It has always been painful for me to write about Iraq and Baghdad, the land of my birth and the city of my childhood. They say that time is a great healer, but, along with most Iraqis, I feel the pain even more deeply today. But this time the tears for what has already happened are mixed with a crippling fear that worse is yet to come: an all-out civil war. Ten years on from the shock and awe of the 2003 Bush and Blair war – which followed 13 years of murderous sanctions, and 35 years of Saddamist dictatorship – my tormented land, once a cradle of civilisation, is staring into the abyss.
Wanton imperialist intervention and dictatorial rule have together been responsible for the deaths of more than a million people since 1991. And yet, according to both Tony Blair and the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, the “price is worth it”. Blair, whom most Iraqis regard as a war criminal, is given VIP treatment by a culpable media. Iraqis listen in disbelief when he says: “I feel responsibility but no regret for removing Saddam Hussein.” (As if Saddam and his henchmen were simply whisked away, leaving the people to build a democratic state). It enrages us to see Blair build a business empire, capitalising on his role in piling up more Iraqi skulls than even Saddam managed.
As an exile, I was painfully aware of Saddam’s crimes, which for me started with the disappearance from Baghdad’s medical college of my dearest school friend, Hazim. The Iraqi people are fully aware, too, that Saddam committed all his major crimes while an ally of western powers. On the eve of the 2003 invasion I wrote this for the Guardian: “In Iraq, the US record speaks for itself: it backed Saddam’s party, the Ba’ath, to capture power in 1963, murdering thousands of socialists, communists and democrats; it backed the Ba’ath party in 1968 when Saddam was installed as vice-president; it helped him and the Shah of Iran in 1975 to crush the Kurdish nationalist movement; it increased its support for Saddam in 1979…helping him launch his war of aggression against Iran in 1980; it backed him throughout the horrific eight years of war (1980 to 1988), in which a million Iranians and Iraqis were slaughtered, in the full knowledge that he was using chemical weapons and gassing Kurds and Marsh Arabs; it encouraged him in 1990 to invade Kuwait…; it backed him in 1991 when Bush [senior] suddenly stopped the war, exactly 24 hours after the start of the great March uprising that engulfed the south and Iraqi Kurdistan…; and it backed him as the ‘lesser evil’ from March 1991 to September 11 2001 under the umbrella of murderous sanctions and the policy of “containment”.”
But when it was no longer in their interests to back him, the US and UK drowned Iraq in blood. That war has still not been consigned to history – not for the people of Iraq or the region.
We haven’t even counted the dead yet, let alone the injured, displaced and traumatised. Countless thousands are still missing. Of the more than 4 million refugees, at least a million are yet to go back to their homeland, and there still about a million internal refugees. On an almost daily basis, explosions and shootings continue to kill the innocent.
The US and UK still refuse to accept the harmful consequences of radioactive depleted uranium munitions, and the US denies that it used chemical weapons in Falluja – but Iraqis see the evidence: the poisoned environment, the cancer and deformities. Lack of electricity, clean water and other essential services continues to hit millions of impoverished and unemployed people, in one of the richest countries on the planet. Women and children pay the highest price. Women’s rights, and human rights in general, are daily suppressed.
And what of democracy, supposedly the point of it all? The US-led occupying authorities nurtured a “political process” and a constitution designed to sow sectarian and ethnic discord. Having failed to crush the resistance to direct occupation, they resorted to divide-and-rule to keep their foothold in Iraq. Using torture, sectarian death squads and billions of dollars, the occupation has succeeded in weakening the social fabric and elevating a corrupt ruling class that gets richer by the day, salivating at the prospect of acquiring a bigger share of Iraq’s natural resources, which are mostly mortgaged to foreign oil companies and construction firms.
Warring sectarian and ethnic forces, either allied to or fearing US influence, dominate the dysfunctional and corrupt Iraqi state institutions, but the US embassy in Baghdad – the biggest in the world – still calls the shots. Iraq is not really a sovereign state, languishing under the punitive Chapter VII of the UN charter.
Political ironies abound. We have a so-called Shia-controlled government, yet most of Iraq’s Shia population remain the poorest of all. And we have an Iraqi Kurdistan that is a separate state in all but name. The Kurdistan regional government is in alliance with the US and Turkey, a ruthless oppressor of the Kurdish people. It also has growing links to Israel (which it is at pains to deny).
Meanwhile, conflict over oil and territory is aggravating relations between the centre and the Kurdistan government. Popular anger against corruption and human rights violations is growing; for weeks now, we have had large-scale protests in the west of the country.
To add to the increased tension within the country, the war in Syria is threatening to create a wider regional conflict, with Iraq and Lebanon being sucked in. Israeli-championed anti-Iranian moves further widen the war’s scope. The north-western region of Iraq borders Syria and it is where General Petraeus funded the Sahwa “awakening” militias in order to crush resistance in that region. Al-Qaida-type terrorists are also active in the area. They are natural allies of the terrorist al-Nusra Front of Syria. The de facto alliance between the US, Turkey, Israel and militants that has appeared in Syria is being mirrored in Iraq, with the additional ingredient of Saddamist remnants. US pragmatism knows no bounds!
These are just some of the ramifications of the US-led war on Iraq. It has been an unmitigated disaster, with genocidal dimensions for the Iraqi people, and continues to fuel conflicts and sow discord in the region.
There was once a strong democratic unifying force in Iraq, but this was crushed by the CIA-backed Ba’athist coup of 1963, and Saddam’s regime. The re-emergence of such a force is now the Iraqi people’s only hope. Without that, how will we count and mourn the millions of innocent victims, heal those wounds, and then, finally, build a better, more peaceful tomorrow?
The immediate prospects are frightening, but I write with the image of a brave Iraqi child imprinted in my mind. I saw him in Baghdad in July 2003; he was shouting angrily, waving a clenched fist of defiance at a US soldier whose machine gun was menacingly aimed at him. With that free spirit, and with solidarity among the people, a democratic, free Iraq shall surely rise strong and prosperous.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian UK.