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US Army public relations stunt in Iraq backfires badly

LONDON - A US Army PR stunt, which sent dozens of fake letters supposed to be from GIs to newspapers painting a rosy picture of Iraq, has backfired after the spin doctors were exposed as frauds.

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The letters, addressed to newspapers, give glowing reports, describing people waving at passing troops and children running up to shake their hands, and tell how American forces have been warmly greeted and how they were helping life return to normal in Iraq.

They talk about soldiers' efforts to re-establish police and fire departments, and build water and sewer plants in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

According to a report on US political website Capitol Hill Blue, the letters all carried similar wording and some of the soldiers they purported to be from knew nothing about the letters.

Some papers, including USA Today, refused to carry the letters once they found out they had been written as part of a PR stunt.

A senior US officer, Lt Colonel Dominic Caraccilo, owned up to the PR stunt letters, which all purport to come from troops serving with the second battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Caraccilo said that he told subordinates that only soldiers agreeing with the contents in the letter should sign. However, this does not appear to have been the case.

More than 11 of the letters have so far been identified as having been sent to papers across the US. Some papers even got the same letter from two different soldiers.

One letter from a Private David Deaconson reads: "Children smile and run up to shake hands and in their broken English shouting, 'Thank you, Mister'. The people of Kirkuk are all trying to find their way in this new democratic environment. Some major steps have been made in these last three months. A big reason for our steady progress is that our soldiers are living among the people of the city and getting to know their neighbors and the needs of their neighborhoods."

However, Private Deaconson denied he had sent the letter, which had been spotted by his father, who recognised it as fake.

Six other soldiers reached by USA Today publisher Gannett admitted they did not write the letters and one paratrooper said he didn't even sign the letter carrying his name.

One soldier, who did not want to be named, told the Gannett Newswire that he had been reluctant to sign the letter because he did not agree with the comments in the letter but said he was ordered by a superior officer to sign. "When I'm given an order, I obey it," he said.

The campaign comes as the US and the UK continue to suffer mounting casualties in the country. Yesterday, one US soldier was killed and three were wounded in the north of Iraq while four British soldiers were wounded in Basra.

It has long become clear to military planners and politicians alike that the stay of the allies in Iraq might be a long and costly one.

Republicans worry that the mounting body bags will start to hurt George W Bush's re-election hopes, as the US realise that its troops will be in Iraq for the long haul.

A USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll last month showed that 50% of Americans believe that the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, down from 73% in April, while a New York Times-CBS poll had 48% of Americans disapproving of the way the administration was handling the war in Iraq and 53% saying it was not worth either the cost or the loss of lives.

The Pentagon was refusing to comment on the letter and said the military is "looking into the matter".

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