Apr 05 2003

Diary of an Arab journalist on war coverage

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles

Day 1 Thursday March 20, 2003

Although the ultimatum had ended after midnight last night, I was sure that the really war would not start for a few days. I was surprised upon waking up to hear that war had actually commenced with the missiles attacking against Baghdad. Before I left home for work, the Iraqi Interior Minister Muhammad Said Sahaf came on television and made a short introduction saying and then introducing the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.

The next image is Iraqi television with the Iraqi logo on the top left corner and a seated Saddam Hussein with large glasses on in the center of the frame. Seconds later the TV screen is off. I immediately thought that the Americans were trying to jam broadcast. But seconds later it is back on this time, with the logo of Iraqi Youth TV (which is run by Saddam Hussein’s son). A pale faced Saddam Hussein, clearly not having much sleep and having been shaken speaks defiantly from a hand prepared text. My father-in-law, who takes the Arabic language very seriously, said that the speech was full of attempts at poetic flourishes, but that Saddam was reading some of them wrong, stressing the wrong syllables. He must not have had time to practice.

Saddam’s speech, according to my father law it included badly read poetry.

When I am in Jordan work means ammannet. A unique Arab media outlet. An independent radio station in a region that doesn’t allow independent radio. The trick is that www.ammannet.net is a radio station solely on the Internet. When I did get to work, I discovered that the Amman offices of Al Jazzera had just been reopened. For the first time in months Al Jazzera was able to run stories and interviews with officials from Jordan. Their offices had been closed for months ever since a discussion program included what the Jordanians considered insults to them in the form of attacks against the collusion between the Hashemites and the Israelis. Interestingly enough a new Iraqi media office opened also on the first day of war and we at Amman Net began receiving regular press statements reflecting Iraqi policy. Today we have to make major changes, stop all music and entertainment like programs and concentrate on how the war will affect the local Arab population in Jordan.

Another thing that was focusing my attention, now that the war has begun, wanted to know how the media campaign for a book I was working on was going. For some time I have been supervising and editing the Arabic version of a book on crimes of war. Since the book edition was not due out till the middle of April and because of the ensuing war, the Open Society Foundation which has been supporting this work wanted to make sure that the Arabic edition of the book on the Internet. The basic aim was to assist the Arab media and public in monitoring the conduct of both sides in the US-led invasion of Iraq. The book is titled Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, and it is considered the authoritative layman’s guide to war crimes. I didn’t realize how important this will be in the coming days.

By mid day, news came of one of the first civilian causalities of the war. A Jordanian fuel truck driver had made a stop on the Baghdad-Jordan highway when he was killed apparently by an American missile no doubt in the effort to control the western Iraqi locations where much of the scuds were fired on Israel in the previous war.

Day 2

Friday March 21, 2003 Also Mother’s Day in the Middle East

The human element of this war became much clearer as we woke up this morning on video pictures on Al Jazzera television of Iraqis injured in the US attack against Baghdad. And while most of the day was spent following up the American and British ground attacks in Iraq, much of the Arab television stations spent the day refuting the US claims. All morning Arab satellite stations were running reports denying what was being said on US stations that the Faw and Um Qasser had fallen to the Americans and Brits. And following the press conference of the Minister of Information and Interior questions of the authenticity of the video images of Iraqi soldiers surrendering. Both seemed to be losing composure through their anger describing the attack the most obvious international crime and saying that since the invaders were not respecting international law, then the Iraqis will not be bound by international treaties in dealing with prisoners of war but will deal with them as mercenaries and as war criminals. He also said that one of the palaces attacked Az Zuhour had been turned into a museum.

Friday newspapers ran headlines reflecting the start of the war.

The wide circulating daily Al Rai informed the Jordanian public of the entry of US forces into south Iraq, the pledge by Saddam Hussein of resistance and victory, followed by “international rejection of the war, wide spread protest demonstrations” and the call by Russia and China of a cease fire.

I knew that the region will witness wide spread protest demonstrations this Friday as I went to a local barber in the Rabia’ neighborhood and discovered tens of Jordanian police vehicles outside a mosque which has in the past witnessed demonstrations. Shortly after Friday prayers protest demonstrations were broadcast from Cairo, Egypt, Gaza and Bahrain. The most deadly was the protests in Bahrain where four people including a 12 year old boy were killed by police attempts to disperse the crowds.

