Captured insurgents questioned in Iraqi reality show
Actors in the Insurgency Are Reluctant TV Stars
Terror Suspects Grilled, Mocked on Hit Iraqi Show
By Caryle Murphy and Khalid Saffar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page A18
BAGHDAD -- Iraq's hottest new television program is a
reality show. But the players are not there by choice.
And they don't win big bucks, a new spouse or a dream
Instead, all the characters on "Terrorism in the Hands
of Justice" are captured suspected insurgents. And for
more than a month, they have been riveting viewers
with tales of how they killed, kidnapped, raped or
beheaded other Iraqis, usually for a few hundred
dollars per victim.
Seated before an Iraqi flag, the dejected and cowed
prisoners answer questions from an off-camera
inquisitor who mocks their behavior. Some sport
bruised faces and black eyes. Far from appearing to be
confident heroes battling U.S. occupation, they come
across as gangsters.
"I watch the show every night, and I wait for it
patiently, because it is very revealing," said Abdul
Kareem Abdulla, 42, a Baghdad shop owner. "For the
first time, we saw those who claim to be jihadists as
simple $50 murderers who would do everything in the
name of Islam. Our religion is too lofty, noble and
humane to have such thugs and killers. I wish they
would hang them now, and in the same place where they
did their crimes. They should never be given any
Broadcast on al-Iraqiya, the state-run network set up
by the U.S. occupation authority in 2003, "Terrorism
in the Hands of Justice" has become one of most
effective arrows in the government's counterinsurgency
"It has shown the Iraqi people the reality of those
insurgents, [that] they are criminals, killers,
murderers, thieves," Interior Minister Falah Naqib
said last week.
Sabah Kadhim, an Interior Ministry spokesman, added,
"The last few weeks have been incredible in terms of
tips coming in from the public."
Officials launched the program, Kadhim said, after
realizing that Iraqis did not believe that insurgents
were being arrested. "Talking to people in the street,
they say, 'Is it really true? . . . Why don't you show
it?' " he recalled. "The demand for this came from the
The bruised faces and the death of at least one
prisoner after his appearance on the show have raised
questions about the men's treatment in custody. Kadhim
denied the prisoners were being abused. "There is
absolutely no motive for us to torture them," he said.
In recent reports, the State Department and Human
Rights Watch have criticized the use of torture by
"In light of our recent findings about the prevalence
of torture in Iraqi prisons," said Joe Stork, a
Washington-based spokesman for Human Rights Watch, "we
have serious concerns that these confessions were not
also coerced and that the Iraqi authorities failed to
provide essential due process protections."
"Televised confessions are almost always suspect,"
Stork added. "Recent examples in Iran and Saudi Arabia
clearly involved a high level of coercion and
Such concerns have not dimmed the program's
"We had not planned for the tapes, but suddenly we had
what you might call a scoop," said al-Iraqiya's
Baghdad station director, Ahmed Yasseri. As a result,
he said, "we have overtaken the other stations. These
tapes have captured the attention of Iraqis."
The program usually opens with a graphic shot of a
bloodied bombing victim lying in the street, followed
by one of two smiling young boys holding a handwritten
sign that reads, "No to Terrorism."
As each insurgent is questioned, others sit behind
him, hands folded in laps, as if patiently waiting
their turns in a barbershop. Sometimes, the head of a
cougar or lion -- mascots of counterinsurgency police
commandos -- are superimposed on the Iraqi flag in the
Many of the suspects are former policemen who claim
they were coerced into joining the insurgency by
threats against their families. Though many claim to
have attacked U.S. forces, the interviews focus on
their atrocities against Iraqis and payments they
allegedly received from Syrian and Saudi paymasters.
In one recent episode, Ramzi Hashim Obeidi, a painter
from Mosul who claimed to be a member of the Islamic
radical group Ansar al-Islam, described his purported
role in the 2003 car bomb assassination of a senior
Shiite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim,
Obeidi said he was part of a six-man team that was to
"intercept U.S. forces if they came." Others drove the
explosives-laden vehicle the approximately 90 miles
from Baghdad to the site of the attack. "It was very
easy," he said "It was an ambulance."
Among the conspirators who planned the operation,
Obeidi said, was Iraq's most-wanted Islamic extremist,
Abu Musab Zarqawi.
"You did not target just Hakim," the police
interrogator shouted at Obeidi. "You killed 110
people, some of them women and children. . . . Do you
call this jihad? What kind of jihad is this? To kill
police, to behead police?"
Obeidi, who made no attempt to defend his actions,
meekly replied, "Up to now, I don't know what jihad
On another segment, Qahtan Adnan Khalid, a prisoner
who said he had been a policeman in the town of
Samarra, had two black eyes and appeared to have
difficulty breathing, occasionally wincing in pain.
Responding to each question with a deferential "Sir,"
Khalid recounted how he had shot two kidnapped
policeman in the head and was paid $200 for each
"I advise the young to stay away from these paths," he
said at one point.
A few days after Khalid's appearance, his body was
delivered to his father's home in Samarra, his family
has said. Human Rights Minister Bakhtyar Amin said his
office was investigating the death.
At times, the insurgents appear to be parroting
packaged answers, and critics of the program say the
prisoners' stories fit well with the government's
portrait of the insurgency: that it is in large part a
bunch of greedy criminals run amok, that foreigners
play a big role and that funding is coming from
neighboring Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Less emphasized on the program is that the
predominantly Sunni Arab insurgency is also driven by
fears of Shiite political domination and resentment of
the U.S. occupation. As a result, "Terrorism in the
Hands of Justice" provokes mixed feelings among some
"My criticism of the program is that it is sometimes
simplistic, repetitive and gives the impression that
those [men] are being coached to say what they are
saying, although I believe they have committed these
crimes," said Abdul Kareem Janaby, 46, a Trade
Ministry employee. "Those persons are nothing but
dirty, lowly gangs who are being used to defame the
true character of the Sunnis."
Kadhim said that the captured insurgents eventually
would be brought to trial and that what they said on
television would be ignored in court because the
program was "not a court of law."
The prisoners can only hope they get a judge who
shares the views of Fuad Awdeh, 27, a Shiite laborer
in Baghdad who said he found the program
"I feel sorry and pity for those guys," he said. "They
may have done it for money . . . and probably, being
unemployed, were easily drawn into this."
Still, Awdeh said, he finds the program credible
"because in one episode someone spoke of committing a
crime in the Wahda district, and it happens I knew the
victim's family, and it was true."