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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
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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 (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.