The most violent shelling of Baghdad which began around eight pm lit up our sitting room as the allied forces dropped what one Arab journalist said was 1,000 missiles.

Also in the evening, King Abdullah went on Jordan TV to reflect his understanding of the public anger regarding the war yet asking them to be restrained in their protests

Now that what we have been warning from and working to prevent has occurred, our prime obligation is to preserve the security and stability of our homeland and protect its top interests.

I know the pain and anger you are feeling because of the suffering and ordeal that the Iraqi people are facing, I am one of you, I share the feelings of every one of you, and my confidence in you and your awareness has no limits. Let us all be one hand, one family, one heart and let us work in the spirit of one team in order to preserve our security and stability, our internal front and to deal with what accompany such circumstances from rumors and fallacious or inaccurate news in a sense of awareness and responsibility.

As for the demonstration of our feelings towards the brotherly Iraqi people, it has to be expressed in a civilized manner that will help to ease the anguish of our brothers, and help them face the conditions of war and overcome its ramifications.

Each one of us has to go to his or her work and to carry out his or her duty in a normal manner. Our homeland needs the effort of every one of us particularly in these circumstances.”

Third Gulf War (the first being the Iraq-Iran war, and the second being the conflict over Kuwait). Al Mustqbal, the Lebanese television station owned by the Prime Minister titled their coverage “ Iraq in the Winds of War.’

Day 3

My father in law who along with my mother in law have been staying with us in the first days of the war turned Al Jazzera early Saturday morning and the first thing I heard was the press review which included a report from the NY times about the surrender of an entire Iraqi division soldiers and commanders. The next press review was from the Gulf daily Al Bayan which reported that an interim government was going to be set up in Basra and that one of the first decisions of this interim government was going to be the recognition of Israel. Later the Jazzera correspondent said that Iraqi officials denied the surrender story saying this was part of the psychological war.

Before leaving for work I caught part of the Iraqi Interior Minister’s briefing in which he refuted that any Iraqi location had fallen insisting that there is stiff resistance insisting that the invading Americans and Brits suffered major losses. He said that resisting forces that are made up of Baath activists and local Bedouins destroyed five invading US tanks in the south Iraqi desert. The Iraqi official had some harsh words for the US and the Brits calling them a modern day colonialists, the Iraqi spokesman said that the shelling of Baghdad had caused 207 injured civilians.

In response to a question Sahaf said that despite all the crimes of the invaders the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, has agreed to apply the Geneva Convention rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. He refused to say if they have captured any.

When I got to work I discovered that almost all of my staff, all serious Jordanian journalists had not heard the King’s speech the night before since they were only watching the satellite stations. One staff person who doesn’t have satellite heard it because the only terrestrial station he gets is Jordan TV. The speech and its full text were splashed on all Jordanian newspapers. In addition to the speech they had the following headlines:

The wide circulating Al Rai gave prominence to a statement by the foreign minister Marwan Muasher denying that the US has asked them to close the Iraqi embassy in Amman and also denying earlier reports that American troops entered Iraq using Jordanian soil.

Ad dustour: “The start of the big air strike, and Baghdad threatens the invaders”

320 missles on the Iraqi capital and the destruction of the Salam (peace) Palace and Al Zuhour Palace.

The independent Jordanian daily Al Arab Al Youm led in big letters “Barabaric Shelling lights up Baghdad’s Night”.

Sub headline: Repulsion of the attack on Nasseria, Um Qasser and Al Fawa. Angry Popular Jordanian demonstrations. Muasher; Not a single Israeli soldier in the Kingdom

Democrats in the US worried about the cost of the war.

In the evening when I got back home I heard of the stark images that were shown on Al Jazzera of some of the Iraqi civilian casualties from Basra. I switched to the new Saudi owned 24-hour news channel Al Arabyeh whose correspondents talked about an Egyptian family of 11 including 4 children who were killed at the outskirts of Basra. The television station used the term “shahid” which means, “martyr” to describe those killed by the American led forces.

