After a decade of war, Iraq
is a cauldron of sectarian violence, state-sponsored terrorism, and humanitarian crisis. Now a U.S.
client under the autocratic and corrupt Maliki government, Iraq has little
chance to escape the vicious cycle of violence and injustice.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
Back then, everybody was writing about Iraq,
but it’s surprising how few Americans, including reporters, paid much attention
to the suffering of Iraqis. Today, Iraq is in the news again. The
words, the memorials, the retrospectives are pouring out, and again the
suffering of Iraqis isn’t what’s on anyone’s mind. This was why I returned to
that country before the recent 10th anniversary of the Bush administration’s
invasion and why I feel compelled to write a few grim words about Iraqis today.
But let’s start with then. It’s April 8,
2004, to be exact, and I’m inside a makeshift medical center in the heart of
Fallujah while that predominantly Sunni city is under siege by American forces.
I’m alternating between scribbling brief observations in my notebook and taking
photographs of the wounded and dying women and children being brought into the
A woman suddenly arrives, slapping her
chest and face in grief, wailing hysterically as her husband carries in the
limp body of their little boy. Blood is trickling down one of his dangling
arms. In a few minutes, he’ll be dead. This sort of thing happens again and
over, I watch speeding cars hop the curb in front of this dirty clinic with
next to no medical resources and screech to a halt. Grief-stricken family
members pour out, carrying bloodied relatives — women and children — gunned
down by American snipers.
One of them, an 18-year-old girl has been
shot through the neck by what her family swears was an American sniper. All she
can manage are gurgling noises as doctors work frantically to save her from
bleeding to death. Her younger brother, an undersized child of 10 with a
gunshot wound in his head, his eyes glazed and staring into space, continually
vomits as doctors race to keep him alive. He later dies while being transported
to a hospital in Baghdad.
According to the Bush administration at the
time, the siege of Fallujah was carried out in the name of fighting something
called “terrorism” and yet, from the point of view of the Iraqis I was
observing at such close quarters, the terror was strictly American. In fact, it
was the Americans who first began the spiraling cycle of violence in Fallujah
troops from the 82nd Airborne Division killed 17 unarmed demonstrators on April
28th of the previous year outside a school they had occupied and turned into a
combat outpost. The protesters had simply wanted the school vacated by the
Americans, so their children could use it. But then, as now, those who respond
to government-sanctioned violence are regularly written off as “terrorists.”
Governments are rarely referred to in the same terms.
10 Years Later
Jump to March 2013 and that looming 10th
anniversary of the U.S.
invasion. For me, that’s meant two
books and too many news
articles to count since I first traveled to that country as the
world’s least “embedded” reporter to blog about a U.S. occupation already spiraling
out of control. Today, I work for the Human Rights Department of Al Jazeera
English, based out of Doha,
Qatar. And once
again, so many years later, I’ve returned
to the city where I saw all those bloodied and dying women and children. All
these years later, I’m back in Fallujah.
Today, not to put too fine a point on it, Iraq is a
failed state, teetering on the brink of another sectarian bloodbath, and beset
by chronic political deadlock and economic disaster. Its social fabric has been
all but shredded by nearly a decade of brutal occupation by the U.S. military
and now by the rule of an Iraqi government rife with sectarian infighting.
Every Friday, for 13 weeks now, hundreds of
thousands have demonstrated and prayed on the main highway linking Baghdad and Amman,
runs just past the outskirts of this city.
Sunnis in Fallujah and the rest of Iraq’s vast Anbar
Province are enraged at the government
of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki because his security forces, still heavily
staffed by members of various Shia militias, have
been killing or detaining their compatriots from this region, as
well as across much of Baghdad.
Fallujah’s residents now refer to that city as a “big prison,” just as they did
when it was surrounded and strictly controlled by the Americans.
Angry protesters have taken to the streets.
