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

Beloved Lion Killing Sparks Virtual, Real Life Outrage

Twitter, as usual, was epicenter for anger directed at Palmer, with some questioning his manhood, calling for him to be released into the wild More

Video Booming London Property Market a Haven for Dirty Money

Billions of dollars from proceeds of crime, especially from Russia, being laundered through London property market, according to anti-corruption activists More

Video Scouts' Decision on Gays Meets Acceptance in Founder's Hometown

One former Scout leader thinks organization will move past political, social debate, get back to its primary focus of turning boys into good citizens More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Scouts' Decision on Gays Meets Acceptance in Founder's Hometown

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs