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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 November, 2004, 17:12 GMT
Arab media 'muted' on Falluja
By Sebastian Usher
BBC world media correspondent

The assault on Falluja is continuing to receive a relatively muted reaction in the Arab world.

US armour in Falluja
The US-led troops are involved in bitter street fights in Falluja

The lack of outright condemnation from senior Arab figures is reflected in the restrained way the attack is being handled in the Arab media.

That has partly perhaps because the Arab world is holding its breath to hear the announcement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death.

The lack of independent Arab reporting from Falluja - particularly in terms of television pictures - seems also to have blunted the impact of the story in the Middle East.

'Invisible' casualties

Switch on an Arab-language TV news channel or read the papers and it is clear the strongest interest is in Mr Arafat's fate rather than the fighting in Falluja.

An Iraqi man buries his brother in Falluja, Iraq
A number of people in the city are said to have been killed

But it is not just a question of which event the Arab media considers more significant. Although there are reports of bodies lying in the streets in Falluja, there has been little pictorial evidence of this so far.

The images shown in the most respected Arab newspapers like Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat have been relatively anodyne.

If there have been big casualties among the civilian population, it's not been made visible. That has undeniably blunted the impact of what's happening in Falluja.

'Suspicious' silence

In the build-up to the offensive, the US forces made clear that one of their biggest worries was how the Arab media would report it.

Map of Iraq

They implied that footage of civilian victims of the attack could be a trump card for the insurgents - giving them the chance to win the propaganda war, if not the battle on the ground.

There have been reports that the insurgents tried to demand that the Arab media screen video footage they themselves filmed of the fighting.

Muslim clerics in Falluja called on Arab journalists to embed themselves with the insurgents as Western journalists have with US Marines.

But this does not seem to have happened.

The independent London-based newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi, has bemoaned the apparent lack of outrage in the Arab world, which it blamed on what it called a total media blackout on the fighting.

The paper also described Arab and international silence over Falluja as "suspicious".

Arab ambiguity

An Iraqi journalist reporting for the satellite news channel, al-Jazeera, from Falluja issued his own impassioned call on behalf of the people there, lamenting that Arabs did not know enough or see enough about what was happening to be spurred into action.

Al-Jazeera itself has apologised for the failings in its coverage, saying they were due to the Iraqi government closing down its Baghdad bureau several months ago.

A commentary in Al-Sharq al-Awsat has excoriated the Arab public for watching passively while Falluja burns - but there has not actually been that much to watch so far.

As for Arab opinion on the insurgents, its ambiguity is reflected in the media.

There has much talk of resistance with respect to the Falluja battle in the Arab press - on its front page, Al-Quds al-Arabi, celebrated them as heroes.

But earlier attacks by insurgents on Iraqis - especially the massacre of 49 unarmed trainee policemen - have been roundly condemned in the Arab press, as has the practice of capturing and beheading foreign hostages.

How the battle of Falluja plays out in the Arab world will finally depend not just on just how many civilian deaths it may cause, but also on the access that the Arab media has in reporting such casualties.

Watch fierce gun battles rage in Falluja

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