“We demand an end to checkpoints surrounding Fallujah. We demand they allow in
the press. We demand they end their unlawful home raids and detentions. We
demand an end to federalism and gangsters and secret prisons!” So Sheikh Khaled
Hamoud Al-Jumaili, a leader of the demonstrations, tells me just prior to one
of the daily protests. “Losing our history and dividing Iraqis is wrong, but
that, and kidnapping and conspiracies and displacing people, is what Maliki is
The sheikh went on to assure me that
millions of people in Anbar province had stopped demanding changes in the
Maliki government because, after years of waiting, no such demands were ever
met. “Now, we demand a change in the regime instead and a change in the
constitution,” he says. “We will not stop these demonstrations. This one we
have labeled ‘last chance Friday’ because it is the government’s last chance to
listen to us.”
“What comes next,” I ask him, “if they
don’t listen to you?”
“Maybe armed struggle comes next,” he
replies without pause.
Predictably, given how the cycle of
violence, corruption, injustice, and desperation has become part of daily life
in this country, that same day, a Sunni demonstrator was gunned down by Iraqi
security forces. Lieutenant General Mardhi al-Mahlawi, commander of the Iraqi
Army’s Anbar Operations Command, said the authorities would not hesitate to
deploy troops around the protest site again “if the protesters do not
cooperate.” The following day, the Maliki government warned that the area was
becoming “a haven for terrorists,” echoing the favorite term the Americans used
during their occupation of Fallujah.
In 2009, I was in Fallujah, riding
around in the armored BMW of Sheikh Aifan, the head of the
then-U.S.-backed Sunni militias known as the Sahwa forces. The Sheikh was an
opportunistic, extremely wealthy “construction contractor” and boasted that the
car we rode in had been custom built for him at a cost of nearly half a million
Two months ago, Sheikh Aifan was killed by
a suicide bomber, just one more victim of a relentless campaign by Sunni
insurgents targeting those who once collaborated with the Americans. Memories
are long these days and revenge remains on many minds. The key figures in the
Maliki regime know that if it falls, as is likely one day, they may meet fates
similar to Sheikh Aifan’s. It’s a convincing argument for hanging onto power.
way, the Iraq
of 2013 staggers onward in a climate of perpetual crisis toward a future where
the only givens are more chaos, more violence, and yet more uncertainty. Much
of this can be traced to Washington’s
long, brutal, and destructive occupation, beginning with the installation of
former CIA asset Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. His hold on power
quickly faltered, however, after he was used by the Americans to launch their
second siege of Fallujah in November 2004, which resulted in the deaths of
thousands more Iraqis, and set the stage for an ongoing
health crisis in the city due to the types of weapons used by the
In 2006, after Allawi lost political clout,
then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq
neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad tapped Maliki as Washington’s new prime minister. It was then
widely believed that he was the only politician whom both the U.S. and Iran could find acceptable. As one
Iraqi official sarcastically put it, Maliki was the product of an agreement
between “the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil.”
In the years since, Maliki has become a de
facto dictator. In Anbar Province and parts of Baghdad, he is now bitterly referred to as a
“Shia Saddam.” Pictures of his less-than-photogenic face in front of an Iraqi
flag hang above many of the countless checkpoints around the capital. When I
see his visage looming over us yet again as we sit in traffic, I comment to my
fixer, Ali, that his image is now everywhere, just as Saddam’s used to be.
“Yes, they’ve simply changed the view for us,” Ali replies, and we laugh.
Gallows humor has been a constant in Baghdad
since the invasion a decade ago.
It’s been much the same all over Iraq. The U.S. forces
that ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime immediately moved into his military bases
and palaces. Now that the U.S.
has left Iraq,
those same bases and palaces are manned and controlled by the Maliki
Saddam Hussein’s country was notoriously
corrupt. Yetlast year, Iraq ranked
169th out of 174 countries surveyed, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
It is effectively a failed state, with the Maliki regime incapable of
controlling vast swaths of the country, including the Kurdish north, despite
his willingness to use the same tactics once employed by Saddam Hussein and
after him the Americans: widespread violence, secret prisons, threats,
detentions, and torture.
