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Arabs glued to TV news - but not to US-sponsored Al Hurra

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For the past two months in small, smoke-filled rooms carpeted with discarded khat leaves, I have been watching television.

Television usually isn't a big part of the khat chew, a daily but segregated ritual for most men and women here in which the leaves of the mildly stimulating khat plant are chewed and stored in one's cheek. Conversation is the rule at these affairs, and the talk is given over to poetry, politics, and, as the hour grows late, simply listening to the alchemic beauty of the language.

But when the US launched its new Arabic-language news channel - Al Hurra - on Feb. 14, television became politics.

I've watched the opinions of the small group of young Yemeni men that I usually chew with go from anger and disappointment to surprise and admiration and back over this latest US pitch to the Arab world.

Like many things the US does, Al Hurra - "the Free One" in Arabic - inspires mixed emotions in its Middle East audience. The station, with a first-year budget of $62 million, is intended as an alternative to pan-Arab news stations like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya. President Bush has said that Al Hurra will cut through the "hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world," and promote debate in the region.

But for most of my friends, like Amar al-Audi, a quick-witted 24-year-old driver, the first day of broadcasting was insulting. After listening to interviews with President Bush and Norman Pattiz, who heads the US agency overseeing the channel, Amar was livid.

"It is just like everything America does, they say every other Arab station is wrong and they [the US] are right," he said as he tuned the TV to Al Jazeera.

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