“Welcome to the new Iraq, welcome to an Iraq without Saddam, Uday and Qusay. Welcome to the Iraqi Media Network, the voice of the new Iraq.”
These were the first words Ahmad Al-Rikaby uttered live on air from Baghdad as U.S.-led coalition forces finally toppled the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, marking the end of 35 years of tyranny and now looked back on by many Iraqis as their official declaration of independence.
Having fled Iraq with his family in 1968 after the Baath party came to power, Al-Rikaby has spent his life fighting for the liberation of his country over the airwaves. As the voice of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Iraq, he was known to millions of Iraqis at home and abroad for his scathing denunciations of Saddam.
Thus it was not surprising that he was handpicked by the U.S. administration to become the first director-general of the Iraqi Media Network, the newly created state broadcaster that was supposed to rival the BBC and PBS as a public service broadcaster in a free Iraq. Not that it turned out like that.
In the early days post-Saddam, “We basically had nothing to start with. Some buildings were completely destroyed,” he recalls. “It sounded like ‘Mission: Impossible’ at the time. I remember giving the job of cameraman to anyone who had a camera.”
Working in a makeshift tent from inside U.S. military facilities, Al-Rikaby saw problems get worse as arguments increased with S.A.I.C, the U.S. defense firm put in charge of overseeing IMN — often over money.
Some people say that when S.A.I.C left Iraq, their total bill was in the high eight figures, though the working conditions were far from lavish. “I slept in sandstorms with mosquitoes. I sat in the tent with God knows how much sand in my mouth, but we didn’t care. We were full of enthusiasm, and we wanted to achieve something.”
It is fair to say that the enthusiasm of Rikaby and his team was sorely tested in those first few weeks, even with matters as basic as a lack of electricity.
Though he eventually resigned in August 2003, unable to take the unworkable conditions any more, he still has fond memories of his time as the face and voice of the new Iraq. “I think we did something really heroic and historic. I don’t think many people have the chance to have a whole nation listening to you from a tent.”