WASHINGTON - The tiny state of Qatar is a crucial American ally in the Persian Gulf, where it provides a military base and warm support for American policies. Yet relations with Qatar are also strained over an awkward issue: Qatar's sponsorship of Al Jazeera, the provocative television station that is a big source of news in the Arab world.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other Bush administration officials have complained heatedly to Qatari leaders that Al Jazeera's broadcasts have been inflammatory, misleading and occasionally false, especially on Iraq.
The pressure has been so intense, a senior Qatari official said, that the government is accelerating plans to put Al Jazeera on the market, though Bush administration officials counter that a privately owned station in the region may be no better from their point of view.
"We have recently added new members to the Al Jazeera editorial board, and one of their tasks is to explore the best way to sell it," said the Qatari official, who said he could be more candid about the situation if he was not identified. "We really have a headache, not just from the United States but from advertisers and from other countries as well." Asked if the sale might dilute Al Jazeera's content, the official said, "I hope not."
Estimates of Al Jazeera's audience range from 30 million to 50 million, putting it well ahead of its competitors. But that success does not translate into profitability, and the station relies on a big subsidy from the Qatari government, which in the past has explored ways to sell it. The official said Qatar hoped to find a buyer within a year.
Its coverage has disturbed not only Washington, but also Arab governments from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. With such a big audience, but a lack of profitability, it is not clear who might be in the pool of potential buyers, or how a new owner might change the editorial content.
Administration officials have been nervous to talk about the station, being sensitive to charges that they are trying to suppress free expression. Officials at the State and Defense Departments and at the embassy in Qatar were reluctant to comment. However, some administration officials acknowledged that the well-publicized American pressure on the station - highlighted when Qatar was not invited to a summit meeting on the future of democracy in the Middle East last summer in Georgia - has drawn charges of hypocrisy, especially in light of President Bush's repeated calls for greater freedoms and democracy in the region.
"It's completely two-faced for the United States to try to muzzle the one network with the most credibility in the Middle East, even if it does sometimes say things that are wrong," said an Arab diplomat. "The administration should be working with Al Jazeera and putting people on the air."
In fact, since the Iraq war, Mr. Powell and even Mr. Rumsfeld have been interviewed by Al Jazeera, though Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush have not. But when the interim government of Iraq kicked Al Jazeera out of the country last August, the Bush administration uttered little criticism.
The administration's pressure thus encapsulates the problems of "public diplomacy," the term for the uphill efforts by Washington to sell American policies in the region.
Some administration officials acknowledge that their "public diplomacy" system is fundamentally broken, but there is disagreement on how to fix it. Two years ago, the United States launched its own Arab television network, Al Hurra, but administration officials say it has yet to gain much of a following.
Among the broadcasts criticized by the United States were repeated showings of taped messages by Osama bin Laden, and, more specifically, the reporting early last year, before Al Jazeera was kicked out of Iraq, of the journalist Ahmed Mansour, that emphasized civilian casualties during an assault on Falluja. The network also reports passionately about the Palestinian conflict.
Some American officials said that Mr. Mansour was subsequently removed from that assignment, but a spokesman for Al Jazeera in Qatar, Jihad Ballout, said that was "utterly false." He said Mr. Mansour's two public affairs shows were still on the air.
Administration officials say debates within the American government over what to do about Al Jazeera have sometimes erupted into shouting matches.
"One side is shouting, 'We have to shut them down!' and the other side is saying 'We have to work with them to make them better,' " said an administration official who has taken part in the confidential discussions. "It's an emotional issue. People can't think of it rationally."
Part of the problem, that official said, is that much of what Al Jazeera does to inflame emotions over Iraq is standard fare on cable television, like endless repetition of scenes of civilian deaths. There have been occasions when Pentagon criticism focused on images that were also running on CNN and other stations at the same time, he said.
American officials have also charged that Al Jazeera has shown up suspiciously quickly after bombing attacks in Iraq, and they have suggested that the network's correspondents may have been tipped off in advance. But the administration official said recently that there was no evidence for such a charge and that it was no longer repeated, though it had not been formally withdrawn.
Al Jazeera officials denied that there had ever been any such collusion, noting that they have not had crews in Iraq since August in any case. They also said that they went out of their way to get American comment for stories and that they often broadcast briefings of Pentagon officials and Mr. Rumsfeld's news conferences.
"We understand that Americans are not happy with our editorial policies," said Ahmed Sheikh, the network's news editor. "But if anyone wants us to become their mouthpiece, we will not do that. We are independent and impartial, and we have never gotten any pressure from the Qatari government to change our editorial approach."
Leading the discussion with Al Jazeera, American officials said, was Ambassador Chase Untermeyer in Qatar and his press spokesman, but both declined to be interviewed. Mr. Sheikh said that he had heard complaints from them about incorrect information but that Al Jazeera "never puts anything on the air before we check it."
A recent decree from the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, said Al Jazeera would be converted to a privately owned "company of participation," which Mr. Ballout, the station spokesman, said would most likely be owned by shareholders in the Arab world. But little has happened since then, and now new people have been put on the board to facilitate its sale.
Mr. Sheikh said that Al Jazeera's budget last year was $120 million, including a subsidy of $40 million or $50 million from Qatar. Mr. Ballout said one reason for the shortfall was that businesses were afraid to advertise because of criticism they might get from Arab governments and the United States.
"We feel aggrieved that Al Jazeera's popularity has not been rewarded with the advertising it deserves," said Mr. Ballout. "The merchant families in control in the Persian Gulf feel they cannot sustain their position if they are not part of the status quo."
An American official noted that Al Jazeera had not only alienated the United States but had also angered officials in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and many other countries by focusing on internal problems in those nations. "They must be doing something right," he said.