Inside Story

An invasion’s long shadow

An Iraqi journalist traces the creation of “one of the most corrupt nations on earth”

Tom Hyland Books 25 September 2023 1974 words

Trouble ahead: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad watched with dismay as a US marine placed an American flag on Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad before it was torn down on 9 April 2003. Laurent Rebours/AP Photo

In 2013, on the tenth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, John Howard once again defended his small part in the great calamity that the invasion, occupation and subsequent wars had inflicted on Iraq and the wider Middle East. None of the seventeen sources footnoted in the former prime minister speech was Iraqi: their informed voices had largely been missing from the deliberations that led to the invasion, and they were missing from Western assessments, like Howard’s, of its results.

Now their voices can be heard, clearly and sometimes passionately, in journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s A Stranger in Your Own City, published this year to coincide with the invasion’s twentieth anniversary. This is a compelling, challenging, disturbing and ultimately illuminating account of what happened to the people of Iraq and their homeland over the two decades after they were invaded and conquered. It exposes the ignorance and demolishes the myths and false assumptions of many Western policymakers, think-tank analysts, pundits and correspondents — myths that Howard clung to in his speech.

Abdul-Ahad grew up under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, an absurdly quintessential Third World tyrant. It was a time of futile and costly wars with Iran and Kuwait and the West, of repression, poverty and hardship exacerbated by foreign sanctions. It was a period that made many Iraqis optimistic that the Americans would bring change.

If Abdul-Ahad — an architect and army deserter at the time — shared that optimism, it quickly faded on the day American tanks rumbled into Baghdad in April 2003. He watched with dismay as US marines pulled down a statue of Saddam one of them had draped in the American flag. He had thought the facade of liberation would last at least a day, “but no, with all the arrogance of every occupying soldier throughout history, [the marine] covered the face of the defeated dictator with the flag of his victorious nation; briefly, but long enough to seal the fate of the invasion in the eyes of many.”

The next day, after a chance meeting with a correspondent from the Guardian, Abdul-Ahad was hired as a fixer and translator and eventually a reporter — in which job he embarked on a journey through a country he increasingly couldn’t recognise, a devastated human and physical landscape of unspeakable brutality, destruction, indignity and corruption. He felt like a stranger in a foreign land.

Whatever optimism his fellow Iraqis felt when the Americans arrived soon dissolved, too, eroded by the occupiers’ sheer inefficiency and shattered by the first car bombing. Abdul-Ahad witnessed and reported on many such atrocities in the coming years, so many that “they are all welded in my head into one newsreel of charred human remains mixed with shreds of tyres and crumpled debris.”

Instead of peace, the US occupation unleashed something terrible, imposing a political system that gave power and the spoils of office, along sectarian and ethnic lines, to a “coalition of corrupt, imbecilic religious warlords to rule the country for the next twenty years and create one of the most corrupt nations on earth.”

Militias — “hundreds of cells with hundreds of motives” — emerged soon after the invasion. Many were criminal gangs; others sought simply to protect their neighbourhoods; still others were nationalists humiliated by foreign occupation. Later came Iraqi and foreign jihadis chasing fanatical dreams of a pure Islamic state. The occupation ultimately transformed what had been a fissure between Shias and Sunnis into an abyss.

In Baghdad and elsewhere, men with guns controlled every aspect of life, even as the United States and its allies deluded themselves they were bringing democratic progress. A year after the invasion, “people started uttering the unthinkable, that maybe life under Saddam was better.”

Abdul-Ahad takes his readers through the bomb-shattered suburbs, shrines and markets of Iraqi cities and towns, across barricades and streets awash with sewage, to meet ordinary Iraqis — teachers, doctors, soldiers, refugees. With a reporter’s eye for detail and ear for a telling quote, he brings us their faces and voices. His writing is wry at times, sometimes caustic, usually sensitive but not sentimental.

A bridegroom in a mixed Sunni–Shia marriage recounts his wedding day — a perilous military-style operation to get the wedding party across militia checkpoints — and describes “my bride and her relatives yellow with fear.”

We meet a schoolteacher, a man with a cheerful face struggling in a collapsed education system, who insists to his students that Iraq is not a sectarian country, and who limps to and from class, the result of having been shot three times because he spoke out against the clerics and urged his students not to join their militias.

We join a dreary queue at the passport office where fear and anxiety fill the air. A Christian man in his sixties, a teacher accompanied by his three daughters, insists the official writes his occupation in his passport. But there is no space for profession on the new passport form. The teacher insists his occupation be included because he wants a visa to go to Australia. Don’t worry, a man in the queue tells him, no country will give Iraqis a visa anyway. A big-bellied bureaucrat openly boasts that he takes bribes — “I only take $500” — to speed up the passport process.

In the cramped waiting room of a medical clinic, a gaunt psychiatrist with a soft reassuring voice describes how “the pressure, the war, the economic situation, fear, anxiety — all chip away at patients’ resistance.”

A Sunni militia commander, a middle-aged man with soft brown eyes, acknowledges having rejoiced when Saddam fell, but also having then joined the insurgency: “As time passed, and the occupation became more visible, patriotic feelings inside me grew greater and greater. Every time I saw the Americans patrolling our streets, I felt ashamed and humiliated.”

