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“Disaster”: Iraqi Journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad on U.S. Invasion, Sanctions, Occupation & What’s Next

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As we continue to mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we are joined by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an award-winning Baghdad-born Iraqi journalist and author. Abdul-Ahad has received the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, the British Press Awards’ Foreign Reporter of the Year and the Orwell Prize. His new book is A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War. “I want the history to be told properly,” says Abdul-Ahad about his hopes for the future of Iraqi society after decades of dictatorship, sanctions, war, occupation and corruption.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we’re joined by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an award-winning Iraqi journalist and author. He was born in Baghdad in 1975 and was working as an architect when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Ghaith started his journalism career at The Guardian soon after the invasion as a translator for Guardian reporters. He has since received the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, the British Press Awards’ Foreign Reporter of the Year and the Orwell Prize. His book is just out on this 20th anniversary, A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is joining us from Istanbul, Turkey, today.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Ghaith. This book is magnificent. It is a deep dive into understanding the effects of an invasion and occupation and, beyond that, the entire region. And we congratulate you for this work. Why don’t we start off with the book’s title, A Stranger in Your Own City? Describe Baghdad, a place you had hardly left by the time you had become an architect, and then what happened on March 20th, the bombing of your country.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, thank you, Amy, and thank you, Nermeen, for having me back.

It’s exactly like that. I grew up in Baghdad. I rarely left the city for 28 years. And I presume I knew the city very well. I used to walk everywhere. My school was in one part of the city. My family lived in another part. My friends are in the east and the west of the city. So I knew the geography of the city very well. It’s a flat, open city, no marcations, no boundaries within the city itself.

And then, within two years of the occupation, I was awake early in the morning in my hotel room, and I’m trying to find friends who can escort me to different parts of the city. And that’s when it hit me that I have become a stranger in my own city, because I can’t actually, literally, travel from the hotel where I was staying to where my school was or where my friends were, without having a someone to escort me, and often two people escorting me, you know, because you never know what kind of militia will be manning checkpoints on the road. And that was a direct effect of the war. I mean, my life, from an architect or a journalist, an accidental journalist, I would say, was upended by this war like so many other lives in Iraq, and in the region, of course.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ghaith, one of the things that’s very instructive and interesting in your book is the account you give of your years in Baghdad — as you said, almost 30 without barely leaving — all of the events that led up to what the society and the context was in which the U.S. invasion took place. So, if you could begin with that? You were 5 years old when the Iraq-Iran War began, and then followed swiftly by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the sanctions. If you could just walk us through that period and what Baghdad was like in those years?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: I mean, of course, Iraqis, and myself included, of a certain generation, their relationship to war did not start in 2003. As you said, I was 5 when I first time witnessed the bombing of my city. It was — you know, Iraq was bombing Tehran. The Iranians were bombing Baghdad. And that eight years’ war, that although people in the cities, the major cities, were spared from, but we all lived through its dynamic, through its impact of the society, the militarization of the society — uncles, cousins, neighbors all being taken to the front. Every spring, you see the streets in Baghdad covered in this black cloth announcing the death of soldiers, conscript soldiers, at the front. So, that was part of the dynamic.

And, of course, we all know, during these eight years, Saddam was, you know, supported by the West. He was the darling of the West. He was given weapons, he was given intelligence, because he was serving a purpose. And then, of course, that militarization of the society, that war, led to Saddam’s disastrous, foolish, criminal decision to invade Kuwait, which led to the 1991 war. And I have to say the bombing of 1991 really destroyed Baghdad, really destroyed the infrastructure of the country. So, our relationship with America did not start in 2003. We’ve already been bombed by the Americans in 1991, then the sanctions.

