By Ayub Nuri
Because Canada did not join the U.S. war on Iraq in 2003, not many people here ask me what is going on in Iraq and how I think the situation will turn out. That I find a blessing. When I lived in America for a few years I couldn’t avoid the conversation about Iraq. Everywhere I went I had to answer questions about the sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni militias. I was asked by almost everyone I met if I thought the invasion was the right thing to do.
As someone from Iraq and as a journalist, I certainly had a responsibility to give my insight and offer a truthful account of what I had witnessed. But after a while it was weighing heavily on me to have to talk about Iraq all the time. The flow of questions from Americans never ceased. In Canada however, I am spared those questions. This is one good thing about not joining a war—when one’s government does not wage war against another country, one will not feel obliged to ask about it. One will not feel guilty towards another nation. One can live with an easy conscience.
But nine years on, I take it upon myself to tell readers in Canada—or for that matter anywhere else in the world—what I thought of the war back then and I what I think now. In 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, I was elated. I was a supporter of the war and I believed only a powerful country like America could remove our dictator from power.
Iraqi people had tried more than once to rid themselves of him—through revolutions, rebellions and uprisings. But every time he retaliated ruthlessly and killed and imprisoned thousands. The situation had reached a point where many people thought the Husseins would rule over us forever, with Saddam’s sons continuing his repressive regime.
So when the bombs started raining on Baghdad, I saw the end of tyranny and the beginning of a massive change. I was a reporter and therefore witnessed Iraqi army barracks blowing up from U.S. bombing raids. I saw Iraqi soldiers quitting their posts and surrendering to the people. I wasn’t particularly happy to see soldiers who, after all, were human beings like everyone else and who had largely been conscripted into the army against their will, under fire and running for cover. But at least, I thought to myself, this will be the end of all the wars and the new Iraq will be free and prosperous. It is worth it, I kept saying to myself as I stood on a hill and watched bombs falling from the sky.
Many people across Iraq shared my feeling. They had lost their sons and daughters to Saddam’s dreadful security forces. They had been waiting for years for a day they would be able to go and dig up the mass graves, find the remains of their loved ones and give them proper burials. Each person wanted the war for a different reason. But we all wanted a new Iraq where we could live without fear.
It took only three weeks for the Iraqi regime to collapse, and I got to see the freedom on the streets of Baghdad. I traveled across Iraq and listened to people’s stories of heartbreak, of tragedy and of hope. For three decades no one had been able to talk, to express themselves freely or to criticize anything without risking jail. But after the war there were more than 150 newspapers and magazines in Baghdad. People could read whatever they wanted and they could write anything, from satirical poetry to political analysis, without fear of anyone knocking on their door in the middle of the night and taking them away to the police station.
There was a new government and for the first time Iraqis elected their own representatives through the ballot box. They didn’t accept anyone imposing himself as leader with 99.9% of the votes, as was common during Saddam Hussein’s time.
Even traveling became easy and people could go to the passport office, get a new passport and travel abroad without being interrogated by the police about where they were going and why. Passports were no longer for the members of the Baath party only. Anyone could get one.
Whatever the Americans and the international community thought of the war, however the anti-war activists in the west portrayed the regime change, it worked for the Iraqis: Baghdad’s streets bustled with new shops, schools had new textbooks and streets no longer had checkpoints. Everything was going so well that we all thought Iraq was a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Our neighbors envied us for the kind of freedom we had and the fact that we had gotten rid of our dictator—albeit with outside help. For the first time, the world thought that international intervention to change another country’s regime had actually worked.
But unfortunately that sense of freedom was short-lived. It lasted only one year and suddenly, as if Iraqis had woken up from a long sleep, things started to turn nasty. Just as I witnessed the fall of dictatorship as a journalist, I saw the outbreak of a bloody civil war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people.
Shia and Sunni militias across Iraq set upon each other in the most ruthless manner. They kidnapped and beheaded members of the rival sects and they bombed schools, markets, bus stations and restaurants. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t run from the site of a deadly car bomb to another and see piles of dead bodies and the destruction of homes.
Some people tried to blame it on politics. Others—anti-war campaigners—blamed it all on America for invading Iraq in the first place. But I blamed it on the people who tried to settle old religious scores. The Shia and Sunni militias didn’t hide their deep hatred for one another. Throughout Iraq’s history one group had repressed the other, imprisoned their religious leaders, closed down their shrines and silenced their preachers.
And now that Saddam Hussein was gone, it was time to settle those scores and avenge deaths that had occurred, in some cases, centuries ago. During my travels I came across people who would tell me: “It is all America’s fault. Under Saddam Hussein we used to live together peacefully like brothers. America is dividing us.”
But I had a hard time believing that, especially after I saw with my eyes that it was Iraqis who drove car bombs into crowded markets and it was Iraqis who kidnapped people on the streets or executed innocent families, only to claim their home and property. During Saddam’s reign it all sounded peaceful and quiet only because he kept the lid on resentment and distrust with his iron fist. They always simmered underneath the surface.
Every time I interviewed the family of someone abducted or executed, or a family driven from their home, they pointed to a Sunni or a Shia insurgent group. It was always someone from a few streets away who had shot their father on his way to work. Someone from a few blocks away who had kidnapped their son and called them a few days later to go and retrieve his decapitated body. So why throw the blame on someone else—on America or the international community—for what was conducted by Iraqis themselves?
When this sectarian war broke out I became disillusioned. I thought my hopes for the war were misplaced. But in the meantime I knew the war couldn’t be the reason for the never-ending bloodshed that followed. I believed that Iraqis could have used the war and the regime change as the beginning of a new era. It was time to turn a new page. But unfortunately that did not happen.
It came to a point where I thought the war to topple a murderous regime was in vain if Iraqis kept murdering and torturing each other. It was a major disappointment for me. My dreams for a new and democratic Iraq were dashed. The new rulers seemed to walk the path of Saddam Hussein. They still do. Secret prisons, torture and fear are still prevalent in Iraq.
Soon we will be marking the anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. America was in Iraq for eight years and they said they were there to help Iraqis build a democratic and free country. I am not sure if they succeeded in that, or if any country can tell another country how to build its government and social structure given the different mentalities, beliefs and world views. But still, I think the Iraqi people could have used the time when U.S. soldiers patrolled the borders and battled insurgents every day to build a modern government, rebuild the destruction caused by war and embark on the right path to freedom. Iraqis could prove to the world that the war was worthwhile and that by removing Saddam Hussein a huge barrier in the way of human dignity was removed.
But that never happened and the U.S. troops eventually left. They said it was the Iraqis’ responsibility to put their own house in order, and I agree with them. Now that Iraq is more open to the outside world, there are great lessons the country can learn from other nations’ successful experiences. The Iraqi people are tired of war and it is time they lived in peace.