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Radio for the Future of Iraq   

by Mika Mäkeläinen

As US troops tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Central Baghdad yesterday, clandestine radio station al-Mustaqbal, "The Future", celebrated victory in its hideout in Amman, Jordan. Today al-Mustaqbal resumed its campaign to move into Iraq as soon as possible to establish a radio station there. Al-Mustaqbal is the mouthpiece of the Iraqi National Accord (INA), one of the many opposition groups vying for power in post-war Iraq.

According to a source in the INA, several hundred core supporters of the organization are already moving back to Iraq, where they once escaped from. Now the plan for broadcasting, in cooperation with other opposition movements, is to restore electricity and to get transmissions on the air as soon as possible, first from southern Iraq.

INA logoThere is not only a power vacuum in Iraq, but a vacuum for information, as Coalition troops have destroyed nearly all Iraqi radio transmitters, and programs by US Information Radio still leave room for programming produced by the Iraqis for the Iraqi people. Opposition groups, until now confined to operating clandestine stations in Kurdistan or beyond the borders of Iraq, are racing to get their voices heard in post-war Iraq.

Sandstorm blocks INA broadcasts

Though the outcome was expected, the war didn't go exactly as planned for Al-Mustaqbal, the radio voice of the opposition Iraqi National Accord. Originally, al-Mustaqbal had a bold plan to hijack the airwaves over Iraq by 24-hour blanket broadcasting as soon as the war would begin. The broadcasts would have been aimed at persuading the military to defect to the opposition while they still can. The target group has been clear from the start. Military and intelligence officers have always been the most important support base for the INA.

However, instead of increasing airtime, new programming actually decreased when the war began. A strong sandstorm, which brought US ground forces to a standstill in Iraq, also severely damaged a satellite receiving antenna at the clandestine office of al-Mustaqbal in the Jordanian capital Amman. The station survived only with outside help.

Broadcasting from the shadows

Al-Mustaqbal is run from a secret location in Amman. Tight security has been a must. For many years, this has been a highly sensitive operation; trying to overthrow the regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, while based in the only country which until the end still more or less got along with the government of Saddam Hussein.

To the relief of the Jordanian government, the burden has been shared with other neighbors of Iraq. From Amman the signal is transmitted to a satellite and downloaded in Kuwait, from where it is beamed to Iraq. Mohammad Ribar, chief technician for al-Mustaqbal, confirms to DXing.info that a 50-kilowatt transmitter in Kuwait is used for the broadcasts. The transmitter is located at the US International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) relay station in Kuwait - used for Radio Sawa programming to Iraq - but the particular transmitter airing al-Mustaqbal is said to be administered by the CIA.

When al-Mustaqbal first began broadcasting on April 21, 1996, a transmitter in Saudi Arabia was used, Ribar says. Nowadays the Saudi intelligence service supports another faction of the Iraqi opposition running a station called Republic of Iraq Radio, Voice of the Iraqi People. The station has studios and offices in Jeddah, using the powerful shortwave transmitters of the Broadcasting Service of Saudi Arabia (BSKSA) to reach its audience in Iraq.

A fake Saddam on the air

Back in Amman, programs have been produced by some 40 full-time and 20 part-time employees. Before the war, they used to prepare a wide range of programs from commentaries outlining the future political system of Iraq to satirical radio plays.

"We don't have dry articles. We present our ideas in dramatic plays, radio plays, with the accent of the common people," Ribar explains. "We even have a person who imitates Saddam. The show is called A picture of the leader of the necessity," referring to one of the titles given to Saddam, Ribar says.

Ribar is confident that their programs (a sample station identification: station identification of al-Mustaqbal ) do indeed reach Iraq, up to the point of having irritated the government and Saddam's son Uday, who has been in charge of much of the country's government-controlled media, and has complained about the programming of Radio al-Mustaqbal. The fact that the station has been vilified by the government media makes Ribar very happy, because al-Mustaqbal couldn't have hoped for a better promotional campaign among the Iraqi audience.

Up to the war, the staff produced two 3-hour feeds per day, and were said to be prepared to be on the air 24 hours a day as soon as military action would begin. The 3-hour feed is broadcast at 2130-0030 UTC on the frequency of 1575 kHz mediumwave, and another 3-hour feed, containing partly same material, is broadcast at another time in the early morning hours. "We have been guaranteed a minimum of six hours per day," Ribar says.

Keeping in touch with its audience has been difficult for a clandestine station, but all along al-Mustaqbal has had contacts with Iraqis who have visited Jordan.

Unknown bedfellows sponsored by the CIA?

Politically al-Mustaqbal is affiliated with the Iraqi National Accord (INA), an opposition group of military and security officers who have defected from Iraq. INA was created by the British intelligence MI6, but has received extensive support from the CIA since the mid-1990's, after the United States shifted its support away from the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and placed its bets with the INA. The United States had hoped that the INA would have been able to instigate a military uprising against Saddam - despite an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1996.

There has been intense speculation about the ties between al-Mustaqbal and two other stations seemingly originating from the same transmitter, Twin Rivers Radio (Wadi al-Rafidayn), just one step down the dial at 1566 kHz, and Radio Tikrit, one step up at 1584 kHz. Prime broadcasting time between the three is shared so that Twin Rivers Radio is on the air at 1600-1830/1900 UTC, Radio Tikrit at 1900-2100 UTC and al-Mustaqbal after that.

Ribar says that transmission times are "politically coordinated" between different stations, but he says that he doesn't know who produces the programming heard on the other two stations, and he says he hasn't heard of Radio Tikrit before discussing the issue with DXing.info in mid-March.

Until early March, INA, headed by Ayad Allawi, had its headquarters in London, with other offices in Germany, Jordan, in the autonomous Kurdistan inside Iraq, Syria and Turkey, but the main office was moved to Amman when war against Iraq looked imminent. Now everyone has already set their eyes on post-war Iraq, where the station hopes to establish a permanent presence next week. As contact information keeps changing, the best way to contact the station is by email.

"It is unbelievable how many people are approaching us and offering their help," says Mohammad Ribar at Radio al-Mustaqbal.

INA turns down a mobile transmitter offered by the US

Two weeks ago the US military offered Radio al-Mustaqbal a mobile transmitter, but INA turned down the offer, because "the situation is changing so fast". The transmitter would have been a system called SOMS-B (Special Operations Media System-B), which is a combined radio and television broadcasting station packed in two Humvee military vehicles and a trailer.

At least two SOMS-B units have been broadcasting Information Radio programming from Kuwait since mid-December, and moved inside Iraq soon after the first Coalition ground troops entered Iraq. The transmitter power of SOMS-B is only 1 kW, which is very little in a country the size of Iraq, and may have been one reason why the INA rejected the offer - after all, currently they still have 50 kW just across the border.

However, INA says that it is seeking cooperation with other political movements, and doesn't insist on having a station of its own in Iraq. "We don't need to leave our fingerprints," Ribar says, "We just hope things will be peaceful now, that is the most important issue."

While the future of Radio The Future is more uncertain than ever, some clarity may emerge after a planned meeting of the opposition, which is to be held on Tuesday, April 15, in Nasiriyah. INA is one of the opposition movements sending its representatives to the talks.

In the meanwhile, ambitious news reporting on Radio al-Mustaqbal has been replaced by reruns of Oriental evergreen music. Rulers in Iraq may come and go, but the appeal of the music remains forever.

(published on April 10, 2003)

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Monitoring Iraq: War of the Airwaves

Station identifications of clandestine stations

Profile article of Information Radio in Iraq


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