1st AD unit battling Iraqi rumor mill
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Around midnight, the lights went out in Baghdad. A power outage.
By morning, with the power still out, some Iraqis began speculating over their morning tea: The U.S. military had deliberately cut power to punish ordinary Iraqis for the attacks some insurgents had been making on U.S.-led coalition forces.
Soon, word of that rumor began filtering in to the 1st Armored Division, the unit that patrols Baghdad and maintains its headquarters at the sprawling Baghdad International Airport.
The division would need to deal quickly with the rumor. But this was the kind of problem that no Bradley fighting vehicle or troops throwing up a roadblock could fix. Instead, it fell to the division’s information operations staff, which is trained to cope with such delicate, people-oriented problems.
“This was not the first time we’d heard this,” said Maj. Joyce Oakley, the division’s information operations officer. There had been an outage in July, too, and a similar rumor stirred.
“Our understanding is that this is something that Saddam used to do for neighborhoods that had in some way displeased him,” Oakley said. “They perceived that the coalition forces were punishing them for attacks that the coalition forces were experiencing.”
What followed was the typical process the division uses to handle one of the biggest challenges the U.S. military continues to face — the task of fostering public support for the coalition.
First, Oakley knew, she’d need hard facts about the outage before she could know what kind of “message” to draw up for public release. In this case, she called on the division’s chief engineer.
“‘Jeff,’’ she told him, “‘I got an issue. I need your help.’ He gives me the facts. We sit down and talk about how to get this out. And I’ll draw up an article and pass it out.”
At other times, she’s met with other “subject matter experts” within the division’s staff — its chief legal officer on a matter dealing with detainees, its force protection officer on a matter involving roadside checkpoints in Baghdad.
“There are just so many people that I go to help get the word out correctly. I mean factually correct, legally correct,” Oakley said.
Once she had the facts, she drew up a brief statement that summed up in five sentences what had happened. Then its final sentences addressed the rumor directly: “The coalition does not and will not stop the flow of power to the citizens of Baghdad as a means of punishment. The coalition will continue to work to maintain and increase the amount of electricity that is provided to the citizens of Baghdad.”
She sent it to the engineer to ensure she had the facts right.
Then came the next step, taking it to the division’s chief of staff, Col. Jackson L. Flake.
“And he will say ‘Yes, this is’ or ‘is not’ the message that we as the 1st Armored Division” want to issue, she said.
In this case, Flake OK’d the statement and Oakley gave it to the division’s media center for translation into Arabic. The statement was then ready for distribution to the English- and Arabic-language newspapers, for radio broadcasts, and to the division’s brigades, which can get it out in their respective geographic areas of the city.
The division’s information efforts occupy about 100 people in various offices and units, said Oakley. They include the 315th Psychological Operations Company, elements of the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade, and the division’s public affairs office.
Their efforts, variously, include designing and distributing handbills and posters that address a range of issues; publishing a twice-monthly newspaper called Baghdad Now in English and Arabic; arranging commercial radio broadcasts in which brigade commanders and other senior military officers are featured guests; and aiding U.S. and foreign news organizations in covering the division’s activities.
Being proactive in addressing public concerns is crucial, said Maj. David Tucker II, commanding officer of the 315th Psychological Operations Company. “We find that a lot of the distrust can develop” among the populace if the military is “not communicating. And our job is to communicate. If you explain it to ’em, they’re usually very supportive.”
The division will soon bring out a monthly newspaper aimed at Baghdad youth and also is exploring ways to get several television stations back on the air.
“Winning a populace’s trust and confidence is not something you do in a few months’ time,” Oakley said. “And we just have to be honest and consistent and persistent with our message.”