Pentagon Boosts Media Access in Iraq

By: Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press Writer

(AP) As American troops step up their attacks on Iraqi resistance, U.S. occupation officials also are launching a media offensive under pressure from the White House to do a better job promoting the military campaign against insurgents.

Part of the idea is to give the American public a better sense that U.S. troops are on the offensive and not just passively facing daily, deadly attacks from Iraqi guerrillas.

In effect, the idea is to return to the type of briefing operations that occurred during the war’s major combat phase, defense officials said Tuesday. That included daily briefings by high-level officers who explained daily military missions in some detail at U.S. Central Command war headquarters in neighboring Qatar, with video hookups for reporters in the Pentagon.

U.S. occupation authorities notorious for their poor press operations now offer briefings during the day and night in Baghdad, the capital. That means they reach audiences in the United States as well as the European and Middle Eastern time zones.

In what one Pentagon official called going on the offensive, military public affairs officers also began last week flooding reporters in Washington and Baghdad with press releases on everything from commando raids and weapons seizures to the capture of Iraqi insurgents and reconstruction efforts.

Before that, it seemed most releases were to identify American troops killed in the rising number of ambushes, bombings and other attacks.

Some occupation officials also have started answering their e-mails, a development almost unheard of in the authority’s six months in the country.

Additionally, they are planning a new 24-hour satellite television station to offer more government-produced programming of briefings, military activities and other events in Iraq, defense officials said.

The Iraq press operation has been chaotic for months, with erratic Baghdad phone service and some press releases inexplicably released by e-mail while others were not.

Briefings in Iraq were scheduled irregularly and often canceled. Getting into the press center was difficult, with security checks sometimes leaving journalists waiting for 90 minutes or more to attend a news conference. Now, officials have plans to open a media center with work stations, an accreditation system and officers available to answer queries.

Press conferences at the Defense Department’s Pentagon headquarters also have been less frequent in recent months.

The effort to get what the administration calls more positive coverage has been a continuing struggle for the Bush administration, with officials charging that the press covers too much of the increasing violence and problems and not enough of the progress in Iraq.

Facing sliding public opinion polls last month about his handling of Iraq, President Bush launched a public relations campaign that sent top advisers on a speaking circuit and others on high-profile trips to Iraq.

At Wednesday night’s briefing in Baghdad, which began at 8:30 p.m. Baghdad time and was replayed later for the Pentagon press corps, Dan Senor, a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, said the timing was meant “to accommodate all media markets.”

The higher pace of activity also warrants extra press conferences, said Senor, who appeared with the military deputy director for operations, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt.

“We are at a critical stage right now in the reconstruction effort,” Senor said. “I don’t think there’s been any three- or four-week period since the end of major combat operations when you’ve seen more concentrated periods of intensive activity.”

Senor noted the United Nations-set Dec. 15 deadline for coming up with plans for an Iraqi constitution, the recent effort to get congressional approval of U.S. reconstruction funds, increased violence by opposition forces and the offensive against it.

“So we’ve got a lot of information to get out, and we know there are a lot of questions, and we hope you are finding this helpful,” he said.

For his part, Kimmitt said he was recently assigned to do the briefings, rather than a public affairs officer, because commanders wanted someone able to explain the technical details of the American military operations as they ramp up to deal with the guerrilla violence.

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