At midnight and just before going to bed, I turned Abu Dhabi TV on and the correspondent from Baghdad said he had an important announcement from the Baath Party. When he used the term for morns “tan’e” I expected to hear the name of a very senior official who had died. The eulogy was for a senior leader of the Ba’aath central command who was killed by American forces near the town of Najaf about 100 kilometers south of Baghdad.

Day 4

The first thing I noticed when I turned the television on this morning was a reference in one of the commentaries to Israeli tactics in describing what the Americans were doing. This was said on the Lebanese station Al Manar which is very popular with many Palestinians and Arabs for broadcasting news from Palestine and the speeches of Hassan Nassrallah, the leader of the Shiite anti Israeli resistance group Hizbullah. While generally opposed to the war, this station has had interesting alternative opinions which hinted at the need for change in Iraq but not by means of a foreign invading group but rather by a collective Arab resolve based on a closer relations between Arab leaders to their people. I was surprised to hear another commentary of a Christian writer Rafiq Khoury in the daily Al Anwar. What I thought interesting was the quote that said something to the effect this is not in defense of the Iraqi regime but in defense of international order. Quickly turning to Al Jazzera a text news item said that the shell of an Israeli made missile was recovered in the latest attack on Baghdad.

But what captured my interest was an ongoing battle, which Abu Dhabi was replaying from the feed of a Sky News crew in Um Al Qasser. American marines were pinned on their bellies apparently for a couple of hours as they were trying to stop Iraqi resistance. It quickly became clear that the Iraqi port had not been secured and made safe. I also started remembering the battle of Karameh (Karameh in Arabic means pride) in the east bank of the Jordan river in which a group of PLO fighters slowed down an Israeli incursion and forced them to retreat. That small battle had become a calling cry for the PLO with volunteers, money and weapons pouring into the Palestinian guerilla movement. The battle had occurred March 21, almost 35 years ago to the day.

On my way to work, I stopped by a local moneychanger and as I was leaving my cell phone gave a special jingle. I subscribe to a news messaging service connected to the French news Agency (AFP). Four Jordanian students were killed when their car was hit by a US coalition missile near Mosul in northern Iraq” said the brief message. I expected that Sunday, the first day of the week would be a difficult one. Bader Al Agha, who reads the news at Amman Net and is in his last year of university, had told me the day before that student demonstrations were expected today. This news will no doubt add to their anger.

The first thing that attracted me when viewing the daily newspapers was the cartoon of the Arab world’s leading cartoonist Imad Hajjaj. It was in black and white (usually his work on the last page of Addustour is in color). On the top it had the words Operation Iraqi Freedom in quotes following by three exclamation points. The bulk of the cartoon had three mushrooms that toured over palm trees. Three hands come out of the bottom of the cartoon as if seeking help with the words in big letters: “Oh freedom how many crimes have to be committed in your name??!!!”

The news of today centered on the erratic behavior of the Jordanian government. When the war began Jordan’s foreign minister had said that there has been no American request to Jordan to send home Iraqi diplomats. Then three diplomats were declared persona non grata. Jordan said they were kicked out because they had meddled in the internal issues of Jordan. Then less than 24 hours later King Abdullah, obviously feeling the public anger, announced that Iraq is welcome to send any new diplomats to replace those that were sent home.

When I got home TV broadcasts were shocking. Footage of a large number of Iraqi civilians searching for an American pilot who had parachuted after his plane encountered trouble. Then onto a press briefing of Ramadan Yasin the senior Iraqi leader that the Americans had said was killed in that first attack. He was defiant blasting away at Kofi Anan for pulling the UN inspectors out. He denied that any Iraqi town had fallen and also said that American soldiers had been captured. Video films of them would soon be provided to the media, he promised.

Sure enough a few minutes later Al Jazzera began showing footage taken by an Iraqi TV crew. The scenes were so bloody we had to quickly take our three and a half year old daughter, Dina, away. After the scenes of the killed marines, we were then shown the POWs. The first one looked literally scared to death that even my wife, who has been so angry with the Americans for starting this war, expressed sympathy for them.

By eight pm, we could not take it any longer. My wife insisted that we turn the television off and said that we could only turn it on if we can find a nice film, preferably a comedy.

