MAKHMOUR, Iraq — At noon on a hot summer's day inside a small makeshift radio studio at the Iraqi army’s Division 15 camp, Deputy Sgt. Fanar Khalid read out several messages from a piece of paper fixed to a copyholder.
“To our dear people in Ninevah, the end of terrorist Daesh is close,” Khalid said confidently, referring to the Islamic State (IS) by its derogatory Arabic acronym.
Urging unity against IS, he said, “Let’s stand together against this suspicious [group] and cut its tail.”
The Ninevah Liberation Operation Command’s radio station is located just a dozen miles from the active battle zone in the southeastern countryside of Ninevah province. It relays the Iraqi army’s propaganda, or, as the officers like to call it, the “awareness” campaign against IS, as the Iraqi forces are slowly but steadily making inroads into the jihadis’ territory south of the Kurdish-controlled town of Makhmour.
The radio station has a reach of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) and airs a total of 11 hours in two morning and evening broadcasts, representing an Iraqi army’s tool of countering IS propaganda and attempting to change the locals’ perception toward the security forces.
“I'm proud of this,” Khalid told Al-Monitor. “We want to tell people — through this radio station — that we are close to them and care about them.”
Khalid and three others involved in the radio broadcasts claim that IS has threatened them, and that the extremist group has fired rockets at them on at least two occasions, most recently in early May when a rocket landed outside the military base. However, it is difficult to determine whether the rocket targeted the radio station or the base itself.
Sitting in a small air-conditioned room adjacent to the radio station’s studio, Gen. Firas Bashar oversees the radio broadcasts and is in charge of the army’s media relations. He said the US-led coalition that assists Iraqi forces in fighting IS donated the radio equipment. The station launched in October 2015 and is the only such project “in countering enemy propaganda” within the Iraqi military establishment.
Officials such as Bashar hope this outreach operation allows them to win the hearts and minds of the people in rural Ninevah.
“We try to counter IS propaganda and assure citizens of our good intentions and efforts to liberate them,” Bashar, a Sunni officer, told Al-Monitor. But establishing rapport with Sunnis here, who for years have been suspicious of Shiite-dominated Iraqi institutions, including the army, may not be an easy task.
IS swept through much of Ninevah and a number of other Sunni-dominated areas in June 2014 within just a few days, highlighting the lack of popular support for the official Iraqi security establishment.
The programming of the radio station is a mix of anti-IS propaganda, safety instructions and patriotic songs to raise morale among residents.
According to Bashar, sometimes the broadcasts give instructions to the area’s residents on how to protect themselves by, for instance, keeping away from buildings used by IS or “informing them about safe corridors to get away from IS-controlled areas."
Other times, the messages are aimed at demonizing IS fighters, and for that anything goes including calling IS militants “infidels.” Patriotic songs aimed at raising the morale of the residents in the area are aired regularly, too.
“We have made a good impact and played a big role in raising awareness among citizens in the Ninevah countryside,” Bashar said.
In reality, however, it is difficult to gauge the radio station’s success given that its audience is still largely living under IS control; using a radio device is a punishable criminal offense in IS areas in southern Ninevah.
Al-Monitor talked to several people who had been displaced recently from Ninevah’s southern countryside, which is within reach of the radio station’s waves. Most of them said they had not listened to the radio broadcasts.
“We didn’t have a radio at home,” said Riyaz, a young man from the Haji Ali area on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. Riyaz, who did not want to reveal his last name for fear of safety for his relatives still living under IS control, moved in late June to Dibaga camp for displaced people from Ninevah, north of Makhmour.
Some, however, said they had listened to the radio station and they found its broadcasts useful.
“The first time I listened to it was three months ago, but we had to tune in secretly,” said a young person from a village near the town of Qayarra on the Tigris’ western bank. “The army warned people about their operations in the area through the radio and I remember they told people in the area where the fighting took place and how to get away from their villages,” he said on condition of anonymity.
Bashar and his staff know well that given the history of the army’s troubled relationship with the population in Ninevah prior to IS domination in the area, their communication efforts are important in shaping attitudes toward them as they clear the area from IS village by village.
But ironically the challenge is made easier because of IS’ rigidness and brutality.
“We are fed up with IS,” Riyaz said. “People just want them kicked out of the area.”