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Baghdad Steps Up Propaganda Fightback With Jihadist TV Satire

Baghdad (AFP) — As Iraqi forces struggle to pin back the Islamic State group on the ground, Baghdad is taking its war against the jihadists to the airwaves with a television comedy series.

The usually elusive Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi features prominently in the show, whose promoters argue that ridiculing the jihadist supremo can help dent his aura of almost supernatural villainy.

The fear factor — fed by online videos of mass executions, beheadings and abductions — has been a key aspect of IS strategy, often handing it victory before the battle had even started.

The goal of the show is “to remove this phobia that has taken root in a lot of people’s minds”, chief supervisor Thaer Jiyad told AFP on the set between two scenes.

But if the show is Baghdad’s new weapon in the war against IS, then its very first shots were a friendly fire blunder that sparked controversy even as the series premiered on Saturday.

The trailer that Iraqiya state TV had been showing several times a day for weeks plays on a belief widely held in Iraq that IS was created by the CIA, Israel and Gulf monarchies to sow chaos.

With the United States now leading an aerial bombing campaign which also involves several Gulf countries against IS in Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi Media Network production company had to order a last-minute reshoot.

The first version of the trailer, which is still widely available on the Internet, opens with a cartoon-like devil character brandishing a fork leading a column of jihadist fighters through the desert.

He is met with open arms by an ostensibly American character in full cowboy attire who leads him into a tent for an arranged marriage.

– ‘State of Superstition’ –

The bride is a Jewish princess — a large star of David hangs around her neck to make that clear — who is escorted to her nuptial nest by a woman whose sunglasses and bright green pantsuit are an unmistakable reference to Qatar’s first lady Sheikha Mozah.

She and the cowboy were dropped from the new version of the opening clip for the series, whose title loosely translates as “State of Superstition” and is a play on the Arabic word for caliphate.

The Joker of Batman fame, Dracula and a dwarf are among the random mix of characters in the background, all dancing to the series’ catchy theme song, a parody of a known IS anthem.

The next scene shows the result of the union between the Jewish bride and the devil.

“The egg hatched, a little IS-ling emerged,” the song goes.

The Baghdadi figure that grows out of the shell then leads a choir of officers from Saddam Hussein’s ex-ruling Baath party into reciting his program of blood-letting for Iraq with the refrain: “O beheader, where are you?”

In a Pulp Fiction-style slow-motion finale, the “caliph” ends up shooting all the Baathists one by one, a not-so-subtle Faustian warning that he who bargains with the devil chooses his own demise.

“Ultimately, with fundamentalist organizations, the only solution is to confront them, and that starts with the leaders,” said Jiyad.

The show’s first episode is lighter on satire and relates the day jihadists march into a model Iraqi town, with its candy-colored buildings and honest denizens.

Despite the show’s declared goal of encouraging Iraqis to overcome their fear, the thought of possible retribution for mocking the jihadists caused a collective bout of stage fright among the cast.

“We encountered many difficulties, notably when some of the artists were too afraid to take part in the shooting out of security concerns,” director Ali al-Qassem said.

But those who stuck with the project feel they are participating in the war effort, he said.

“We all have a duty to defend this country. We are not good at using weapons but we can also help defeat IS through our work.”

AFP Photo

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U.S. Strikes Islamic State Jihadists Near Baghdad For First Time

Baghdad (AFP) — The United States has bombed militants near Baghdad in support of Iraqi forces, striking close to the capital for the first time in its expanded campaign against Islamic State jihadists.

But in a sign of their growing strength, a monitoring group said the jihadists had managed to bring down a Syrian warplane conducting strikes over their stronghold of Raqa in north-central Syria.

The US air strike against IS fighters in the Sadr al-Yusufiyah area, 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Baghdad, came as world diplomats pledged to support Iraq in its fight against the militants and less than a week after US President Barack Obama ordered a “relentless” war against IS.