Day 5

Monday March 24, 2003

I was supposed to go to Ramallah this morning but under intense pressure from my wife, I decided to delay one day. By staying I also thought I could do some more work on promoting the Arabic edition of the crimes of war web site I had worked on just before the war started. I was rather pleased when I opened the independent Jordanian daily Al Arab Al Yawm and a four-column story on page 3 was all about the issue of crimes of war. I felt a sense of satisfaction that our work didn’t go in vein.

Iraqi television with its eagle logo announced this morning that “an important and historic speech” by Saddam Hussein will be made. Patriotic songs were broadcast. Under the title The Decisive battle an Iraqi with military uniform and a small Iraqi flag on his shirt continued to come on air to come on the air in between songs to announce the upcoming speech.

President Saddam Hussein appeared much more composed than he did on the first day of the war, his speech was clearly pre recorded and well prepared. I was surprised that he mentioned Saddam’s fedayyin. The most important part of the speech for me was the naming of the names of the key commanders and officers in the south.

A retired army general said on Al Manar that no one expected a small port in south Iraq would resist the Americans for five days. He felt the naming of names of commanders was unique because it gives their family and friends pride. An Egyptian military expert on Al Jazeera felt that the speech proved that the barrier of fear has been broken and that we as Arabs can say no to the Americans.

Al Jazzera continued to report in its text messages that fighting continues in the southern port city of Um Qasser. In an interview the foreign minister Sabri detailed that they discovered an unexploded Israeli missile near the town of Dura outside of Baghdad which he said proves without any doubt the involvement of the Israelis Special attention on the text ticker was given to the opposition to the war expressed in an article by the American director Michael Moore.

Jordanian newspapers flashed the photos of the American POWs on their front pages. “A field day of losses for the American and British troops,” read a huge headline across the entire front page of the independent daily Al Arab Al Yawm. “Fierce battle and tough resistance throughout Iraq,” read an eight-column headline in the largest daily Al Rai. Ad Dustour’s lead headline read: “Iraq downs seven planes and shows POWs and killed soldiers.” All newspapers ran photos of the captured US soldiers.

Since I was going to go to Palestine the following day, I decided to take my wife out to dinner. On the way I heard parts of the briefing of Tommy Franks on the Sawa Radio station. Franks was boasting that the campaign was going quickly and “at times dramatically.” In the restaurant of the La Royal Hotel in downtown Amman, tv stations were blaring, one was on al Jazzera, another on CNN and a third Orbit, yet one more Saudi station, this one a pay TV one, was running an interview with the former crown prince of Jordan, Prince Hassan, who was pontificating about what the crisis will mean to the future of Arab nationalism and whether the results of the battles were proving the importance of Iraqi sectarian theory or rather if it was uniting the country and the Arab world behind a pan Arab ideology.

Day 6

Tuesday March 25, 2003

Again the first images I saw in the morning were hospital TV pictures of children with casts and bandages on their heads.

Traveling from Amman to Ramallah one has to use public transportation. The Saudi owned Middle East Broadcasting Corporation broadcasting from London and the Arabic service of the BBC are among the favorites of taxi drivers. The news on MBC talked about the Arab League’s foreign minister’s meeting in Cairo which ended in a statement refusing any legitimization of the Iraqi occupation and resolving to go to the UN Security council to put a stop to the US invasion. Kuwait expressed reservation to this resolution because it didn’t include a denouncement of the Iraqi missile attacks on their country. The Qatari foreign minister is said to have left before the meeting was over. One of the Arab commentators ridiculed the resolution saying that before going to the Security Council the Arabs should put their house in order considering that five countries were giving logistical support to the Allied forces.

The BBC Arabic service talked about the ground attack telling their audience that the American and British forces are 60 miles south of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The report also talked about the shelling of Basra and continued discussing the complications in the north of Iraq.

When I got to Ramallah I discovered that the Palestinian newspapers were full of boasting of the resistance and starting to create a mythology of resistance. “The shelling of Baghdad is the most violent yet and the resistance is the fiercest” said the widest daily Al Quds newspaper with a four column photo of the downed helicopter and the farmer who the caption said had brought it down. The newspapers two cartoonists also used the story of the farmer and the helicopter for their creative works that boasts the simple farmer with his old gun against the mighty air machine of the Americans.

