Prior to June 6, Iraq’s former prime minister, Nuri Al-Maliki, treated warnings about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with disdain, claiming reports about the group were meant to exert pressure on him. Although American drones were roaming across Iraqi airspace on a daily basis, monitoring fighters’ movements and sending information to Washington—which repeatedly warned Maliki—he preferred to listen to the reassurances of his advisers, although they had no information.
But the truth was quickly revealed when Mosul, along with its military bases, fell into the hands of ISIS. More cities and provinces later suffered Mosul’s fate, proving ISIS was a real threat and not a political maneuver or an attempt to play mind games.
As part of an official campaign aimed at reassuring people, the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi told Iraqi citizens not to worry because 70 percent of the conflict they were hearing about was mere psychological warfare! To back up this claim, the Defense Ministry showed television footage of citizens saying the situation was safe and that Baghdad was secure.
If 70 percent of the war is really psychological, how should Iraqis understand the presence of those fighter jets swarming around in their airspace? And how does Abadi explain the fall of one-third of Iraq’s territory into the hands of ISIS?
Perhaps the government is afraid that citizens will flee Baghdad en masse the minute they hear news of the arrival of ISIS fighters. The government is right to be worried about a possible disaster, but denying that threats exist does not remove them. The veracity of Abadi’s statements will be tested in the coming weeks and months. If Iraqi forces succeed in confronting militias and achieving stability, Abadi will have won the propaganda and psychological battles. But what if other major areas fall to ISIS? This cannot be ruled out, as the terrorists’ advance towards the governorates of Babil and Karbala continues and they are fighting ferociously in Anbar, hoping to seize the city of Amiriyah Fallujah, close to Baghdad.
What is happening in Iraq, and Syria as well, is not just a war to shape perceptions; it is one of the most “real” wars in the region’s history. Most modern wars are managed like video games—people get killed without seeing the fighters’ faces, hearing the roar of aircraft, or witnessing explosions. But the fighters of these battles are from the Middle Ages: while they carry American and European weapons and use Japanese cars, they pursue their victims on foot and display their severed heads.
Abadi can say “70 percent of the war is psychological,” but he must recall what Maliki said and did in the months before he was defeated—he showed footage of soldiers dancing and celebrating imaginary victories as towns were being destroyed!
What will happen if gunmen gain complete control of the Anbar province, surround the capital, and shell the airport?
The government’s reassurances will be of no use without comprehensive steps. One million people may flee Baghdad because their trust in the government is still weak. The flight of Maliki’s forces from Mosul and the aftermath of its downfall make everything that is being said meaningless. Winning the trust of Iraqi citizens requires more transparency and reassurance about the nature of the government’s policies, not by underestimating militant threats. Abadi has not yet established a public image for himself that distances him from Maliki. His promised political plan for reconciliation remains mere talk. Unless it becomes a reality, the war with ISIS and a few rebellious groups will turn into an outright civil war. This is the nightmare scenario which the new government should bear in mind. ISIS is a terrorist group and the Iraqis—both Sunnis and Shi’ites—will fight it and the world will assist them. However, an Iraqi civil war will be one Abadi will have to fight on his own.