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By Iqbal Athas

US builds up more troops in the Gulf

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U.S.Air Force KC-135 aerial refueling tankers from the Washington Air National Guard are lined-up on the tarmac while being prwpared for deployment to the Middle East

As the General Assem bly sessions, which draws the world's leaders to United Nations every year, comes to a close in the next few days, one would have thought of

international diplomacy paving the way for the customary Year end festivity.

A giant Christmas tree, felled by a huge chain saw with the branches carefully bandaged, is already aboard a Russian transport plane winging its way from Ohio to the New York City. It will go up in the Rockerfeller Center next week.

The Christmas mood is coming alive with electronic billboards reminding in bold letters the number of "Shopping Days" left. The colourful decor have begun to appear in the shopping malls. Adverts in both the print and electronic media speak of bonuses and bonanzas for shoppers.

If that's for Christmas, coming just after that will be the world's largest New Year party at No 1, Times Square, where the revelry by the thousands who gather is unmatched in any other world capital. This time there is added significance. It is to greet 1999, the last year in this century.

But at the 38 storeyed United Nations Headquarters, the mood is unusually upbeat for the end of the year. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, cut short a tour of North African countries to return to his headquarters here. The Security Council has had a series of sittings and diplomats were locked in intense consultations.

It is all over an imminent United States attack on Iraq. As the US continued to build up troops in the Persian Gulf, there is a mass exodus of the media to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. It was reminiscent of the 1991 Gulf war, which Sri Lankans, like others in all parts of the world, saw live on TV from their bedrooms and living rooms.

This time a planned United States strike is to end UN inspections of Iraq, leaving force and economic sanctions as the only tools against Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. The looming threat of a military attack, the Clinton Administration and its allies believe, would compel the Iraqi leader to rescind his decision to bar inspections by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM).

The US media, both print and electronic, are full of reportage on the US preparations to attack what are said to be Iraqi illicit weapons facilities, President Saddam's Special Republican Guard and other security pillars of his regime.

Needless to say, like in the Gulf War, another mlitary confrontation in Iraq, will have its repercussions on many parts of the world including Sri Lanka. One of the most immediate was the need to re-route all flights from Sri Lanka that operates in the Persian Gulf region.

But there appears to be a lesson for Sri Lanka's defence establishment and,even the Army Censors, in the preparations under way and how the media handled them in this modern technological era.

Appearing on the front page of Friday's New York Times is a three column colour photograph. It showed in clear detail three Patriot missile launchers, all positioned and ready for action. This is what the caption said: "A battery of American-made Patriot missiles were deployed in Kuwait City yesterday. United States troops in the Persian Gulf emirate were at a high state of alert as the standoff over arms inspections continued."

On Thursday, in another lengthy account headlined 'US BOLSTERS ITS AIR FORCES AT RAPID RATE IN GULF AREA', The New York Times said "The Pentagon's abrupt buildup of air power in the Persian Gulf expands the number and types of targets the United States can strike in Iraq, and the magnitude of damage it can inflict on President Saddam Hussein's Government.

Some excerpts of significance:

"The new forces, which had been on standby, are expected to begin moving from bases around the United States in the coming days and should arrive in the region by the weekend or early next week, officials said. But that does not preclude an American strike before then, they said."

"By this weekend, by contrast, there will be about 27,000 troops, 300 aircraft and 14 warships. However, when the Pentagon reduced the force in the region last spring, it doubled the number of Tomahawk cruise missiles aboard warships plying the gulf to about 250 to 350, giving the smaller force a larger punch"

"The new aircraft being sent to the region include a dozen F-117 stealth strike fighters able to evade air defences and attack with surprise and precision, as well as a dozen B-52s equipped with 96 cruise missiles that can be fired from the skies hundreds of miles from Iraq. The B-52s are being sent to Diego Garcia, an American base on British territory in the Indian Ocean; the F - 117s are expected to go to Kuwait……….

"The Pentagon has also ordered the Air Force to send an "air expeditionary force," composed of 36 fighters and 6 B-1 bombers to an unspecified place. If the United States attacks, it would be the first combat mission for the B-1……….."

