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US military takes Iraq war to YouTube

The US military has taken the war in Iraq into cyberspace, with the launch of its own channel on the video-sharing website YouTube.

Its 25 brief clips include footage of US soldiers firing at unseen snipers in Baghdad, handing out footballs to Iraqi children and rescuing an Iraqi family injured by an explosive device. In two months, the Multi-National Force-Iraq channel has climbed to 16th in YouTube's most subscribed-to listing and has, the military says, just passed the 1 million video views mark. With titles like Battle on Haifa Street and Iraqi Boy Scouts Prepare for Jamboree, the clips are intended to show a "boots on the ground" perspective of Iraq, a statement on the site says. The channel is also a perhaps belated attempt to move into the territory of Islamist extremist groups which have used the internet to post footage of hostages or attacks on US forces. But, sceptics ask, will it give audiences a truer picture - or is it just an attempt by the US military to shift the focus in Iraq to the positive developments it accuses the mainstream media of neglecting?

Cyberspace battle

Lt Col Christopher Garver, a spokesman for US forces in Iraq, told the BBC News website the project's initial motivation was simply to get the "great footage" being shot by the military's combat cameramen in Iraq out to a wider audience. However, it also serves to show another side of operations in Iraq beyond news reports of "the car bomb of the day", he says - and to counter the messages of anti-American sites. Lt Col Garver acknowledges the US military has been slow to try to combat the influence of extremist groups on the internet. "The cyberspace battle space was not one that we were particularly operating well in," he says. "This was one of the first public steps into that cyberspace." The footage is not picked specifically to show the military in a good light, he says, and is only edited for reasons of time or content too graphic to be shown on YouTube. And while all the clips currently posted have been shot by the military's combat cameramen, soldiers and marines have been invited to submit their own clips.

Spin or reality?

As on any YouTube channel, viewers are free to comment positively or negatively on the clips posted on MNF-Iraq. Remarks are usually only taken down if they are profane, Lt Col Garver says, and not because they are critical of the military. "About 80-90% of the comments left generally approve of what we have done in terms of trying to get information out into the public domain. "Generally we see a lot of debate... and in an open society debate is a good thing, so we tend to try to let it go." A look at the comments posted beneath the clip Troops Give Gifts to Iraqi Children reveals a wide range of opinion. One viewer posts a one-word reaction: "Propaganda." Another says: "No matter how you spin it, it is a 'Winning the hearts and minds' campaign. We did the same thing when I was there. Yes it's to pass along a gift, but also to buy them off so they don't toss grenades or other explosives at us or into our compound." A third viewer responds: "When I was there I spent like an hour a day blowing up soccer balls for those kids, not buildings. Unfortunately our media is too busy selling the idea that we are 'bombing buildings', so all you know us as are baby killers. Unbelievable."

Chasing the enemy

There is no shortage of comment on the US-led war in Iraq already posted on the internet. However, there has been debate about how much freedom active-duty soldiers should have to blog on their experiences, with some officers concerned it could impact on security and morale. So what is the reaction in the blogosphere to the military establishment's own move into the internet "battle space"? Blogger, writer and former US soldier Bill Roggio says it is really just an extension of the US military's attempt to reach the public through mainstream media. "It's really a smart move. One thing that al-Qaeda does very well is put its own videos of attacks on Americans or Iraqis up on their own websites. They dominate that terrain and they get the hits." By getting a good YouTube and Google rating, the US military will improve the chances of theirs being the first site people go to when they search on topics relating to Iraq, he says. "They are very slow, very behind the times in things like blogs," he argues. "But they are starting to move forward and recognising the medium - they have to, the enemy is doing it and they have to counter that." Mr Roggio - who has been embedded with the military in Iraq three times since the 2003 US-led invasion - says he is willing to give the US military the benefit of the doubt over its choice of videos. "Some of these are very military friendly but not all of them are," he says. He points to one clip where the footage is murky, one of the soldiers looks scared and the viewer is left wondering what is going on. "It certainly wasn't a recruiting commercial. I think it was a pretty frank look at what combat looks like in our generation. "I don't think they are going to put something up that shows them in a bad light, but I do think they are trying to give you a little snapshot of 'one day in the life of...'." Lt Col Garver would agree. "All I'm looking to provide is another view of things that are happening here in this very complicated, very complex place that is Iraq."