BAGHDAD – Turning on their TVs during the long holiday weekend, Iraqis were greeted by a familiar if unexpected face from their brutal past: Saddam Hussein.
The late Iraqi dictator is lauded on a mysterious satellite channel that began broadcasting on the Islamic calendar's anniversary of his 2006 execution.
No one seems to know who is bankrolling the so-called Saddam Channel, although the Iraqi government suspects it's Baathists whose political party Saddam once led. The Associated Press tracked down a man in Damascus, Syria named Mohammed Jarboua, who claimed to be its chairman.
The Saddam channel, he said, "didn't receive a penny from the Baathists" and is for Iraqis and other Arabs who "long for his rule."
Jarboua has clearly made considerable efforts to hide where it's aired from and refuses to say who is funding it besides "people who love us."
Iraqis surprised to find Saddam on their TVs responded with the kind of divided emotions that marked his reign.
"Iraqis don't need such a satellite channel because it has hostile intentions," said Hassan Subhi, a 28-year-old Shiite who owns an Internet cafe in eastern Baghdad.
Others said they felt a nostalgic sorrow at the sight of their late leader, a Sunni Arab.
"All my family felt sad," said Samar Majid, a Sunni high school teacher in western Baghdad, mentioning images shown from Saddam's execution, and pictures of his two sons and grandson.
The channel, which is broadcast across the Arab world, dredges up the sectarian divisions that Saddam inspired among Shiites and Sunnis at a time when Iraq is gearing up for crucial national elections. Iraqi politicians have been arguing over parliamentary seat distribution in a dispute that has inflamed the splits. The wrangling will likely delay the vote beyond its constitutionally required Jan. 30 deadline.
Saddam's hanging three years ago was on the first day of Eid al-Adha, the most important holiday of the Islamic calendar. His execution — and the day it was done — remains a sore point for Saddam sympathizers still smarting over images of the defiant leader in his final moments as Shiites in the death chamber shouted curses.
The Saddam Channel debuted on Friday, the first day of this year's Eid for Sunnis. The holiday started Saturday for Shiites. The station's official name alternates between "Al-Lafeta" ("the banner") and "Al-Arabi" ("the Arab").
It is mostly a montage of flattering, still images of Saddam — some of him dressed in military uniform, others in a suit, even one astride a white horse. One image shows his sons Odai and Qusai smiling with their father, and another their bodies after they and Saddam's grandson, Mustafa, were killed in a July 2003 gunfight with U.S. troops.
One prominently displayed image is that of a man burning an American flag. Another shows graves covered with Iraqi flags.
All the pictures are set against audio recordings of Saddam making speeches and reciting poetry. Patriotic songs urge listeners to "liberate our country." None of the pictures appear to be recent, and no announcers or commentators appear or speak.
A media adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, brushed off the station and its message, and refused to comment on whether the government will seek to shut down the channel.
Al-Maliki adviser Yassin Majid said in an interview that he had not seen the channel but had heard of it. He called it "an attempt from the dissolved Baath Party to return to Iraq's politics." Since Saddam's fall, Baathists have spread out around the region, mainly to Syria and Jordan but also to Gulf countries and Yemen.
Among the many mysteries surrounding the channel is where is being broadcast from.
In a telephone interview Sunday from Damascus, Jarboua said he is Algerian and that the Saddam Channel is based in Europe but refused to say where, citing safety concerns for its employees.
"There are threats that the Iraqi government will shut it down, kill its employees, that they will liquidate it," Jarboua said.
He said he started al-Lafeta nine months ago in Lebanon, and has employees in Syria, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Ziad Khassawneh, a Jordanian Baathist who once headed Saddam's defense team, said wealthy Iraqis living in Lebanon, Syria and other Arab countries are funding the channel. He declined to give names.
Saddam's oldest daughter, Raghad Saddam Hussein, who lives in Jordan, has denied any connection to the channel.
One Jordan-based Iraqi Baathist said the station broadcasts from Libya and is run by followers of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam's No. 2 and a top leader of the outlawed Baath party. Douri's whereabouts is unknown.
Another former Baathist official said the Saddam Channel broadcasts out of Damascus. Both men spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they needed to protect the security of the channel's employees.
A Mideast satellite expert said al-Lafeta's operators tried to hide any clues to their identities and broadcast sites by using a variety of satellite services and frequencies. The channel airs via Noorsat, a Bahrain-based satellite service. It also has purchased a frequency on Egypt-owned NileSat, which is run by Eutelsat, a European consortium.
Some Iraqis shrugged off the broadcast as harmless.
"This channel doesn't mean anything to people," Muhammad Abdullah, 35, an Iraqi journalist, said in northern Baghdad. "It has no effect on the Iraqi people now."