Iraq's military is spreading fake news about the protests, but Iraqis are laughing back
By MIRIAM BERGER AND MUSTAFA SALIM | The Washington Post | Published: November 18, 2019
As U.S. troops occupied the streets of Baghdad in 2003, Iraq's then-Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf kept insisting that the Americans were still far away. By then, Saddam Hussein's spin doctor had already earned the name "Baghdad Bob" for his outlandish propaganda — or, in today's parlance, fake news.
Fast forward 16 years, and Iraqis for weeks have been protesting against the sectarian political system set up in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion. Despite calls for change, Iraq's government has doubled down on rejecting reforms while Iraq's military has brutally cracked down on the uprising.
As the death toll rises, Iraqis are having another flashback — to the far-off tales of al-Sahhaf, whose latest incarnation comes in the form of the spokesman for Iraq's armed forces, Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf.
Khalaf is no fan of the protests — or, sometimes, of facts.
He's denied cases of Iraqi security forces using live fire and tear gas against protesters, despite ample evidence otherwise. He's dismissed the protesters as "vandals" and accused them of wanting to storm the national bank. He's alleged, without evidence, that protesters are making improvised bombs in a command center they've set up in an abandoned building, known as the Turkish restaurant, in Baghdad's central Tahrir Square. He's even accused demonstrators of mooning security forces to provoke them.
Protesters have denied the allegations and responded with another page in the Iraqi political playbook: humor.
In recent days, people have used the hashtag #Tweet_Like_Khalaf to sarcastically tell their own version of events.
Many tweets mocked Khalaf's depiction of protesters with larger-than-life abilities in the Turkish restaurant by positing that action heroes like the Hulk were hiding there and would soon be unleashed on the government.
Above a picture of tear gas, one person tweeted, "The government lights incense to ward protesters away from the evil eye."
A different tweet posited that, in another world, Saddam Hussein and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the recently killed leader of the Islamic State, are meeting to lead protesters, armed with weapons of mass destruction, in a war against the state.
Others online mocked Khalaf's denial of security forces using live ammunition, as documented by reporters and human rights groups. In recent weeks, at least 320 protesters have been killed, according to the Associated Press, though that number could be much higher: The Iraqi government is refusing to release death toll numbers.
"We are here for the protection of the protesters," darkly joked one tweet.
Baby shark, naturally, was also part of the fun.
The online chatter, however, was limited — in part because the Iraqi government has been periodically shutting off Internet connections in another attempt to dampen the demonstrations.
Still the jokes — and calls for change — keep coming.
In a recent segment, popular Iraqi comedian Ahmed Waheed dressed up as Khalaf and channeled the general's unique take on events. The people massing in the streets? Oh, that's not protests, just people coming for sales at stores, the comedian joked. The smoke filling the street? No, that's not tear gas, but rather residue from cigarettes and vapes. Police are hitting people on their hairs, not heads, the fake general continued. And of course, he insisted, the government did not shut down the Internet: It's just that people didn't pay their bills.
"Most of the statements from politicians are jokes now in Iraq," said Ahmed Albasheer, 35, an Iraqi comedian based in New Haven, Conn. A 2019 poll by IIACSS, an Iraq-focused research firm, found that only 20 percent of Iraqis trust the government.
"If you make someone a joke, people will never believe him again," he added. Albasheer hosts a weekly comedy show airing in Iraq. He said authorities have prevented broadcasts for the last two weeks by jamming the network.
Iraqis also know how dangerous "fake news" can be.
Iraq's political and religious leaders "made the sectarian war by disinformation," Albasheer said, referring to the fighting that pitted Sunni and Shiite Iraqis against each other in the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion.
Humor, he said, is how people in part overcame it: Laughter was something everyone could share in, and jokes about the politicians looking to divide Iraq in turn helped lessen their power.
"The jokes helped a lot to reduce the tensions between Iraqis," Albasheer said.
Now Hassan Habib, a 29-year-old protester in Baghdad, lamented that leaders such as Khalaf had become such jokes to people.
"He should realize that in the time of Sahhaf there was no Internet and only state-owned channels and Sahhaf was the only source of information," he said. "But now it's different."
Khalaf did not respond to The Washington Post's request for comment. On Twitter, he's denounced "the attacks against me" and vowed to continue to serve his country. He's also lashed out at critics: In a WhatsApp message viewed by The Post, he called Noora Al-Qaisi, a 36-year-old Iraqi freelance journalist who challenged his statements, "a whore."
"He's just like Sahhaf with his military uniform and attitude," she told The Post in response. "It's a way to militarize the community just like before."
Khalaf had a reputation as strict and tough in a past post as interior ministry spokesperson. He was appointed to his current position Oct. 26, just one day after the second wave of demonstrations started. Now protesters have posted his phone number around the Turkish restaurant so people can call and tell him their views instead.
"If he wants to lie," Habib concluded, "he should lie in a smart way, not in this old away."
Salim reported from Baghdad.