Iraq TV's 'Cops' wins viewers, breaks new ground
KIRKUK, Iraq- Shattered glass, body parts, a blood-splattered blue sedan: the grainy video pans over the scene as Iraqi officers comb the site of a drive-by assassination.
It's "Cops" Iraqi-style, minus the "Bad Boys" soundtrack but otherwise roughly modeled after the American TV show.
Created to make government more transparent, "The Cops Show" featuring Kirkuk officers in action is the first of its kind in the country and is breaking new ground in Iraqi television. A live call-in portion gives the public the chance to praise the security forces or gripe about them.
Screened weekly on Kirkuk Television, which broadcasts in this northern city of nearly 1 million people, "The Cops Show" has opened the floodgates in a community long suppressed.
"During Saddam Hussein's time, it was very different," station manager Nasser Hassan Mohammed said. "You were unable to ask questions. You couldn't say anything bad about police.
"Now people can call in directly. Anyone has the right to do this. This is the difference now. This is freedom."
The call-in portion, initially a novelty, has become a staple of the show, and panelists field up to 30 calls per segment, Mohammed said. And because Kirkuk is ethnically mixed, the show switches among the languages spoken by Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen or Assyrians.
It took Iraqis a while to master the art of the phone-in.
"But after more than a year, they understand very well," Mohammed said.
Col. Gordon Petrie, the show's American military adviser, said it marks a new era for community service television.
"There has been a sea change in media," said Petrie, who heads public affairs for the 116th Brigade Combat Team. "Before 2003, it was all-Saddam, all-the-time.
"Kirkuk, which was one of the largest TV stations, basically was robotic. They'd get the Baghdad feed and send it out again. Now they are in charge here."
Until January's landmark elections, the Americans "ran the shows, booked the guests, and tried to show them what community service programming was about. But after Jan. 30, we became the monitors. They haven't disappointed us," Petrie said.
The show also aims to change a Saddam-era image of police as corrupt, inept and unapproachable.
"The first thing we wanted was to show friendship between citizens and police. They are not your enemy. They are your friend," Mohammed said.
Provincial police chief Gen. Sherko Shakir has appeared as a guest several times. His spokesman, Abdullah Abdul-Qadir, is host and moderator. During a recent taping, the panelists included Kirkuk's police chief, Gen. Burhan Taha, and two local police station commanders.
The show opened with graphic videotape of the body of an off-duty police captain, assassinated just days after his wedding. Taha decried the shooting as a "cowardly job" and urged the public to help.
"Don't be afraid. Give tips anonymously. That way, you can stop bad activities," he said.
Callers were just as quick to demand more of their local police force.
"I was standing on the main road near bridge No. 3. I saw some criminal activity. We don't have security in our area. Sometimes, we have to secure the area by ourselves," one man said.
Another, identifying himself as Ibrahim, demanded more police presence in southern Kirkuk.
"We don't have enough patrols and traffic checkpoints," he said. "The criminals all know where the checkpoints are."
Callers are often complimentary about the police, said Mohammed, but a few have been rude.
"Our policy is 'Thanks for your opinion.' They are free to say what they like," the station manager said, laughing and shaking his mane of gray hair.
The show's popularity has not gone unnoticed by its enemies, and the studios are heavily guarded. The station's employees regularly get threats, Mohammed said, adding that he himself was hit by more than two dozen bullets during an assassination attempt in May 2004.
The station remains undeterred, Mohammed said.
"After liberation, many things changed. Many dreams were realized. We use freedom and democracy," he said. "Our duty is to show people that freedom."