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A suspect confessed to violent crimes on 'Terrorism in the Hands of Justice,' a program surging in popularity in Iraq.
A suspect confessed to violent crimes on "Terrorism in the Hands of Justice," a program surging in popularity in Iraq. (Globe Photo / Thanassis Cambanis)

Confessions rivet Iraqis

Fight for minds uses a TV show as battleground

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's wildly popular new television hit features a nightly parade of men, most with bruised faces, confessing to all kinds of terrorist and criminal acts.

''Terrorism in the Hands of Justice" is the Iraqi government's slick new propaganda tool; its televised confessions, police say, aim to discredit the armed resistance and advertise the government's success at cracking down on gangs.

If it is meant to showcase a brave new Iraq, the television show is starkly reminiscent of the bad, old Iraq. Part ''Oprah Winfrey Show" and part ''Cops" -- with a strong flavor of Saddam Hussein-era strong-arming -- the show airs six nights a week on the state-run Iraqiya network.

Since its debut a month ago, ''Terrorism" has become a fixture in Iraq's cafes and living rooms.

Iraqi government officials brag that the show has ruined the image of jihad, or holy war, in the country, exposing the resistance as a racket of street criminals and thugs who attack Americans and Iraqi security forces for pay.

It also raises a host of questions about Iraq's treatment of the suspects and the reliability of their confessions.

The bruised, swollen faces and hunched shoulders of many of the suspects suggest they have been beaten or tortured. The neat confessions of terrorist attacks at times fit together so seamlessly as to seem implausible. And the suspects are presented to the public without any legal process to protect them, presumed guilty, with no word about rule of law as a weapon in the arsenal against terrorism. US officials have sidestepped questions about the program airing on Iraqiya, a network still run by an American contractor hired by US occupation officials nearly a year ago.

There is no question, however, about the program's popularity and wide reach. Men at cafes debate the details of certain gang members from ''Terrorism." Others interrupt soliloquies about recently murdered relatives to declare: ''I expect to see his killers on TV." The show aims to change the minds of Iraqis who see insurgents as noble, patriotic Muslims.

Powerful politicians have blasted the show: Mohsen Abdul Hamid, head of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni party that gets support from Arab nationalists, tribes, and the insurgency, called a press conference recently to accuse the show of airing lies, outraged not that a party member was presented as a terrorist, but that the man confessed that he drinks alcohol and does not pray.

Footage is provided by the Interior Ministry and edited by state-owned Iraqiya. After the US invasion, the Coalition Provisional Authority restarted the state-owned Iraqi television network as the Iraqi Media Network and renamed the main state channel ''Iraqiya."

Colonel Adnan Abdurahman, the Iraqi police official in charge of producing taped confessions for the show, dispatches a camera crew wherever police commandos make a lot of arrests. In the last week, his staff has filmed confessions in Mosul, Baqubah, and Baghdad.

''Previously Iraqi people saw the resistance as fighting the occupation," Abdurahman said. ''But when people saw how they talk, and the details of their actions, they became despicable in the eyes of Iraqi society. They're not resistance. None of them say they are fighting Americans. They are killing Iraqi National Guard and Iraqi police, only Iraqis."

In the show's opening montage, the theme song from ''1492: Conquest of Paradise" by Vangelis plays over images of hooded members of Tawhid and Jihad about to execute an American hostage in an orange jumpsuit, a bloodied corpse, and finally two smiling Iraqi children holding paper signs that say ''No to Terrorism."

Then a police special forces trooper in camouflage uniform and a red beret extols the work of ''our brave, noble Iraqi law enforcement brothers."

Who are the perpetrators of the daily bombings and ambushes that have killed hundreds of civilians, Iraqi police, and soldiers?

According to the taped confessions, the answer is, essentially: lowlifes.

The fighters almost never describe themselves as patriots or holy warriors; they say they fight for pay. Many of the men admit to homosexual acts, considered particularly shameful in Iraqi culture. They frequently admit to rape and pedophilia, and clips often end with the unseen interrogator excoriating the detainee for having no honor.

On a recent episode, alleged members of an insurgent cell from Mahmoudiya -- a town south of Baghdad in the dangerous ''Triangle of Death" -- admitted to murdering and raping several Iraqis.

A man who identified himself as Azawi Hassan Azawi said the leader of a criminal cell induced him to kidnap and kill a young boy by offering Azawi his sister in marriage.

Another man, identified as Hassan Mahdi Hassan al-Kafaji, said he used to fight in the Saddam Fedayeen militia. After the war he joined Tawhid and Jihad, the jihad group led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as a killer for hire; he said he pops pills before each mission.

''They pay me $100 or $150 for each person I slay," Kafaji said

Talal Ra'ad Ismail al-Abassi came next; he said he led an insurgent cell in Mosul.

According to the interrogator, Abassi had been imam of a mosque but was fired by religious authorities under Hussein for having sex with men inside his mosque.

Abassi said his group had killed a dozen Iraqi ''collaborators" -- once a leader can claim 10 kills, he becomes an ''emir," or prince -- to earn $1,500 a month from Saudi financiers of the insurgency.

''I do not believe in jihad in Iraq," Abassi told the camera. ''It was important for my group to kill enough people that I could become an emir and get the $1,500 salary."

On another episode, a group of men from Samarra took responsibility for a series of strikes that killed Iraqi police and interpreters for US forces.

In quick succession, the men detailed how they were paid less than $200 to kill and mutilate five Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

Qahtan Khalid, the last man to appear before the camera, was skinny and hunched over, his face more bruised and sunken than the rest.

He said he was a policeman who had collaborated with insurgents in 10 killings.

''I joined them so they would not slaughter me," he said.

Yesterday Khalid's father told the Agence France-Presse wire service that Interior Ministry police commandos delivered his son's corpse to him. The Iraqi Human Rights Ministry has opened an investigation.

US and Iraqi officials said that airing confessions on television is completely legal.

The 2004 State Department's Human Rights report, which was released two weeks ago, noted that hundreds of cases of alleged torture are pending against the Iraqi government. ''Reportedly, coerced confessions and interrogation continued to be the favored method of investigation by police," the report said.

Mishan Jabouri, a Sunni tribal politician elected to the new national assembly on Jan. 31, said he had evidence that the confessions are bogus.

A constituent from Mosul wrote Jabouri last week to say that his brother appeared on the show on Feb. 22, and confessed to killing four men. But the names of the victims he listed were all relatives who are still living.

''All these deceased are alive and not dead. They are ready to stand in front of your excellency," Muthana Abdullah Khalil wrote. ''I don't know the reason that led my brother to these untrue confessions, but we are ready to bring the living dead in front of you to prove our allegations."

Abdurahman, the police colonel who provides the confession footage, dismisses such accusations. The judicial system will punish any police who torture suspects or elicit false confessions, he said, impatiently brushing aside questions about the treatment of detainees.

''Our work is being appreciated. That's the biggest objective," he said. ''People are demanding that the cruelest punishment be inflicted on those shown on TV."

Anne Barnard of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Sa'ad al-Izzi contributed to this story. Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@globe.com.

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