THE US military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program.
The effort has raised his profile in a way that some military intelligence officials believe may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush Administration tie the war to the organisation responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The documents say that the US campaign aims to turn Iraqis against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, by playing on their perceived dislike of foreigners. US authorities claim some success with the effort, noting that some tribal Iraqi insurgents have attacked Zarqawi loyalists.
For the past two years US military leaders have been using Iraqi media and other outlets in Baghdad to publicise Zarqawi's role in the insurgency. The documents explicitly list the "US home audience" as a target of a broader propaganda campaign.
Some senior intelligence officers believe Zarqawi's role might have been overemphasised by the propaganda campaign, which has included leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, internet postings and at least one leak to an American journalist.
Although Zarqawi and other foreign insurgents in Iraq have conducted deadly bombing attacks, they remain "a very small part of the actual numbers", Colonel Derek Harvey, who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq, told an army meeting in Kansas last year.
In a transcript of the meeting, Colonel Harvey said, "Our own focus on al-Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will - made him more important than he really is, in some ways."
There has been a running argument among specialists in Iraq about how much significance to assign to Zarqawi, who spent seven years in prison in Jordan for attempting to overthrow the government there. After his release he spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan before moving his base of operations to Iraq. He has been sentenced to death in his absence for planning the assassination of a US diplomat, Lawrence Foley, in Jordan in 2002. US authorities have said he is responsible for dozens of deaths in Iraq and have placed a $US25 million ($34 million) bounty on him.
The military's propaganda program has largely been aimed at Iraqis, but seems to have spilled over into the US media. One "selective leak" about Zarqawi was made to Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter based in Baghdad. Filkins's resulting article, about a letter supposedly written by Zarqawi and boasting of suicide attacks in Iraq, ran on the Times front page in February, 2004. The report also ran in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Filkins said he was not told there was a psychological operations campaign aimed at Zarqawi, but he assumed the military was releasing the letter "because it had decided it was in its best interest to have it publicised".
He said he was sceptical about the document's authenticity then, and remains so now.
"There was no attempt to manipulate the press," Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the US military's chief spokesman when the propaganda campaign began in 2004, said on Friday.
Officials said one indication that the campaign worked was that over the past several months there had been reports of Iraqi tribal insurgents attacking Zarqawi loyalists, especially in the culturally conservative province of Anbar.
"What we're finding is indeed the people of al-Anbar - Falluja and Ramadi, specifically - have decided to turn against terrorists and foreign fighters," Major-General Rick Lynch, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, said in February.