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American radio wins fans in Syria

Now playing on your 1260 AM dial _ it's Radio Sawa!

Launched a year ago, Sawa is drawing a wide audience in the Middle East with its snappy blend of pop music and Arabic-language newscasts. The approach is clever enough that few listeners realize Sawa is a creation of the U.S. government, aimed at improving America's image in a hostile region.

"It comes from London," says Mousanna, a young Syrian taxi driver, when asked what he knew about the station.

Mousanna says he first heard Sawa _ it means "together" in Arabic _ while visiting the Syrian capital, Damascus. When he got home to Deir Ezzor, a city in eastern Syria, he told his fellow cab drivers about it and now they all tune in.

On a recent trip with two American passengers, Mousanna said he likes Sawa because it plays "a lot of nice, slow songs" as well as livelier fare by Jennifer Lopez, one of his favorites, and the Spanish group Ketchup.

He also likes the newscasts, which have reported on the Iraqi crisis in a factual way but tend to downplay the huge international criticism of the United States.

One example: The 7:15 p.m. news Monday led with a segment in which America's biggest supporter, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, discussed the timetable for Iraq to disarm. The female announcer only briefly mentioned that France and Russia oppose a war before moving on.

Radio Sawa is the brainchild of Norman J. Pattiz, a U.S. broadcast executive who visited the Middle East in early 2001 and found that few people were listening to the Voice of America Arabic service. Its dry, analysis-heavy format had little appeal in countries like Syria, where much of the population is under 30.

Radio Sawa's music-and-news approach was conceived before Sept. 11, but the terrorist attacks _ along with the sudden prominence of the Arab channel Al-Jazeera _ prompted Congress to approve $35-million to get Sawa on the air sooner than planned.

Critics question whether Sawa will help improve perceptions of the United States, as most listeners seem more interested in the music than the news.

But if Mousanna is any judge, the station is growing more popular by the day, even if he and others don't know who's behind it.

"I love it," he said, turning up the volume.