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Al-Jazeera Draws Viewers in Iraq War

March 23, 2003

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ During a press tour of a presidential palace targeted by coalition missiles, Iraq’s information minister addressed journalists by calling out to ``Al-Jazeera and the rest.″

In so doing, Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf summed up how the Arab media is perceived as it covers the region’s biggest story.

Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-based satellite channel founded in 1996, is known for its lively reporting, setting it apart from the region’s usual state-sponsored news.

Mohamed Charafeddine, a 37-year-old technician from Lebanon, said his television set is usually tuned to Al-Jazeera for news on Iraq. He sometimes switches to other channels, ``but I am used to watching Al-Jazeera and its breaking news bar.″

It’s a big contrast from the 1991 Gulf War, when the region’s nearly 300 million viewers depended on Western media for up-to-the-minute developments.

Al-Jazeera’s popularity rests in part in its refusal to parrot official government lines. Its broadcasts over the years have angered several Arab governments, which have responded by banning Al-Jazeera reporters.

Having established itself as the pre-eminent Arab broadcaster, Al-Jazeera is courted accordingly. It’s the only foreign station that Iraq has allowed to broadcast live from its northern city of Mosul. It also was allowed to send a correspondent to the southern city of Basra.

Still, Al-Jazeera rarely challenges popular Arab opinion on such subjects as Israel and the United States. The station refers to Palestinian suicide bombings that have targeted Israeli civilians as ``martyrdom operations,″ and its reports on Iraqi civilian deaths may be fueling the sometimes violent anti-war demonstrations across the region.

Other popular Arab channels are the United Arab Emirates’ Abu Dhabi Television and the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya, an all-news satellite channel that began airing last month.