For most of the ongoing war between the Iraqi government and the jihadist group now known as the Islamic State (formerly Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS), the latter has used a sophisticated propaganda campaign to win over many in the region. Now, the Iraqi government is slowly trying to fight back, posting videos of its victories.
Posted by al-Alam Television, an Iranian television station owned by the state, a video allegedly taken by the Iraqi Defense Ministry shows Iraqi soldiers overtaking ISIS jihadists in a small village in al-Anbar Province about ten miles from Fallujah, in a western region of Iraq that has been ravaged by the terrorist group. The video, with labels in Arabic, shows the Iraqi army storming the village, both on foot and with tanks, and taking over the few buildings in the village, allegedly from ISIS.
The video is not raw. It is produced, and the creators of the video also interview some of the soldiers in Arabic (unfortunately, no subtitles are available). The soldiers appear to have laid down all the weapons they confiscated from ISIS in a public square, specifically to showcase them in the video.
Retaking a tiny village like al-Shehabi means little for the Iraqi military when they have been run out of large cities like Mosul, where ISIS has established a brutal Sharia regime and expelled the entire Christian population. The contents of the video itself mean little in the larger war between ISIS and the Iraqi government, complicated by the presence of what is considered the only competent anti-ISIS military in the country, the Kurdish Peshmerga, who do not align with the Iraqi government.
Yet the fact that there is video of the Iraqi military doing anything other than surrendering or being murdered is a new and extremely significant development on the Internet. Before this video, most footage of the Iraqi military has been produced and mass distributed by ISIS. It has featured ISIS jihadists celebrating the beheadings and shootings of Iraqi soldiers, the use of Iraqi soldiers’ heads as soccer balls, and jihadists laughing at the surrender of the Iraqi military. Anyone getting their information on how the war for Iraq is developing from social media – which includes many young Muslim men in the West, ISIS’s target demographic – would have little evidence that the Iraqi army stands a chance. And for most of this war, the Iraqi Defense Ministry has done little to turn the tide on that narrative.
This video is the first of its kind to feature a success of the Iraqi military. It is the first to showcase individual Iraqi soldiers and interview them – humanize them as Muslim soldiers fighting a just war against terrorists. It represents a change in the attitude of the Iraqi government regarding the social media war: rather than let al-Hayat, the English-language multimedia machine of the Islamic State, monopolize the Internet to depict themselves as heroes and the Iraqi military as cowards, the Defense Ministry has decided to release videos that showcase them as dedicated to the cause, a cause that is not yet lost.
That the video has appeared on a television network owned by the Iranian government is also no surprise. In the absence of affirmative American involvement against the terrorist group in Iraq, the Iranian government has stepped in, offering to provide Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with any aid necessary to defeat ISIS. Iranian Revolutionary Guard were instrumental in helping the Iraqi military maintain control of Tikrit in June, and Iran has provided surveillance drones and military supplies generally to its Shi’ite ally. It now appears to be aiding in an entirely new arena: the Internet, helping set the tone with this new video that the Iraqi military is making advances against ISIS.