BAGHDAD — Each afternoon, the meticulously groomed Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta stands in front of a cluster of microphones in a palatial meeting room in Baghdad’s Green Zone to update the nation on the latest military developments.
The details differ, but two weeks into a conflict that is tearing Iraq apart, his message is now a familiar one. There is praise for the “heroic” armed forces that he stresses are carrying out “quality operations” against militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, it is a spin on the day’s developments that often starkly conflicts with reports from the field.
While soldiers guarding Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji said hundreds had fled Tuesday as militants took control of much of the facility, Atta praised their “magnificent defense.”
“We stress that the refinery is fully under the control and the protection of the security forces,” he claimed. A few days earlier, the loss of three border towns to militants, strengthening their run from Syria into Iraq, was framed as a “tactical” withdrawal, in order to reinforce troops elsewhere.
“Everything is going very well, and the leadership has full command and control,” he declared.
His unshakably positive stance as the security forces struggle to hold ground has drawn inevitable comparisons with Saddam Hussein’s information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, nicknamed “Baghdad Bob,” who famously denied that U.S. troops were in the Iraqi capital even as their tanks rolled into the city.
While Atta lacks the bombast of Sahhaf, his statements, usually accompanied by maps and videos of aerial operations, often produce a snort from Iraqi viewers. In one address, he warned that ISIS was using taxi drivers to spread rumors and erode support for the government.
Given the fragile state of the Iraqi armed forces, which faced what U.S. officials have described as a “psychological collapse” earlier this month, it’s unsurprising that the military is desperate to keep up morale.
On Monday, Atta accused the media of ignoring the crimes of ISIS and instead paying attention to other stories, such as “a leader that has run away here and there, or a certain small force that has retreated from a small area.” Around a third of Iraq’s soldiers are believed to have deserted in a matter of days during the crisis, while huge swaths of territory have fallen under the control of ISIS.
The daily briefings are just one cog of the government propaganda machine, which has ratcheted into overdrive since ISIS overran large parts of northern and western Iraq. Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday accused the government of a crackdown on opposition media outlets.
Its statement was not accessible online from Baghdad, where social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have also been blocked. In parts of the country, the Internet has been shut down entirely.
Directives from the government’s Media and Communications Commission last week prohibited interviews with people wanted by the authorities and the broadcasting of messages from banned groups.
Meanwhile, state television channel al-Iraqiya shows groups of Iraqi celebrities singing patriotic songs and images of the armed forces accompanied by rousing music. It regularly accuses the former governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi, of handing the northern city to the militants before fleeing and shows video clips of the politician superimposed next to ISIS fighters. Clips from Syria, including one of bodies being thrown off a roof in 2012, before ISIS expanded into the country, are shown as evidence of the group’s crimes — although there is no shortage of brutal acts from ISIS itself to highlight.
“There’s a media failure,” said Ziad Ajili, director of the Baghdad-based Journalistic Freedoms Observatory. “They don’t have reporters in the field, and they have turned to songs and poetry to bring people behind the government cause.”
The opposition media, which have cast the crisis as a tribal rebellion and given cover for ISIS and its crimes, are equally bad, Ajili said.
In the hallway outside his daily news briefing, reporters from pro-government channels pose for pictures with Atta, who normally sets aside a good portion of his presentation to criticize the less reverent “enemy” rumor-mongering media outlets.
“Everything that we do in the field gets announced,” Atta asserted Monday, though he added that some information may be blocked “in the early hours of battle or retreat.”
He praised the valiant security forces, this time for hanging on in Tal Afar, a religiously mixed town in a sea of ISIS-controlled territory. The images of airstrikes that accompanied his presentation were time-stamped three days earlier, though he claimed that they were filmed the night before. Iraqi officials said earlier this week that they had run out of Hellfire missiles.
“Security forces on all fronts hold the attack initiative,” he boldly proclaimed — an assertion disputed by diplomats and military experts. As for Tal Afar, he appeared to be preparing to break the news of another “tactical” retreat.
“If we were to pull forces from Tal Afar, it doesn’t mean defeat,” he explained. “We are on a battlefield, and you advance or retreat.”
Despite its shortcomings, just the fact that there is a daily briefing is a welcome development in Iraq’s stifled media scene.
“Before, all the news was attached to sources that couldn’t be named,” Ajili said. “At least we now have one name; the name is General Qassim Atta.”