Middle East

Islamic State PR gloss masks Iraqi forces' gains

Islamic State fighter fires machine-gun at Iraqi government forces in eastern Ramadi Image copyright Amaq
Image caption An assault by only 150 IS militants prompted Iraqi government forces to flee Ramadi

After a week of disturbing headlines, is Islamic State winning?

It depends where.

In Syria, where Islamic State (IS) captured Palmyra and is said to have murdered large numbers of people in its usual bloodthirsty fashion, it looks as though the regime of Bashar al-Assad is getting into serious trouble. Its army is no longer so effective at fighting his battles.

IS has taken full advantage of the reluctance of Western countries to come to Mr Assad's aid. It has spread, and has successfully wrong-footed the more moderate opposition groups.

In Iraq, though, the picture is different - even if it doesn't at first look like it. The loss of Ramadi revealed a disturbing weakness in the upper ranks of the Iraqi army.

In the days that followed, newspapers in a number of countries ran stories suggesting that IS was threatening to break out from Ramadi and head down the road to Baghdad, only 100km (60 miles) away.

There wasn't the slightest truth in it. For a start, the most humiliating aspect of Ramadi's capture from the Iraqi government's point of view was that it was done by only 150 Islamic State fighters, who put 1,500 soldiers to flight.

Those 150, even though they were soon reinforced by a few hundred other fighters, were in no position to defend Ramadi and attack Baghdad as well.

Furthermore, it soon became clear that Ramadi fell because the judgement and willpower of one man, the brigadier in command of the city, had been weakened by exhaustion, and perhaps fear.

He had stayed at his post in Ramadi for months, under siege from Islamic State, and was eventually tricked into believing that IS was on the point of using immensely destructive explosive devices in the city centre. He ordered his men to get out as fast as they could.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The US defence secretary said the fall of Ramadi showed Iraqi troops lacked the will to fight

It was clever of IS, and hugely effective; but it was scarcely a major military victory.

Islamic State is extremely good at public relations. It generates admiration and fear with each of the videos it issues - 360 within the last year, just about one a day.

The terror it generates through its gruesome execution videos does a great deal of its work for it. And people around the world believe that it is indeed carrying all before it.

By contrast, the Iraqi government has not been particularly effective at public relations. It has often been slow at telling people of its achievements, and foreign journalists in Baghdad sometimes have problems trying to find out what the forces are doing and how they are succeeding.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Tens of thousands of Ramadi residents fled the city after Islamic State's offensive

The result is that there has been real scepticism internationally about the Iraqi government's claims to be pushing IS back on almost all fronts.

When the Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, told the BBC that his forces would recapture Ramadi within days, there was widespread disbelief; even though Western diplomats in Baghdad have been forecasting very much the same thing.

Perhaps it would have been better if he had been a little more vague; but the effort to recapture Ramadi began very quickly after its fall, and is showing reasonably good results.

When government forces fought their way into the strategically important oil town of Baiji, north of Baghdad, last week, the news got remarkably little attention internationally - even though Baiji is a vitally important staging-post between Ramadi and Islamic State's chief centre in Iraq, Mosul.

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Media captionHaider al-Abadi insisted that Islamic State "are not winning"

None of this is definitive proof that the Iraqi government is indeed winning its war against Islamic State. There could be other Ramadis to come, and perhaps even something as devastating as last year's fall of Mosul.

But it's difficult to believe that. More difficult, indeed, than believing Mr Abadi when he says he will drive IS out of Iraq by the end of this year.

The government knows it can't rely too heavily on the Iraqi army, and it has concentrated instead on building up the volunteer forces which Westerners call militias (a word which has a strongly negative connotation in Arabic, particularly as spoken in Iraq).

The fact that Shia Muslims have volunteered for these militias in far greater numbers than Sunnis has created serious anxieties about a Shia army waging sectarian war against the Sunni inhabitants of cities like Ramadi and Mosul.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Iraqi government has deployed Shia militias to Anbar province to support the army

The government is doing what it can to reduce the risk, but the anxieties are still there.

Nevertheless, the militias have given the government a weapon which can counter the ferocity of IS. They are pushing forward around Ramadi and Falluja, and (together with the Kurdish Peshmerga) will play a part in the effort to regain Mosul, later this year.

The war is still far from being won, and disasters could very well lie ahead. But the fact remains that, when it comes to fighting IS, Iraq is in a far better position than Syria.