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Iraq war comes to you live on YouTube

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Mariwan Hama-Saeed, 27, checks YouTube and other online video sharing sites regularly for information about the war in his native Iraq. (Tiare Rath/Courtesy of Mariwan Hama-Saeed/CNS)

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Steven Helton in an armored vehicle in Iraq. (Courtesy of Steven Helton/CNS)

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Steven Helton on patrol in Ramadi in December of 2004. (Courtesy of Steven Helton/CNS)

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Steven Helton (left) plays video games with a fellow soldier in Iraq. (Courtesy of Steven Helton/CNS)

When Mariwan Hama-Saeed, an Iraqi student in Colorado, wants to see what is going on at home, he does not turn to American television news. Instead, he watches videos online of insurgents' and U.S. military activities inside Iraq, often becoming so engrossed that he watches for two hours or more.

“The other day, I watched a clip where the U.S. forces bombed a mosque," said Hama-Saeed, 27, a journalism student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "They totally devastated a mosque. I just jumped from my chair and said, ‘What happened?’”

Hama-Saeed is part of a growing number of viewers who want to watch unfiltered news. An influx of videos from insurgents and homemade clips from U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq are transforming YouTube and other video-sharing sites into an alternative news network. While such grim footage is readily available in DVD shops and markets across the Arab world, it is rarely shown on U.S. television news channels.

YouTube, founded in 2005, is better known for entertainment clips and videos of politicians' missteps than as a hard news source. But the war in Iraq has churned up war videos unlike anything shown on American television. The videos provide users with more control over what they watch and when they watch it, making YouTube into what Hama-Saeed calls a “free channel” of information about the war.

The thousands of clips available on these sites are popular among news junkies and observers of the situation in Iraq. Quality ranges from grainy pictures and shaky camerawork to the better produced propaganda videos, frequently set to an Arabic language soundtrack.

Nir Rosen, a journalist who has reported extensively on the Iraqi insurgency, said many of the most revealing clips wind up online instead of on television because the U.S. media is censoring itself. “When they claim they shot down a helicopter and the Americans are saying it crashed, well, they have the footage,” Rosen said. “It’s the stuff you never see because American media is conservative.”

Many of the clips originate on Al-Zawra TV, a Damascus-based network broadcast throughout the Arab world by an Egyptian satellite provider, Rosen said. Middle East analysts call it “Insurgent TV.” If Iraqis and other in the Arab world are watching footage posted by U.S. soldiers, Rosen added, “it is probably to say, ‘Oh, look, they are killing our people.’”

Adam Raisman, an analyst at the SITE Institute, which monitors the activities of religious extremists online, said such videos were in constant supply. They originate in “less than 10 primary forums for jihadis and then they trickle down to various forums on the periphery,” Raisman said. “There are new ones every day.” Many of the violent videos posted online are often pulled by the sites’ monitors, but there is always a fresh crop.

YouTube contributor and viewer Steven Helton, a former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Battalion 5th Marine Weapons Company, served two seven-month tours in Iraq. He posted a clip entitled “I get blown up!” shot by a fellow marine in March 2005. The clip shows soldiers driving through the abandoned streets of downtown Ramadi when, suddenly, an explosion rocks their armored vehicle. After the soldiers cough, curse and check to see if they are all right, one of them says, “Holy ----, I got that on tape!” It has been viewed nearly 100,000 times.

While he initially posted the video to show his friends and family the experiences of soldiers in Iraq, he knows his videos have a large audience. He believes the videos give a better representation of what goes on on the ground in Iraq than news programs on television.

“I think the footage posted by service members is as real as they get,” he said in an e-mail message. Helton thinks he has seen every video from inside Iraq and Afghanistan posted on YouTube.

He believes these videos should be mandatory viewing as part of pre-deployment training for U.S. soldiers. “It’s more like a case study to me, especially the footage captured by the insurgents. I like to watch their tactics and the things they do,” he said.

Commercial television networks typically do not show such videos. Natalie Raabe, a spokeswoman for ABC News, said that while the network has broadcast other videos from YouTube, ABC News has refrained from airing YouTube footage of U.S. soldiers or insurgents engaged in combat in Iraq.

There is no legal reason stopping the networks from showing such videos, according to Michael Copps, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. “Basically, right now, unless it was judged by the Department of Justice as criminal, there are no restrictions on violent images on TV,” Copps said in an interview.

E-mail: akr2105@columbia.edu