Army expressed confidence the incident would not happen again. "This was a stupid idea," Stover said. "They were told . . . to knock it off."

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