News / Middle East

After Iraqi Army Crumbles, Maliki Turns to State TV for Help

A member of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) takes his position during patrol looking for militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in a neighborhood in Ramadi, July 23, 2014.
A member of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) takes his position during patrol looking for militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in a neighborhood in Ramadi, July 23, 2014.
Reuters

State television is working overtime to persuade Iraqis to help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confront an al-Qaida offshoot that  has seized wide tracts of the country, but its unifying call has been blunted by his sectarian reputation.

Since the humiliating loss of much of Iraq's north to Islamic State insurgents, the official Iraqiya channel has been churning out patriotic videos of marching soldiers, heavily-armed commandos and even singers and actors to rally the public behind the government.

The theatrics are reminiscent of life under Saddam Hussein, whose propaganda machine put a positive spin on disasters like his 1990 invasion of Kuwait or 1980-88 war with Iran.

Instead of increasing confidence in Maliki, the campaign has highlighted what critics say is the Shi'ite Muslim premier's failure to unite Iraq against Islamist insurgents who have put the country's survival as a unified state in jeopardy.

"We laugh, of course with pain, when the government repeats the same bullshit as Saddam," said Qassim Sabti, a 60-year-old artist.

Mohamed Abdul Jabar al-Shaboot, head of the Iraqi Media Network that broadcasts Iraqiya, said feedback on the videos had been generally good across Iraq's communal spectrum.

"There have been some voices that did not approve of these kind of activities, saying they recalled the patriotic songs that filled TV screens under Saddam Hussein," he told Reuters.

"But there's a big difference because our songs emphasize  love of homeland and steadfastness and tolerance while the songs of Saddam's time glorified one person, certified worship of the one and only leader focusing on Saddam's personality."

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, center, attends the funeral ceremony of Major General Negm Abdullah Ali, commander of the army's sixth division, at the Defense Ministry in Baghdad, July 7, 2014.Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, center, attends the funeral ceremony of Major General Negm Abdullah Ali, commander of the army's sixth division, at the Defense Ministry in Baghdad, July 7, 2014.
x
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, center, attends the funeral ceremony of Major General Negm Abdullah Ali, commander of the army's sixth division, at the Defense Ministry in Baghdad, July 7, 2014.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, center, attends the funeral ceremony of Major General Negm Abdullah Ali, commander of the army's sixth division, at the Defense Ministry in Baghdad, July 7, 2014.

Still, many Iraqis see Maliki as a polarizing figure who has deepened sectarian divisions, and Iraqiya as his propaganda arm rather than the unifying public service it says it is.

His marginalization of Sunni Muslims has caused some to find common cause with the Islamic State, which aims to reshape the Middle East and impose its radical ideology.

Maliki, who has served in a caretaker capacity since an election in April, has defied calls by Sunnis, Kurds and even some Shi'ites to step aside in favor of a less polarizing leader needed to lead a unified response to the insurgency.

The man who spent years in exile plotting against Saddam seems content to use the same tactics the dictator, a Sunni, employed to create the impression of invincibility.

Impression of invincibility

"Maliki is presenting himself as a national leader pitted against Sunni militants. The message is: if you're against me, you're with the terrorists," said analyst Ramzy Mardini.

"In his mind, now is not the time to compromise and look weak and vulnerable," said Mardini, a non-resident fellow at the Washington think-tank Atlantic Council.

For many, the television clips are a reminder that Iraq's turmoil never seems to let up: war and misadventure under Saddam and now a repeat of the sectarian bloodshed that brought the country to civil war during the U.S. occupation that ousted him.

Since 2003, slick ads demonizing "terrorists" have often been aired. Both state television and pro-government channels have broadcast confessions of captured men, which critics have dismissed as propaganda.

State TV has recently been giving plenty of air time to footage of columns of Iraqi soldiers marching in a Baghdad parade ground near a huge crossed-swords monument to the war with Iran erected by Saddam and left intact by his successors.

While Saddam had a firm grip on his army, Maliki has presided over the decline of the 800,000-strong force built and trained by the United States into a hollow institution riven by corruption and sectarian splits.

Soldiers deserted their posts en masse last month in the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, which fell at an alarming pace to the Islamic State and allied Sunni groups.

A fighter from the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), mans an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the rear of a vehicle in Mosul, Iraq, July 16, 2014.A fighter from the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), mans an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the rear of a vehicle in Mosul, Iraq, July 16, 2014.
x
A fighter from the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), mans an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the rear of a vehicle in Mosul, Iraq, July 16, 2014.
A fighter from the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), mans an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the rear of a vehicle in Mosul, Iraq, July 16, 2014.

Iraqis now see Iranian-trained Shi'ite militias as a powerful force rivaling the military in the ability to challenge the well-equipped, disciplined militants, whose conquests are documented on social media websites.

Iraq's government, meanwhile, has pressed privately-owned media to create the same narrative as state television.

Shortly after Mosul's fall, the official Communications and Media Commission ordered Iraqi media to "focus on the security achievements of the armed forces" and avoid reporting anything that "may be interpreted against security forces."

Such a directive would improperly shield the government from criticism and some private media have complained of being threatened with the loss of their broadcasting licenses if they do not comply, Human Rights Watch said in a July 3 report.

Documented viewing habits of Iraqis are hard to come by, but many among all communities often tune in to non-state satellite channels such as BBC Arabic and al Jazeera where they get a very different take on the news.

Some skepticism, some hope

State television's best efforts to inspire confidence in the country's armed forces are met with skepticism.

One video often broadcast pays tribute to “The Golden Division”, a Shi'ite-dominated anti-terrorism unit under Maliki's command that Sunnis say has targeted their community.

“We are lions ... We are the red death,” croons Mohamed Abdel Jabar, a popular singer known for his romantic ballads.

The pudgy man wearing a uniform to match the commandos twirls a pistol and bounces to the beat as the heavily-armed men march in a crouched position, their weapons cocked.

Still, in an increasingly fragmented country, such images offer hope to some.

A 22-year-old soldier watching traffic in central Baghdad while fiddling with his machinegun said the songs were “a good thing because they motivate us ... Soldiers play them after they pray and before they go attack [militants] and before they storm buildings and carry out raids.”

Abu Abdullah, a 45-year-old electrical engineer, agreed.

“I think a lot of people watch these videos, because the situation is difficult and we need this psychological support.  Of course we have no interest in terrorism taking over, we just want our lives to continue,” said Abu Abdullah.

Some, even those involved in the morale-boosting drive, fear that the videos will only stoke sectarian strife.

“These bloody songs are part of the problem and not part of the solution,” said poet Amr Asi Jabar, who wrote the lyrics to “Righteous Men”, one of the songs frequently aired on television since rebels began hanging their black flags on captured land.

Maliki has also tried to fire up Iraqis against the Islamic State during weekly televised addresses to the nation.

But Iraq's top clerics have been much more successful in this respect. In a June 13 speech telecast by Iraqiya, Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged Iraqis to take up arms against the Sunni insurgents and tens of thousands, ranging from teenagers to the elderly, heeded his call.

Shaboot said the state network has produced more than 10 videos: “Art and artists are playing an important role in the current battle Iraq is fighting against terrorism.”

But the campaign has not reassured people like Abeer Majid. The Sunni mother of three who works at a central Baghdad travel agency fled Shi'ite Sadr City for the neighborhood of Dora, fearful for her family's safety.

Dora residents say Shi'ite soldiers and militiamen have been conducting random house-to-house searches since the Islamic State's lightning advance in the north, unnerving Sunnis who feel they will pay a heavy price for the insurgency.

“We don't need songs. We need more tangible steps,” said Majid.

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs