Iraq crisis: In Baghdad, a city gripped by fear, news is priceless - but Isis is winning the propaganda war

In the capital, shockwaves from the fall of Mosul can still be felt

Baghdad

Sunni rebels and Iraqi army forces fought for control of Iraq’s largest refinery at Baiji, as Baghdad waited for a US response to its request for airstrikes to hold back the offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).

The struggle to take the giant refinery has swayed backwards and forwards, with Isis raising its black flag over one tower while the government deployed helicopter gunships. The Iraqi army appears to be holding together better than it did last week, when it lost much of northern Iraq in a few days.

The US Government is linking military assistance with the departure of Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister, on the grounds that his policies have provoked the Sunni revolt and that no attempt at national reconciliation will be taken seriously as long as he is in office. Generalised Sunni hostility to Mr Maliki as a sectarian hate figure has enabled Isis to ally itself with seven or eight Sunni militant groups with which it had previously been fighting.

Streets in Baghdad are normally choked with traffic, but are surprisingly empty this week because many people believe it is too dangerous to go out. This is particularly true of Sunni districts such as al-Adhamiyah on the east bank of the Tigris River, where young men rightly believe that if they pass through a checkpoint they are likely to be arrested. Many Sunni men leave work early on the grounds that this reduces their chance of being detained.

 

Shia neighbourhoods such as Karada are noticeably busier and have fewer shops closed.

People in Baghdad are waiting to see what will happen. Weddings – which are elaborate affairs in Iraq – have been postponed. Businessmen have stopped importing and are drawing down their stocks, so that if war comes to the capital they will not be left with unsold goods. Most imports come from Turkey but many Turks are being held hostage in Mosul by Isis, and the rebels have cut all roads linking Baghdad to Kirkuk and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area. This has led to a shortage in Baghdad of propane gas cylinders used for cooking, but not of petrol which is easily available. In the KRG, which is supplied by Baiji refinery, there are queues of three or four miles outside petrol stations.

“People were shocked and afraid when they first heard that Mosul had been captured,” said one woman in Baghdad. “But then Iraqis have had wars and revolts since 1980 and they get over the shock quite soon.” This stoicism is unlikely to survive if Isis enters the city and takes over the Sunni enclaves.

In order to prevent infiltrators there are many checkpoints with intelligence officers or Shia militants in plain clothes standing beside the soldiers to identify suspects. Even elderly traffic policemen in white shirts have started carrying sub-machine guns, a development perhaps reflecting their knowledge that Isis executes even the most harmless municipal employees.

Isis militants with a captured Iraqi army vehicle at a checkpoint outside the Baiji refinery, north of Baghdad, yesterday Isis militants with a captured Iraqi army vehicle at a checkpoint outside the Baiji refinery, north of Baghdad, yesterday (AP)
A further reason for the empty streets is that many people spend their time watching television at home, trying to assess the seriousness of the threat of the fighting spreading to Baghdad. Often they channel hop, trying to tease out the truth from competing propaganda claims. The main government channel is invariably upbeat but its accounts of victories are seldom backed up by pictures.

The government is trying to maintain morale in the capital by downplaying Isis successes, emphasising patriotism and stressing that Baghdad can never fall.

Crude propaganda like this frequently leads viewers to switch to al-Arabiya, based in Dubai but Saudi owned, or a medley of other channels that have film of events. Ammar al Shahbandar, who heads the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in Iraq, says: “Iraqi state TV is always playing catch-up. They never have film. They pretend things are normal and as a result people watch al-Arabiya. This is a visual culture and people get their news from television channels that show them what is happening.”

By way of contrast, Isis shows sophisticated planning in producing a visual record of everything it does, thereby multiplying its political impact. Its militants dominate social media and produce well-made if terrifying films to illustrate the fanatical commitment of their fighters as they identify and kill their enemies.

Sometimes pictures of Isis successes are fabricated and film is used of events that took place in Syria or Libya. But film of genuine Isis successes starts appearing on television screens across the world within hours of them occurring.

The Iraqi government response has been to close down some “enemy television stations” as well as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other internet services, although Iraqis are quick to find ways around official censorship. Overall, the government succeeds only in creating a vacuum of information that its enemies are swift to fill.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
Sport
Danny Cipriani of England breaks clear to score his second try
rugby
Life and Style
New research says leaving your desk can help you to avoid serious illness
health
Arts and Entertainment
tvSPOILER ALERT: Like a mash-up of 28 Days Later, Braveheart, The Killing and Lord of the Rings, this GoT episode was a belter
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Trainee

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Cloud ERP Solution Provide...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral