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Analysis: Corridors of Power

By ROLAND FLAMINI, UPI Chief International Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- When Osama bin Laden relayed his latest audiotaped message to al-Jazeera in a Sunday phone call from somewhere in Pakistan it was 45 minutes long. Editors at the Arab-language satellite news channel immediately went to work on it, and within a couple of hours a trimmed down, 13-minute version was on the air.

"By now we have a group of people well versed in bin Ladenism and they edit his tapes," Jihad Ali Ballout, al-Jazeera's communications and media relations manager told United Press International.

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This group pares down the al-Qaida leader's more inflammatory rhetoric, his devagations and tergiversations, and boils down the tape to the essential news content.

In his latest message, bin Laden expounded his personal domino theory: Iraq is the beginning of a U.S. occupation of the Gulf region, and he urged Arabs to continue the jihad (holy war) "to check the conspiracies that are hatched against the Islamic nation."

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The revelation that al-Jazeera edits bin Laden's tapes casts doubts on the claim of some terrorism experts that the messages contain coded messages to al-Qaida operatives. But this appears less likely if bin Laden's own words are not going out on the airwaves. Still, the tape intensified already existing fears of another terrorist attack.

On Monday, in a familiar sequence of events, the CIA said the latest tape was probably bin Laden's. Al-Jazeera knows enough about bin Laden to be pretty confident the tape is authentic before it goes out.

"Our people know his speech mannerisms, and -- for example -- they recognize the nuances in his Islamic references," Ballout commented in a telephone interview from the station's home base in Doha, Qatar. "Still, it's good to have independent confirmation."

But as the search for bin Laden drags on without success in the rugged, mountainous border country between Pakistan and Afghanistan, al-Jazeera no longer treats the delivery of every fresh tape as news in itself. It has spiked some tapes because they were not considered newsworthy.

"There have been at least six or seven tapes that we felt had no news value, and we decided not to air them," Ballout said.

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Periodically, senior terrorist-types complain about these omissions and warn al-Jazeera that if the station persists in not broadcasting the leader's pronouncements, future tapes will be sent to another news organization. But al-Qaida knows no other television station has al-Jazeera's reach in the Arab world -- including in Middle Eastern countries where it is not allowed to operate, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, and a half dozen others.

Al-Jazeera executives maintain they have no regular lines of communication open to al-Qaida, and no inkling when the next bin Laden tape will arrive.

"This guy works in mysterious ways," says Ballout. "If we had a system set up with him, as a journalist I would be hounding the guy for more tapes. But methods of delivery have changed.

"In the very old days someone would toss a tape at our doorman, and he would bring it into the studio without knowing what it was. These days we get a phone call, usually from Pakistan, and they say, get the tape-recorder ready -- and then you hear bin Laden's voice."

Ballout noted that bin Laden's latest tape had an unusual amount of political content -- "like a political manifesto." He concedes that, "Bin Laden uses al-Jazeera, but we use him too. But we're a news organization and he's got a constituency out there. Even his enemies want to know what he's up to."

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He also observes that both British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and more recently Japan's Junichiro Koizumi have appeared on al-Jazeera to explain their Iraq policy to the Arab world.

Of course, it is this idea of even-handedness that gets the station into trouble with the Bush administration. Al-Jazeera has come under fire from Washington -- where it has a news bureau -- for fomenting anti-Americanism. There are periodic stories of Bush administration pressure on the Qatari government to force a change in al-Jazeera's news policy, something Doha has so far resisted.

Yes, Ballout says, "It's no secret that the current U.S. administration would like to see some kind of change in our reporting. But I believe that under the current ownership -- in other words, the emir (of Qatar) - al-Jazeera will continue to enjoy an independent editorial policy run by its board of directors."

Granted that al-Jazeera often offers a different perspective on the news from the one provided by mainstream Western media, he says, but the Arab satellite channel is not deliberately anti-American.

"We believe our audience has a right to be able to see the picture from all angles," Ballout argued.

It's an approach that remains novel in the Arab world.

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