Al Ayyam, which is considered the newspaper of Palestinian intellectuals, ran a headline across its front page saying “ The Iraqi surprise continues to delay and confuse the invading forces.” Columnists Hassan Al Batal also talked about the surprise: “ America’s credibility is in for a big ‘surprise’ if it is unable to discover in the first two weeks any signs of weapons of mass destruction and if Saddam Hussein continues his dignified and sober appearances stealing the show away from President Bush.”

The pro PNA daily Al Hayat al Jadida ran a photo of a crowd of Iraqi artists on Al Rashid bridge in Baghdad who were there to appear in a video clip.”

During the evening hours and I was delayed in a long checkpoint outside Bethlehem, I tuned in to the Arabic service of the BBC only to hear a report stating that a popular uprising had begun. The long checkpoint was apparently due to some trouble in Bethlehem. I braced when I saw a number of ambulances going in and out. When I finally reached a friends house, a reporter for Fox was repeating the same story about the uprising. But on the world service of the BBC the report was played down according to British officials in Qatar.

Back in East Jerusalem I tuned in to Al Jazeera which ran a phone interview with the Iraqi Minister of Information vehemently denying the uprising story. “ I officially deny the lies that the Americans and British are trying to propagate using CNN and other stations,” he said. Al Jazzera turned next to their reporter in Basra who also refuted the claim saying that he has not seen or heard anything unusual except for a large explosion at about 5 pm. Al Jazzera finally showed a video clip taken the previous day of Basra residents chanting while walking and others driving their cars wielding guns and carrying photos of the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Day 7

My first images this morning came from CNN which has been running and rerunning a positive story from the ally’s point of view showing British troops mingling freely in Um Qasser and said that Iraqi TV was taken off the air this morning with bombing its studios and broadcasting towers. Al Jazzera’s Tunisian-born presenter Khadija Ben Qina interviewed Abdel Bari Atwan the editor of the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi who noted that this destruction of Iraqi TV is proof that the US has lost the media war. “Except for some abusive language used by the Minister of Information in the first few days, the Iraqi media has performed admirably, responding to every allied claim with irrefutable proof” He said. Al Jazzera replayed a message by the Iraqi president read by the Minister of Information encouraging his people to fight on promising them that if they continue fighting the invaders will withdraw. To their credit, Al Jazeera followed this with a clip from President Bush saying the we don’t know the duration of the war but we know its conclusion. The world will be more secure and more peaceful.”

Al Jazzera’s embedded correspondent Omar Khahki sent a report from Um Qasser including interviews with British military leaders saying that they are working on building relations with the Iraqi population in the village.

When I got in my car in East Jerusalem I tuned in to Radio Bethlehem 2000, an independent local FM radio station, which I helped start. The first item at the 9am news was the death of four Palestinians in Bethlehem including two children. Israel said that the deaths were a mistake as it mistook their car for a car of a wanted Palestinian. The four Palestinian from Bethlehem and a fifth from Jenin were the first time that the Palestinian newspapers changed their lead stories away from Iraq. Al Hayat Al Jadida ran a black headline across its front page stating “Five martyrs among them two children in Bethlehem and Jenin.” On Iraq Al Ayyam ran the following headline: “Washington: the war is in its beginning and we don’t know when it will end.” Al Quds ran a photo of an American tank in the middle of a sand storm which made the photo look extremely red. On top of it also in red Al Quds headline states: Ally leaders admit big losses.”

Today was the first day that I heard the issue of the Iraqi opposition. The BBC ran interviews with a Kurdish Iraqi leader who had visited Damascus and stated that the Americans are not an occupying force and that they will leave once an Iraqi civilian government is established. Another Shiite opposition leader, however, was not as supportive of the Americans, saying that while Iraqis have lots of internal differences, when it comes to the invasion of their country, then they are united in resisting a foreign occupation.

