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April to November: an Iraqi journey

Ayub Nuri
20 November 2003

Yahia Said and Mary Kaldor have written recently in openDemocracy about their impressions in Iraq during an eight-day visit, and their sense of optimism about the country’s future. As someone who lives in Iraq, and who has portrayed the war and its aftermath in six columns in openDemocracy between March and September 2003, my experience is very different.

Looking back to the remarkable celebrations in Baghdad of 9 April 2003, it is clear that this was a unique event – the only occasion in Iraqi living memory when people voluntarily and spontaneously spilled onto the streets to express their profound happiness at the fall of one of the most dictatorial of regimes: a regime that had been killing them, one by one or en masse, for years.

The Kurds in the north of the country soon echoed this initiative with their own musical celebrations and sheer joy, even if they had no images of Saddam Hussein to burn. Then the Arabs in the south began pulling down statues and burning portraits of the hated former leader.

Amongst the rejoicing, pictures of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, together with the flags of their countries, could be seen being waved on almost every street corner. The kind of disappointment we all feel today could not have been further from people’s minds.

I say ‘all’. The disappointment of Iraqi Kurds may be rising to the surface more slowly than that of others, but it is deep-seated and clear-eyed, and it unites us with the Arabs in the rest of the country.

Iraq’s disappointment

When United States troops first entered Iraq, the most desirable residences were those providing shelter close to their bases and tanks. People felt safest there, whether from looters or murderers. It is completely different now.

Now you walk or drive near any American tank or army vehicle at your peril. Any moment, American troops coming under attack might randomly open fire on cars and the people who surround them. A majority of people killed in Iraq by US troops are civilians who found themselves close to American army people under fire. Indeed, more Iraqi civilians have been killed since the war ended than during the war itself. As a result, more Iraqi people are turning against the occupying army every day.

Any foreign force must know how precious it is to make one person from the country you conquer your friend. In this light, as modern colonialists, US forces seem to defy logic and reason.

The structure of the Iraqi national community is tribal. Tens, even hundreds of major tribes in the country have always looked to their leaders for the supply of essential benefits. Now, the coalition forces have become the contested source of these benefits for rival tribes.

Ubeid, a tribe with a population of 1.5 million in the Kirkuk area, is one example. In early September, the coalition arrested Sheikh Hatam, one of the leaders of Ubeid, accusing him of attacking the oil pipeline running near his village. Sheikh Anwar al-Asi, Hatam’s brother, told me that there was nothing new about their having a tribal leader in jail; Saddam’s regime had imprisoned successive leaders for various conflicts of value and disagreements with the regime. But this time, he said, it was intolerable.

Sheikh Anwar said that it was an open secret that Hatam had been ‘set up’ by a false report by people involved in a feud with his family. “Why have the coalition forces made no attempt to check the reports they receive, to ensure that they don’t put innocent people in jail, and make enemies for no reason?”

In the village, people told me that even more than their brother’s arrest, something else made them so angry that they would hate the Americans forever: the way American soldiers ransacked their homes late at night, conducted body searches of their women, and broke every door, window and piece of equipment in the house in the process. “They don’t respect us or our values: a force like that can’t expect to stay put for long,” said Sheikh Anwar.

In the mayor’s office in Fallujah, I met another man with the same problem. He did not want to tell me his name, but he told me that rivals had falsely accused his family of resistance activity against the coalition forces; the Americans had arrested his old uncle as a result. Such episodes quickly turn Iraqi people against Americans, making them feel that all their promises of democracy and change in Iraq were empty.

Most Iraqis want to have democracy overnight. They were advised both by the incoming politicians and the American-led administration that democracy is a complicated process and takes a long time to evolve. But if so, surely efforts must be made during the transition period to calm people’s fears for long enough to make them rejoice in Saddam’s overthrow? And if we cannot expect democracy in only seven months, why cannot the reconstruction of ministries and other governmental buildings be completed within a shorter period? Iraqis are beginning to reach the conclusion that the Americans are not really interested in either democracy or meaningful reconstruction.

America’s lesson

Abdul Razaq, the owner of a clothing factory in Baghdad, compared the two post-war eras in Iraq. In 1991 nearly the whole of Iraq had suffered from the devastation of war; but when the war stopped, “Saddam Hussein ordered the reconstruction of roads, electricity, buildings and bridges.” The work was done in six months. “In this way,” he said, “Saddam showed that he was loyal to his people.”

In 2003, by contrast, the buildings are still in the same condition as they were two days after the war. Most of the streets in Baghdad are blocked. High concrete walls overshadow the whole city, and every day more new roads and bridges are closed down. George Bush talks of rebuilding Iraq, but has failed to rebuild a single building, not even the houses destroyed by car bombs. The Iraqis hoped for progress after Saddam: they did not expect to lose even the use of the roads and the buildings that Saddam had given them.

Mukhtar Hama Salih, a Kurd in Halabja, told me that the Americans just want to make sure that the oil wells are pumping and that oil is reaching the market. When the Americans launched the war, he was at first very happy; having suffered from the dictatorship in the 1980s, and local Islamic fundamentalism in the late 1990s, he had hoped for something better. Now that he realises what is really going on, he says he is happy to see Americans being killed all over Iraq, “If a terrorist group came and based itself next door to me to attack the Americans, I wouldn’t say a word. I would just let them get on with it.”

Sonya Heydar, from Baghdad, says that American soldiers are uneducated and don’t know how to deal with Iraqis. She expressed some happiness at the bombing of the Italian base in Nasiriya. “It was a powerful explosion, it was just unfortunate that Iraqis also lost their lives.”

Hadeel Jawad, of the Organisation for Women’s Freedom, also from Baghdad, said that Iraqi women had looked forward to the Americans coming, and to their changing the Iraqi system from top to bottom; but now, apart from the dangerous streets and the threat of kidnap, women have to endure Islamic men on Iraq’s Governing Council who seek to enforce laws regulating women as strictly as before. “What will the Americans do to safeguard the rights of women?”

By their behaviour, our American visitors alienate the Iraqis who were most thirsty for regime change, and drive them into the arms of the terrorists. Other Iraqis now begin to love Saddam, and want him back sooner than later. “The Americans entered Iraq with tanks and fire: they will never know one moment’s relaxation in this country,” said Abdul Razaq. “Their fate is to leave, having lost face and learning some sober lessons for the future.”

The people’s loss

Gassan Mustafa said that he had loved America before the Americans came to Iraq and had promised himself to make friends with them. Once he saw the way American soldiers treated him and his country, he completely changed his mind. “I would greet the day Saddam Hussein came back! I was injured during the war, and he paid me a lot of compensation. I had no house and he gave me a good house to live in.”

As soon as they entered Baghdad, US troops had kicked him out of his house near the airport. He then rented a house in Baghdad’s Al-Khazra square only to see it destroyed by a car bomb targeted at a police station opposite.

He had lost his job as an engineer in the now-dissolved Iraqi army. He was so angry with Americans, he would “like to kill them himself”, but was content to “leave the job to those elsewhere in Iraq who were doing the job.” He thought those who attacked American soldiers in this way must be people who had had family members killed, or Iraqi army officers losing their jobs. “Like me, they want to take revenge on the Americans.”

Many Iraqis now hanker for the days when their homeland’s borders were tightly controlled and nobody knew what a car bomb or a kidnapping was. The Americans, by dissolving the Iraqi army, left the country open to terrorists and thieves.

Gassan thought he spoke for the majority of Iraqi people when he wished that Saddam Hussein would return soon – because during Saddam’s regime, they used to have security, a house, a job and money. Now, they have lost all.

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