White House plans Ramadan public relations blitz

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By Patricia Wilson

WASHINGTON, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Fighting the image war for Muslim support, the White House has launched a public relations blitz to mark the holy month of Ramadan with prayers, a traditional dinner and anti-Taliban messages.

About 50 ambassadors from Muslim countries have been invited to pray in the East Room on Monday evening after which President George W. Bush will join them to break the sunrise to sundown fast with the customary Iftar meal in the State Dining Room.

Officials from the State and Defense Departments and the White House will hold high profile meetings with Muslim leaders and business executives to highlight the Taliban's oppression of women in Afghanistan, as well as conference calls with women editors and publishers.

Women members of Congress were briefed on the efforts by Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky on Friday. First lady Laura Bush will give the weekly presidential radio address on Saturday, promoting women's rights in Afghanistan and the State Department will release a report detailing the Taliban's "war against women."

Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, will brief Bush and his Cabinet on humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan on Monday morning, and on Tuesday a barge with 10,000 tonnes of processed food will leave Lake Charles, Louisiana, with great fanfare.

With the United States refusing to halt its airstrikes on Afghanistan during Ramadan, the White House hopes to use the occasion to emphasize that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is not a war on Muslims.

The public relations battle is being fought from a nerve center set up in the ornate Indian Treaty Room on the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House.

Among the nautical motifs, including sea horses and dolphins in the cast iron railing at the second floor balcony, stars for navigation in the ceiling and a compass set in the center of the tiled floor, are flat-screen computer monitors, television sets tuned to all-news channels and clocks displaying the time in Washington, London, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We're not planning the strategy for the war here. That's done by the war council in the Situation Room," presidential Counselor Karen Hughes explained during a tour on Friday.

A NEW MISSION

"What we're doing is communicating the educational aspects, the progress we're making on different fronts of the war. We're communicating with the world about our cause and why we're involved in this war and why it is just," she said.

The Coalition Information Center, an around-the-clock operation with branches in London and Islamabad, is designed to harness the 24-hour news cycle during the anti-terror effort. It was set up on Oct. 26 in response to concerns that Washington and its allies were losing the information

battle.

Hughes, a longtime Bush aide and one of his closest confidants, said Bush had called her into the Oval Office the day after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and given her a new mission in his administration.

"The president literally from the first morning ... understood the need for us to communicate with the American people about the different nature of this war and the need for us to a better job of communicating American values to the world," she said.

"He basically charged me with both of those missions."

Between 20 and 25 people borrowed from other offices in the White House as well as the State, Defense and Treasury Departments have taken up not-so-temporary residence in the Indian Treaty Room, where Dwight D. Eisenhower held the first televised presidential news conference in January 1955.

"This is a long-term project," Hughes said.

Red and blue signs delineate work spaces with names like "Media Monitoring" and "Terrorist Finances." A group called "Theme Team" takes all the information gathered and compiles talking points for U.S. officials.

A thick folder labeled "The Catalogue of Lies" sits on one desk. Hughes called it "a chronicle of Taliban misstatements."

On the chair belonging to Jim Wilkinson, the 31-year-old aide who is running the White House war communications center, is draped a navy windbreaker with the logo FDNY -- Fire Department of New York.

It was given to him when Bush visited the World Trade Center a few days after the attacks.

"He keeps it there as a reminder of why we are all here," Hughes said.

17:27 11-16-01

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