If those were part of the plans, there is more in The New York Times. This is what it said under different titles which are explanatory:

ON THE WAY - 129 aircraft, 4,000 troops, Enterprise Carrier Group, Bellau Wood Amphibious Group.

IN THE REGION - Aircraft 173, Troops 14,400 Navy and Marines, 5,600 Air Force, 2,600 Army and 1,000 support staff.

EISENHOWER CARRIER BATTLE GROUP - 1 Aircraft carrier, 68 Aircraft, 1 Cruiser,. 5 Destroyers, 1 Frigate, 1 Attack Submarine, 1 Mine Cruiser Measure Ship.

ESSEX AMPHIBIOUS READY GROUP - 1 Assault Ship, 1 Amphibious Transport Dock and 1 Dock Landing Ship."

If that was how The New York Times, one of the world's most prestigious newspapers reported it, another equally prestigious, The Washington Post added on Friday:

"…At the same time, the United States began deploying 139 heavy bombers and other war planes to the Persian Gulf, beefing up its forces for the possible air action. US officials said that for a variety of reasons, including the time needed to complete the buildup, military action is not likely for about 10 days, although it could come sooner…..

"…….The extra troops and equipment will amount to a doubling of US firepower there (in Iraq). Yesterday, 12 giant B-52 bombers began moving from bases in Louisiana and North Dakota to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Other aircraft are due to depart in the next few days. The Pentagon raised the total number of planes in the new deployment from 129 to 139, saying yesterday that it had failed to include a group of refuelling aircraft in its announcemet Wednesday………"

Besides the accounts in these two prestigious newspapers, there was voluminous TV and radio reportage. There were pictorial accounts of the preparations on TV and public responses on the radio. Some of the commenators were over enthusiastic like the one at WCBS who hoped the US bombing would lead to President Saddam's death. Media frenzy one would say.

But, on the whole that was how the American media kept the American public informed. The world's only remaining super power was planning military action. And its people were being told the truth about what was ahead. There is no censorship. Nor do politicians in the camouflage of Generals decide what the public should know, what should be kept out, how to deal with media that do not play ball, declare percentages of the war won so far and, above all, accuse all others who have differing opinions as LTTE acolytes or sympathisers.

One of the biggest shortcomings in the 17 year long separatist war has been the inability of successive Government's to deal with the media aspects of the war. The larger part of the period during the war has been covered by the previous United National Party Government.

During that period, if dissemination of news relating to the war was only confined to brief press releases containing sketchy details, like it is today, the media still had access to the operational areas.

The procedure was for the media to apply to the Ministry of Defence through the Department of Information specifying the area they wanted to visit. The Ministry issued them a letter of authority and copied the same letter to the senior military official in charge of the area. Such a letter was in effect a permit to travel to the operational area. The media were thus able to talk to soldiers, who are the vanguard of the ongoing war, and report on the ground situation prevailing.

That way the public of Sri Lanka, not to mention the outside world, was able to obtain a first hand knowledge of what went on.

But after the advent of the People's Alliance Government, this procedure was done away with and the media was banned from all operational areas. The only exception has been the conducted tours arranged by Government and military officials.

It is in this backdrop that some Government leaders, like General Anuruddha Ratwatte, the Deputy Minister of Defence, have been placing deadlines and making headlines. It is in this backdrop that he has made public declarations, periodically, that 96 per cent of the war was complete and only a mere four per cent remains to be completed.

Other than the Government's and General's Ratwatte's own assertions, the only other source of information to the Sri Lankan public now are only the news releases put out by the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence. That too with a censorship, both on the local and foreign media, since June 5, this year.

Politics and media pundits have often used references to details about the conduct of an operation (after it has been executed, or gains/losses made when it is under way) have often claimed them as a method of passing information to the enemy. The same case when references are made to the use of equipment, aircraft, ships or about the numbers of men deployed.

Fortunately, there are no politicians in uniform in the United States. There is no censorship either. So the American public know exactly what is going on. They also know exactly whom to back.

The US media has not kept it away on the grounds that the reportage is intelligence to President Saddam Hussein.

Fifth Column

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