Balks at Directive And Gets Relieved of Duty
MOSUL, IRAQ -- The U.S. Army issued orders for troops to seize this city's only television station, leading an officer here to raise questions about the Army's dedication to free speech in postwar Iraq, people familiar with the situation said. The officer refused the order and was relieved of duty.
The directive came from the 101st Airborne Division's commander, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, who has ultimate authority in Mosul and the rest of northwest Iraq, the people familiar with the matter said. They said it was aimed at blocking the station from continuing to broadcast the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera.
The order has not yet been publicized in Mosul, which has no radio station or newspaper, and Army officials here said they had no plans to do so. Late Wednesday night, it wasn't clear whether soldiers who had been on the grounds of the station, which is near the city's university, had moved into the station building itself and taken control.
The incident may add fuel to suspicions in the Arab world about the Bush administration's promises to bring open elections and other Western-style freedoms to Iraq. The move also could further strain the already-tense relations between the Pentagon and al-Jazeera, a satellite channel based in Qatar that is the most popular source of news throughout the Mideast. Pentagon officials have long accused al-Jazeera of being biased against the U.S. and criticized it for broadcasting material such as bloody images of civilians killed or maimed by U.S. bombs. Al-Jazeera's Baghdad office was unintentionally shelled by the U.S. on April 8, killing one journalist.
The order to seize the station, which had been under the unofficial control of a local Iraqi militia leader, was discussed at a contentious meeting among American officials based in a former hospital here. During the two-hour meeting last night, the head of the Army public-affairs office in Mosul, Maj. Charmaine Means, said she could not agree to seizing the station and posting troops there. She argued that the presence of armed soldiers would intimidate the station's Arab employees into airing only programming produced by, or acceptable to, the American military.
Maj. Means was told to pick up a nearby telephone. On the other end, Col. Thomas Schoenback, chief of staff of the division, ordered her to go along with Gen.Petraeus's plan to take the station, according to people familiar with the matter. When she again refused, he relieved her of her duties. A short time later, she was told that she would be flown out of Mosul on an Army helicopter early Thursday morning.
Neither Gen. Petraeus nor Col. Schoenback could be reached for comment. In Washington, the Pentagon could not immediately confirm the order to seize the station.
Officers familiar with the matter said military officials were uncomfortable with the station's programming. They wanted to apply a U.S. military formula for gauging the station's accuracy, balance and trustworthiness, and if the programming fell short, the station would be shut.
As word of the decision filtered through the main American base in downtown Mosul, several officers condemned it. The officers said they were particularly incensed that the military had allowed the Iraqi militia leader, Meshaam Jabori, to broadcast political messages for weeks without interference, only to seize it Wednesday after it occasionally showed al-Jazeera programming. The station also airs programming from other Arabic news channels, as well as from NBC. Mr. Jabori couldn't be reached for comment.
Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at email@example.com
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