“U.S. military forces continued to attack (IS) terrorists in Iraq, employing attack and fighter aircraft to conduct two air strikes Sunday and Monday in support of Iraqi security forces near Sinjar and southwest of Baghdad,” the U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

“The air strike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hit (IS) targets as Iraqi forces go on offence, as outlined in the president’s speech last Wednesday.”

The strikes destroyed six IS vehicles near Sinjar and an IS position southwest of Baghdad that had been firing on Iraqi forces.

– Purported photo of wreckage –

They bring the number of U.S. air strikes across Iraq to 162.

Iraqi security spokesman Lieutenant General Qassem Atta on Tuesday welcomed the expanded American action, saying the U.S. “carried out an important strike against an enemy target in Sadr al-Yusufiyah.”

Sadr al-Yusufiyah lies in the Euphrates Valley, between the militant stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and the key battleground of Jurf al-Sakhr, further south.

It is one of the closest front lines to Baghdad where Iraqi government forces and allied militia have struggled to defend their positions.

IS militants have seized a swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria, declaring an Islamic “caliphate”, committing widespread atrocities and instituting a brutal interpretation of Islamic law.

As part of the extended campaign Washington has vowed to carry out strikes in Syria as well, despite warnings from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against violating its airspace.

On Tuesday, the jihadists shot down a Syrian warplane conducting strikes against them, the first time they have done so since the regime began bombing their stronghold of Raqa in July, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“IS fighters fired on a military aircraft which crashed,” the Britain-based monitoring group said.

“It is the first aircraft shot down since the regime launched air strikes against the jihadists in July following their declaration of a caliphate in late June,” said the group, which relies on a wide network of doctors and activists for reports on the situation in Syria.

A photograph posted on a jihadist Twitter account purported to show the wreckage of the plane.

“Allahu Akbar (God is greater), thanks to God we can confirm that a military aircraft has been shot down over Raqa,” another account said, congratulating the “lions of the Islamic State”.

The expansion of the U.S. air campaign came as representatives from about 30 countries and international organisations, including the United States, Russia and China, vowed during talks in Paris on Monday to support Iraq in the fight against IS.

In a joint statement, diplomats promised to back Baghdad “by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance, in line with the needs expressed by the Iraqi authorities, in accordance with international law and without jeopardising civilian security.”

They stressed that IS militants are “a threat not only to Iraq but also to the entire international community” and underscored the “urgent need” to remove them from Iraq.

The Paris statement made no mention of Syria, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed again at the talks that “we’re not going to coordinate with the Syrians.”

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned that U.S. forces will target Syrian anti-aircraft systems if they take aim at American planes conducting strikes inside Syria against IS.

– Target for major drive –

On the ground in Iraq, sporadic clashes broke out Monday near the town of Dhuluiyah, north of Baghdad, where security forces and allied tribesmen prepared for an operation against IS-led militants.

The area would appear to be the target of the next major drive against IS in Iraq, after a successful operation to break the siege of the town of Amerli farther north.

The Paris meeting was the latest in a series of frantic diplomatic efforts to build a broad global coalition against the jihadists, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said meetings would come “thick and fast” ahead of a U.N. General Assembly next week.

Ten Arab states including Saudi Arabia are among the countries backing the U.S.-led coalition, and Australia has pledged 600 troops.

“We are not building a military coalition for an invasion… but for a transformation as well as for the elimination of (IS),” Kerry told reporters.

“We are fighting an ideology, not a regime.”

The beheading at the weekend of a British aid worker, the third Western hostage to be executed on camera, raised the stakes in the battle against the jihadists, who the CIA estimates have as many as 31,500 fighters.

AFP Photo/Mohammed al-Shaikh

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Kerry Bids For Arab Anti-IS Front Buoyed By New Iraq Govt

Baghdad (AFP) — Washington kickstarted its efforts to form a broad coalition against jihadists in Iraq and Syria Tuesday with Secretary of State John Kerry headed to the region to rally U.S. allies.

Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia is to host talks on Thursday between Kerry and ministers from 10 Arab states plus Turkey on joint action against the Islamic State group.

Kerry’s arrival in the region on Wednesday will coincide with a keenly awaited speech by President Barack Obama in which he has promised to set out a strategy to defeat the jihadists who have unleashed a wave of atrocities that have shocked the world.

Washington has been buoyed in its diplomatic offensive by the formation of a new government in Baghdad that it hopes will be more acceptable to both Iraq’s disenchanted Sunni Arab minority and Sunni governments around the region.

The Iraqi army’s campaign to claw back the territory it lost in the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in June — and U.S. efforts to engage Sunni governments in the fightback — have been complicated by the sectarian politics of the region.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states had deeply strained relations with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, with each side blaming the other for the advance of the jihadists.

But after months of wrangling, Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi finally formed a government on Monday that Washington said had “the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities.”

Kerry described the new government as a “major milestone” in efforts to woo the Sunni Arab minority away from IS after the divisive rule of Abadi’s predecessor Nuri al-Maliki.

– ‘Broadest possible coalition’ –

The talks in the Saudi port city of Jeddah on Thursday will be attended by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the six Gulf Arab states as well as Iraq.

Kerry has pledged to build “the broadest possible coalition of partners around the globe to confront, degrade and ultimately defeat (IS).”

“Almost every single country has a role to play in eliminating the (IS) threat and the evil that it represents,” the U.S. top diplomat said.

Notable by their absence from Jeddah will be the Syrian government — facing a three and a half year uprising backed by many of the participants — and its regional ally Iran.

IS has taken advantage of the civil war to seize a big chunk of northeastern Syria in fighting with government forces, rival rebel groups and Kurdish militia.

Damascus views itself as a key bulwark against the jihadists, but Washington has ruled out any cooperation for fear of alienating Syria’s Sunni majority who largely support the uprising.

The Syrian media mocked the U.S. decision to exclude Damascus from the anti-IS coalition.

“Western and regional governments are excluding the nations that really want to fight terrorism,” the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper said.

Instead, Washington was building a coalition that included nations that “support terrorism financially, militarily and logistically,” it said.

It was alluding to neighbouring Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, whose arms deliveries to the rebels, some of which have wound up in IS hands, have made them bugbears of the regime.

Damascus fears efforts to tackle IS will involve air strikes on its territory without its permission.

Washington launched air strikes against jihadist targets in Iraq on August 8 and has since carried out nearly 150 sorties.

Obama has so far held back from authorising strikes on IS in Syria but he has promised a comprehensive strategy against the group on both sides of the border in the policy speech he is to deliver on Wednesday.

The new U.N. Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, was expected in Damascus on Tuesday for his visit since taking over the post in July.

– Iran welcomes Iraq govt –

Shiite Iran — alongside the United States, the key outside power in Iraq — said it hoped the change of government in Baghdad would help turn the tide against IS.

“I hope that during your new mandate, complete calm will return to your country,” President Hassan Rouhani said.

In reality the new government does not constitute quite the sea-change hailed by Washington — it remains dominated by politicians from Iraq’s Shiite Arab majority, the Kurds hold fewer ministries than in the previous cabinet and the Sunni Arabs relatively minor ones.

The divisive Maliki becomes one of three vice presidents, alongside a Sunni Arab — former parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi — and a secular Shiite — ex-premier Iyad Allawi.

Fuad Masum, a Kurd, became president in July.

Abadi also put off filling the key interior and defence portfolios, promising to name the two ministers who will take charge of the security forces’ fightback against the jihadists within the next week.

The commander of one of the Shiite militias that have played a growing military role alongside the army has sought the interior ministry post.

Any such appointment would risk further alienating the Sunni Arab minority given the Shiite militias’ brutal history in the sectarian bloodshed that gripped Iraq in 2006 to 2008.

AFP Photo/Peter Parks

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