Abdul-Ahad takes us into the courtroom for Saddam’s trial, the former dictator slowly and deliberately entering the room, sighing and sitting down “with the air of one settling down to a day’s work.” We learn how, after his hanging, Saddam’s corpse was flown to the house where prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was celebrating his son’s wedding: “The grotesque pettiness of Iraq’s new masters ran rampant as the shroud was pulled back to allow guests to photograph the corpse.”

On a sweltering and humid day we go to a Baghdad morgue, where crowds of anxious relatives press against the fence to find and reclaim the bodies of family members. The morgue is stacked with corpses, mostly the victims of death squads, and there’s no room for the crowd to enter, so officials improvise a “hellish slideshow” on a computer monitor that families watch in silence as pictures of the mutilated dead flicker on the screen.

Two years after the invasion, Iraq was sliding towards civil war, a conflict more complex than the West’s binary narrative of Sunni versus Shia. As Abdul-Ahad points out, this war included “a wide range of localised schisms and fault lines, feuds based on class or geography or long-dormant tribal feuds.”

These rifts were exacerbated by the Americans, who, “like conquerors, aimed to simplify their occupation by breaking it into components,” using Shias to fight Sunni insurgents, and in the process entrenching and exacerbating sectarianism.

Six years after the invasion, Maliki had concentrated unaccountable power through patronage, shadowy intelligence services and all-encompassing corruption. Security officers took bribes from families to release their sons from detention and torture, and then sometimes killed them anyway.

By the invasion’s tenth anniversary, Islamist jihadis had entered this ghastly scene, seeking to impose an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam not only in Iraq but in Syria and across the Middle East. Abdul-Ahad travelled to Syria to meet the groups who called themselves ISIS and were consolidating their power. He met an ISIS commander who spoke of his dreams of a borderless Islamic state: “I can’t remember much else of what he said in the meeting because I was terrified and trembling with fear.”

By the middle of the following year, ISIS had swept into western Iraq and on to Mosul, Iraq’s second city, where Maliki’s “brave new army” collapsed, partly out of a justified fear of the ISIS fanatics and partly because all-pervading corruption had eaten out its heart. Recruits who had paid to be enlisted to escape lives of dismal poverty found their wages stolen by their officers. Non-existent “ghost soldiers” padded out the payroll.

When ISIS captured Mosul many welcomed their discipline, administrative efficiency and promise to restore basic services and end corruption. Instead, the extremists turned Mosul into a huge prison controlled with brutality and viciousness. “They brought terror into our hearts and inside our own homes,” said one resident. “I feared my neighbour, my brother and my son… They used to say Saddam’s regime was brutal. Well Saddam was a picnic compared to them.”

The brutality of ISIS prompted many men to join the army, which was supported by US air power. Abdul-Ahad joined these soldiers — young but old before their time; devoted to war yet cynical about their senior officers — as they fought to reclaim Mosul. They were brave and selfless, too, but also capable of the worst acts of barbaric cruelty.

Abdul-Ahad portrays them dispassionately, with gritty, graphic, courageous reporting. While his writing is clear and compelling, at times it is so confronting that it’s hard to read — as when he describes captured ISIS prisoners being tortured for no purpose “beyond the primordial imperative to exact pain and revenge and prove to the soldiers that they had defeated ISIS.”

Having humanised the people he encounters — victims and perpetrators alike — he then goes beyond his masterful on-the-ground reporting. Placing these human stories in a wider political and social context, he demolishes the myth that the quick military success of US forces was subsequently marred by ill-advised decisions and a lack of planning for the second phase of the US adventure — the occupation and handover. In his 2013 speech, Howard understated these failures as “problematic.”

That’s not how Abdul-Ahad sees it. He argues that the occupation was bound to fail not because of lack of planning but “because a nation can’t be bombed, humiliated and sanctioned, then bombed again, and then told to become a democracy. No amount of planning could have turned an illegal occupation into a liberation.”

A Stranger in Your Own City also debunks another central tenet of the pro-invasion narrative — that Iraq’s main religious sects are monoliths that had either uniformly supported and benefited from Saddam (the Sunnis) or uniformly opposed and suffered under him (the Shias). It’s another element of the narrative that Howard endorsed in his retrospective speech, declaring in coldly passive language that “it was inevitable that after Saddam had been toppled a degree of revenge would be exacted.”

Despite all that he has witnessed and Iraq has endured, Abdul-Ahad sees signs of hope in an outburst of popular dissent by euphoric young Iraqis in 2019, known as the Tishreen Uprising. While it failed to bring down the post-2003 system, it showed how young people led by secular activists recognised the US-bequeathed democracy to be a kleptocracy of fossilised hierarchies and archaic bureaucratic rules, with a security system of violence, torture and killings. The Tishreen protesters saw themselves as victims of a “terrible con perpetrated by those professing to defend them and their sect against the ‘other’.”

“Tishreen showed the power of the people when not cowed by sectarian fears,” Abdul-Ahad writes, “and indicates that the post-2003 state can no longer satisfy its own people.” He concludes that the failure of Iraq’s leaders to heed the warnings of Tishreen will lead to their demise. •

A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad | Hutchinson Heinemann | $59.99 | 480 pages