Almost 10 years after U.S. troops entered a Baghdad
in flames and being looted, Iraq
remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth. There are daily bombings,
kidnappings, and assassinations. The sectarianism instilled and endlessly
stirred up by U.S. policy has become deeply, seemingly irrevocably embedded in
the political culture, which regularly threatens to tip over into the sort of
violence that typified 2006-2007, when upwards of 3,000 Iraqis were being
slaughtered every month.
The death toll of March 11th was one of the
worst of late and provides a snapshot of the increasing levels of violence
countrywide. Overall, 27 people were killed and many more injured in attacks
across the country. A suicide car bomb detonated in a town near Kirkuk, killing eight and
wounding 166 (65 of whom were students at a Kurdish secondary school for
girls). In Baghdad,
gunmen stormed a home where they murdered a man and woman. A shop owner was
shot dead and a policeman was killed in a drive-by shooting in Ghazaliya. A
civilian was killed in the Saidiya district, while a Sahwa member was gunned
down in Amil. Three government ministry employees in the city were also killed.
In addition, gunmen killed two policemen in
the town of Baaj,
a dead body turned up in Muqtadiyah, where a roadside bomb also wounded a
policeman. In the city of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, gunmen killed a blacksmith, and in the northern
city of Mosul,
a political candidate and a soldier were both killed in separate incidents. A
local political leader in the town of Rutba in Anbar Province
was shot and died of his injuries, and the body of a young man whose skull was
crushed was found in Kirkuk
a day after he was kidnapped. Gunmen also killed a civilian in Abu Saida.
And these are only the incidents reported
in the media in a single day. Others regularly don’t make it into the news at
The next day, Awadh, the security chief for
Al Jazeera in Baghdad,
was in a dark mood when he arrived at work. “Yesterday, two people were
assassinated in my neighborhood,” he said. “Six were assassinated around Baghdad. I live in a
mixed neighborhood, and the threats of killing have returned. It feels like it
did just before the sectarian war of 2006. The militias are again working to
push people out of their homes if they are not Shia. Now, I worry everyday when
my daughter goes to school. I ask the taxi driver who takes her to drop her
close to the school, so that she is alright.” Then he paused a moment, held up
his arms and added, “And I pray.”
“This Is Our Life Now”
Iraqis who had enough money and connections
to leave the country have long since fled. Harb, another fixer and dear friend
who worked with me throughout much of my earlier reportage from Iraq, fled to Syria’s
with his family for security reasons. When the uprising in Syria turned violent and devolved into the
bloodbath it is today, he fled Damascus for Beirut. He is literally
running from war.
Recent Iraqi government estimates put the
total of “internally displaced persons” in Iraq at 1.1 million. Hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis remain in exile, but of course no one is counting. Even
those who stay often live as if they were refugees and act as if they are on
the run. Most of those I met on my most recent trip won’t even allow me to use
their real names when I interview them.
My first day in the field this time around,
I met with Isam, another fixer I’d worked with nine years ago. His son narrowly
escaped two kidnapping attempts, and he has had to change homes four times for
security reasons. Once he was strongly opposed to leaving Iraq because,
he always insisted, “this is my country, and these are my people.” Now, he is
desperate to find a way out. “There is no future here,” he told me.
“Sectarianism is everywhere and killing has come back to Baghdad.”
He takes me to interview refugees in his
neighborhood of al-Adhamiyah. Most of them fled their homes inmixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods and towns
during the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007. Inside his cobbled-together
brick house with a roof of tin sheeting held down with old tires, one refugee
echoes Isam’s words: “There is no future for us Iraqis,” he told me. “Day by
day our situation worsens, and now we expect a full sectarian war.”
Elsewhere, I interviewed 20-year-old Marwa
Ali, a mother of two. In a country where electric blackouts are a regular
event, water is often polluted, and waste of every sort litters neighborhoods,
the stench of garbage and raw sewage wafted through the door of her home while
flies buzzed about. “We have scorpions and snakes also,” she said while
watching me futilely swat at the swarm of insects that instantly surrounded me.
