BAGHDAD – 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 al-Maliki, the campaign has highlighted what critics say is the Shiite 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.”
Al-Maliki, who has served in a caretaker capacity since an election in April, has defied calls by Sunnis, Kurds and even some Shiites to step aside in favor of a less polarizing figure 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.
“Al-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 nonresident 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.
Soldiers deserted their posts en masse in June in the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, which fell at an alarming pace to the Islamic State and allied Sunni groups.
Iraqis now see Iranian-trained Shiite militias as a powerful force rivaling the military in their 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.
Still, in an increasingly fragmented country, the media campaign of ads and songs offers hope to some.
A 22-year-old soldier watching traffic in central Baghdad while fiddling with his machine gun 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.”
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.
Al-Maliki has also tried to fire up Iraqis against the Islamic State during weekly televised addresses to the nation.
But the campaign has not reassured people like Abeer Majid. The Sunni mother of three who works at a central Baghdad travel agency fled Shiite Sadr City for the neighborhood of Dora, fearful for her family’s safety.
Dora residents say Shiite 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.