Anatomy of a propaganda war

John Kampfner, our political editor, explains how Blair is fighting what for him is the true battle:

As the bombs pound Baghdad, as the Republican Guard resists, as Saddam Hussein broadcasts defiantly, Tony Blair is serenity personified. The war is not, he insists, going badly. Iraqis will cheer their liberators when they get the chance. Civilian casualties will stay low. The regime will soon be toppled. The post-Saddam settlement will involve the United Nations, the Middle East peace process will get back on track and the divisions between Europe and the United States will heal.

Blair's performance before the media on 25 March, on the eve of his latest communion with George Bush, was a show of consummate optimism. It needed to be, because any hint of weakening resolve or of doubts about the outcome is out of the question for a man who has gambled his future on this war.

Blair has form. This is the fifth time he has sent troops into action in five years, a record unprecedented in modern British history. He has seen it all before. Wars have cycles. Battle is joined. Public opinion rallies. Critics fall silent. Progress slows. Frustration increases. Blair lived through this with Kosovo in 1999 - the bombing of the Chinese embassy, the bombing of the television station, the bombing of that convoy carrying the refugees, when he told his confidants it might be the end of him. He lived through Afghanistan in 2001 when the Pentagon complained it had run out of targets to bomb, and still the Northern Alliance had not advanced. Nor had it caught Osama Bin Laden or Mullah Omar.

In both cases victory was achieved, of sorts. It was not until much later that Slobodan Milosevic was deposed in Belgrade, and then by his own people. In Afghanistan, the writ of the UN extends barely beyond Kabul and Hamid Karzai's hold on power is fragile. But Blair was hailed as a liberator by Kosovar Albanians. In Kabul, women threw off their burqas in delight. That, as far as he is concerned, is what mattered.

Iraq 2003 is a venture of an altogether different magnitude - politically, diplomatically and militarily. British forces are on the ground, their movements chronicled in live TV footage. The journalism, the propaganda, the "psy-ops" (psychological operations) are breaking new ground. Blair has known from the outset that winning the war is not enough. As the pre-war diplomacy became more fraught, the postwar consensus became more important. The challenge for the PM is not to win the war - that was always taken for granted - but to justify its being waged.

So he needs cheering Iraqis (at some point); evidence of weapons of mass destruction that Hans Blix and his team of inspectors failed to find; civilian and allied military casualties below the pain threshold for British and US armchair viewers (that threshold is still to be determined, and has probably not been crossed by the 26 March air strike on a Baghdad market); and Saddam Hussein, dead or alive. In an ideal world, Blair needs all of these; he must have at least some.

The propaganda has to be smart. Blair has eschewed all traces of jingoism. He goes out of his way to acknowledge the bona fides of most of his critics. But the pressure from Downing Street on journalists, especially broadcasters, is as intense as it has ever been, albeit more subtle than usual.

On the eve of war, Alastair Campbell, in a standard softening-up exercise, wrote a long missive to Richard Sambrook, head of news at the BBC, taking issue in detail with the tone of some broadcasts and programmes. The word from Auntie is that she firmly but politely rebutted the charges. "We're better at dealing with that kind of thing nowadays," says one senior BBC manager. "We've a lot of experience of it."

Still, there is an army of BBC executives on hand to worry about each and every report, and worry is lodged in the corporation's subconscious. There is 24-hour soul-searching among broad-casters about the language, tone and pictures they should use. Al-Jazeera, a provider of pictures to all networks as well as a broadcaster to 45 million people in the Middle East, presents a fresh challenge. BBC managers admit that their decision to hold back al-Jazeera's film of Iraq's American POWs - "we have seen them . . . they are truly shocking . . . but we can't possibly show them to you", explained their Washington correspondents - was a mistake. A day later, executives decided that the time lag on any subsequent pictures would be much shorter. Sky was quicker to put "health warnings" on pictures provided by the UK Ministry of Defence of surrendering Iraqis, to make clear their source.

The "embeds" - reporters embedded with the military - have created new problems and opportunities. On the debit side is a loss of control, with pictures from the front broadcast live. On the credit side is that viewers may empathise more with the troops, and that reports of the view in Baghdad may carry less weight.

But those Baghdad reports do still matter, and their tone of the first week rankles. In No 10, one particular newspaper article brought home the scale of the task. An eyewitness piece from Baghdad in the Daily Mail, of all places, was headlined: "How fighting the Yanks has given Iraq self-respect". Ross Benson wrote of the people in the capital: "What their young men in the battlefields to the south have done is give them back a measure of self-respect. And the fact that it has been acquired at the expense of Americans who are taking the brunt of the casualties is a source of grim pleasure." This is the exact converse of the message Downing Street wanted to get out. What can you expect, Blair responds; the people are brainwashed, confused or scared. Once freed from "the boot of Saddam", they will undoubtedly "see the soldiers as liberators".

One lesson Campbell took from the Afghan war was the need to get the war message across at all times of the day. Just as the pictures arrive on TV screens raw, so does much of the information. This has allowed convenient rumours to spread. Even before the war started there were reports of Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, fleeing or being shot trying to flee. Within hours of the first bombing, Pentagon and British briefers encouraged journalists to speculate on death or injury among Saddam and his circle. Talk of desertions and insurrections is encouraged. It doesn't matter much if the reports turn out to be wrong. Eventually some will prove true. The rest can be put down to the "fog of war".

A particularly spectacular example was the story about a chemical weapons factory found at a 100-acre site near Najaf. The report was carried first by the Jerusalem Post and Fox News Channel, citing Pentagon sources. Both the Israeli newspaper and Rupert Murdoch's US cable news station happen to be standard-bearers for the American right and close to Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, the US defence secretary and his deputy. The story then "took off" across the world, before the error was put down officially to "a zealous overinterpretation of a briefing". Similarly, the mass rebellion against Saddam in Basra, widely reported on Tuesday, was described on Wednesday by Blair as "some limited form of uprising".

No matter how important the battles, the ultimate test for Blair will be the first pictures out of "liberated" Iraq. The message of the past year has been that, apart from a clique of cronies and the Special Republican Guard, Iraqi resistance will crumble and the people will welcome the troops as Europe did the GIs in the Second World War. Most important are the chemical and biological weapons that Blix failed to find. Blair was asked if the advancing forces similarly failing to uncover them would damage his credibility. "We have absolutely no doubt at all that these weapons of mass destruction exist," he replied. But it would take time, as it has in Northern Ireland to find IRA caches. "The idea that we can suddenly discover this stuff is a lot more difficult in a country the size of Iraq, but of course once the regime is out, then there will be all sorts of people that will be willing to give us the information that we seek." Thus, expectations are already being managed.

Blair is already thinking through the historical judgements about this war. He was asked whether he had not, in recent weeks, changed the pretext from disarming Iraq of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) to DMDs (dictators of mass destruction). "I think it is a good point and it is one we have wrestled with throughout, because we have had to operate within the context of international law and the demands of the UN, which were for the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. And the logic of that position has been somewhat uncomfortable, frankly, for me and for others - that if Saddam had voluntarily disarmed he could have remained in place . . . in one sense I feel more comfortable with the position now where we are saying quite plainly to people the only way now to disarm him is to remove his regime."

Forget Bush for a moment. Blair knew Saddam would not go quietly. Long ago he had decided on war. That is why, whatever the battles ahead, he is serene.