And she paused when she saw me looking at her children, a four-year-old son and
two-year-old daughter. “My children have no future,” she said. “Neither do I,
and neither does Iraq.”
Shortly afterward, I met with another
refugee, 55-year-old Haifa Abdul Majid. I held back tears when the first thing
she said was how grateful she was to have food. “We are finding some food and
can eat, and I thank God for this,” she told
me in front of her makeshift shelter. “This is the main thing. In
some countries, some people can’t even find food to eat.”
She, too, had fled sectarian violence, and
had lost loved ones and friends. While she acknowledged the hardship she was
experiencing and how difficult it was to live under such difficult
circumstances, she continued to express her gratitude that her situation wasn’t
worse. After all, she said, she wasn’t living in the desert. Finally, she
closed her eyes and shook her head. “We know we are in this bad situation
because of the American occupation,” she said wearily. “And now it is Iran having their revenge on us by using Maliki,
and getting back at Iraq for
the [1980-1988] war with Iran.
As for our future, if things stay like they are now, it will only keep getting
worse. The politicians only fight, and they take Iraq down into a hole. For 10 years
what have these politicians done? Nothing! Saddam was better than all of them.”
I asked her about her grandson. “Always I
wonder about him,” she replied. “I ask God to take me away before he grows up,
because I don’t want to see it. I’m an old woman now and I don’t care if I die,
but what about these young children?” She stopped speaking, looked off into the
distance, then stared at the ground. There was, for her, nothing else to say.
I heard the same fatalism even from Awadh,
Al Jazeera’s head of security. “Baghdad
is stressed,” he told me. “These days you can’t trust anyone. The situation on
the street is complicated, because militias are running everything. You don’t
know who is who. All the militias are preparing for more fighting, and all are
expecting the worst.”
As he said this, we passed under yet
another poster of an angry looking Maliki, speaking with a raised, clenched
fist. “Last year’s budget was $100 billion and we have no working sewage system
and garbage is everywhere,” he added. “Maliki is trying to be a dictator, and
is controlling all the money now.”
In the days that followed, my fixer Ali
pointed out new sidewalks, and newly planted trees and flowers, as well as the
new street lights the government has installed in Baghdad. “We called it first
the sidewalks government, because that was the only thing we could see that
they accomplished.” He laughed sardonically. “Then it was the flowers government,
and now it is the government of the street lamps, and the lamps sometimes don’t
Despite his brave face, kind heart, and
upbeat disposition, even Ali eventually shared his concerns with me. One
morning, when we met for work, I asked him about the latest news. “Same old,
same old,” he replied, “Kidnappings, killings, rapes. Same old, same old. This
is our life now, everyday.”
“The lack of hope for the future is our
biggest problem today,” he explained. He went on to say something that also
qualified eerily as another version of the “same old, same old.” I had heard
similar words from countless Iraqis back in the fall of 2003, as violence and
chaos first began to engulf the country. “All we want is to live in peace, and
have security, and have a normal life,” he said, “to be able to enjoy the
sweetness of life.” This time, however, there wasn’t even a trace of his usual
cheer, and not even a hint of gallows humor.
“All Iraq has had these last 10 years is
violence, chaos, and suffering. For 13 years before that we were starved and
deprived by [U.N. and U.S.]
sanctions. Before that, the Kuwait
War, and before that, the Iran
War. At least I experienced some of my childhood without knowing war. I’ve
achieved a job and have my family, but for my daughters, what will they have
here in this country? Will they ever get to live without war? I don’t think
For so many Iraqis like Ali, a decade after
invaded their country, this is the anniversary of nothing at all.
Dahr Jamail is a feature story staff writer and producer for the Human
Rights Department of Al Jazeera English. Currently based in Doha,
Qatar, Dahr has spent more
than a year in Iraq,
spread over a number of trips between 2003 and 2013. His reportage from Iraq, including
for TomDispatch, has won him several awards, including the
Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism. He is the author of Beyond
the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us
on Facebook. Check
out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The
Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and
Copyright 2013 Dahr Jamail