Our staff at Al Quds Educational Television have been preparing to start shooting the second season of the Palestinian version of Sesame Street (among our curriculum goals: tolerance and mutual respect). After a full rehearsal they all came out and crowded in our broadcasting room to watch the latest war news from Al Jazeera. It seemed like an American show. First President Bush was giving a speech and then US Secretary of State Colin Powel came on in an exclusive interview. He told the Arab television audience that American wanted this war to end as soon as possible and they have been doing their best to minimize Iraqi civilian casualties. After taking a few questions, anchor Adnan Sharif almost oblivious to the fact that he was talking to the senior diplomat of the world’s only superpower, ends the interview in the same manner that is done after a Q&A with one of his own reporters “ the US Secretary of State Colin Powel.” Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Washington Thabet Al Barisi comes on the air and tells his anchor that despite the fact that Al Jazeera’s economic correspondent has been kicked of the floor of the NY stock exchange, officials in Washington are cuing to get on this leading Arab satellite station. He also revealed a story that had run in most of the Arab press, namely that the US official signaled to become the US governor of Iraq had visited Israel on a trip paid for by a pro Israeli group and had signed what he described as an anti Palestinian statement back in 2000 along with Dick Cheney. Later in the evening Al Jazeera ran a debate between two Arab Americans, one an anti war university professor and an anti Saddam Islamic clerk who publicly called on Iraqi soldiers to put aside their weapons and not to fight for what he called the corrupt regime of Saddam Hussein.

The issue of the terminology and media has been a subject of heated debate in recent days. I remember a few days ago, my staff in Amman Net were discussing whether to refer to the situation in Iraq as an invasion or war. Apparently the same issue was also discussed in some of the briefings in Washington. In Arabic the root of the word “udwan” invasion is the word “adu” (enemy). And when I flip to some of the American television stations, I regularly hear the reporters using the word “enemy” in their scripts.

Arab television stations use the term as part of their regular war logo. Al Jazzera uses the term War on Iraq (and not war in Iraq) the Lebanese Hizbullah Station Al Manar uses the term Invasion of Iraq , the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation uses the term “Iraq in the middle of the storm” and the Saudi Station Al Arabyeh uses the more neutral term “the third Gulf War.”

Day 8

Fridays are usually protest days in the Arab and Muslim world. Typically the demonstrations begin after Friday noon prayers, usually following fiery sermons. This morning Abu Dhabi ran a long report about public anger in Egypt stressing where the government has banned all street demonstrations. The Abu Dhabi correspondent interviewed a number of prominent journalists including the deputy editor of the government owned daily Al Ahram who criticized the decision and called on the Egyptian government to allow the public to express themselves in the same way that European and even American government is allowing protests. A report from Tehran showed a number of anti Saddam activists who said that despite their differences with the Iraqi leader, they are much more opposed to the American led invasion of their country. The report said that many are coming to the Iraqi embassy in Tehran volunteering to join the Iraqi resistance to the invasion of their country.

Al Jazeera ran similar stories about the protest movements in the Arab world including reports about demonstrations in Arab countries as well Asia, Europe and the arrests that took place in New York city.

My cell phone came up with the following news message: “ The Pentagon has confirmed that 12 US marines are missing and 14 others have been wounded in overnight fighting with Iraqi forces around Nasiriya.

Video pictures on Al Jazeera showed flaming billows in Baghdad with the announcer saying that last night was the fiercest shelling of the Iraqi capital. An exclusive video report from the northern city of Mousel also noted that the city has been shelled overnight as well.

Day 9

Al Arabyeh reported on Sahaf’s statement about the 116 Iraqis killed in Basra without using the term ‘shahid’ (martyr) which they had used in the first days of the war.

Al Jazeera showed today the results of the massive shelling of the three telecommunications centers in Baghdad. A friend of ours confirmed to me that the phone lines to Baghdad, which had been open, albeit with difficulties, since the war started, were no longer working today.

Abu Dhabi ran reports on demonstrations in Jordan and Iran as well a long report from New York showing many images of the anti war demonstrations outside media offices in Rockefeller center and near NY University.

The human aspect was evident on television today. ABC Dian Sawyer was taping video postcard of family and friends wishing speedy recovery to an injured soldier while Abu Dhabi TV was interviewing Iraqis in an open space fleeing from the war theatre not far from the Iraqi city of Nasriyeh. A well-dressed man with a red kaffiya was walking fast and telling the reporter: water, water that is what we need. A woman dressed in black was criticizing the Americans and British forces and calling on Arab to help. Another said she is for regime change “this is for us isn’t” she said. It wasn’t clear whether she was serious or being sarcastic. A woman carrying a baby, however, summed it all. “We just want peace.”

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