And in all the wars I’ve witnessed, as a civilian Iraqi, as a journalist who later went to report on wars, I’ve never seen anything devastating on a society like the sanctions. It crushed the Iraqi society. It turned a proud, educated nation into a nation of hustlers, basically, everyone trying to get a job, everyone trying to get a little bit of money. And that enshrined the corruption, which we see its results now. You know, when you see the salaries of a teacher dropping into $2, a policeman getting $5, corruption becomes a way of survival.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you —

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: That destruction of the society —

AMY GOODMAN: I —

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: — was a prelude —

AMY GOODMAN: Ghaith, I wanted to —

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: — stick to that issue of sanctions, the way the president of the United States perceived them and the absolutely devastating effect in Iraq. On Election Day in 2000, I had a chance to speak with President Bill Clinton, who called in to our radio station, Pacifica Radio, WBAI, to get out the vote. So I had a chance to question him about the effect of sanctions in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: President Clinton, U.N. figures show that up to 5,000 children a month die in Iraq because of the sanctions against Iraq.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: That’s not true. That’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: The past two U.N. heads of the program in Iraq have quit, calling the U.S. policy — U.S.-U.N. policy “genocidal.” What is your response to that?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: They’re wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: “They’re wrong,” President Clinton said. And, of course, there was the famous comment of Madeleine Albright, when questioned by Judy Woodruff of 60 Minutes about 500,000 children dying as a result of the sanctions, did she think the price was worth it, and she said yes. Your response, and for people to understand the effect of these sanctions alone?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: I mean, I can’t emphasize the impact of the sanctions. I think everything that has happened in Iraq in the last 30 years, through the life of this dictator, his adventures, the occupation that followed, the sectarian politics, it was the sanctions — that is the moment when you destroyed society.

Look, during the sanctions, Saddam and his private clique, they didn’t suffer. I mean, they were wealthy. Saddam went on building his palaces. His clan, his people close to him survived. Actually, they benefited even more, because, because of the sanctions, there was a very important black market. They controlled the black market. And they became wealthy, like it’s happening in other different countries as we speak at the moment. The people close to the power, they benefit from the sanctions, because they become the only gate through which any source of income can be generated.

It’s us, as the Iraqis. It’s the people who go to these hospitals, and there are no medicine. You go to schools, and there are no pencils, no books. I mean, literally, I and my friends were scavenging through the drawers of architectural school looking for used paper so they can use them on the back, because we don’t have access to these things. You know, Saddam’s children did not need papers. They didn’t go scavenging for pencils. It’s us. It’s us who lived through these things. It’s us who are dependent on this meager monthly ration given by the state. So, I mean, the delusion — I don’t know it’s delusional or it’s deliberate — destruction of a society.

And then you come in 2003, after all these things, after all — you know, the Iraqis looked at the Americans as the people who were causing, imposing these sanctions. 2003 happened, and yet there was a moment in which the Iraqis, I think, had this Faustian deal and thought, “OK, we don’t want war. We don’t want to be bombed again. But we don’t want Saddam. Let’s see what’s going to happen.” And what’s happened is a civil war on such a magnitude that 20 years later — and this is the sad story about Iraq — 20 years later, people are yearning to the dictator. They think, “Oh, the days of the dictator were days of peace and prosperity and whatnot.” And this is a direct outcome of the disasters that unfolded since 2003. The unimaginable happened, that led people to yearning to a strong dictator.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ghaith, yes, we’ll just turn to that now, what followed the invasion of 2003. But if you could elaborate on that? You argue in the book that — and as you’ve said just now — that Saddam Hussein was not weakened — if anything, he was strengthened, his regime was strengthened — by the sanctions, even as millions of Iraqis suffered these devastating consequences. And you also say that the quality of his rule changed. I’ll just quote a line from your book to you. You say, “The old obsolete revolutionary images of pan-Arabism and socialism were replaced by a new set of values based on Islam and the tribe, portraying himself” — that is, Saddam — “as the pious, father-like, tribal sheikh.” Could you explain what happened and what that meant for what followed?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: So, Saddam and the Baath Party, when they came to power in the ’60s, the language of the — the narrative of the language was of this national liberation, the language of socialism — I mean, of course, it meant nothing; it was just kind of the theatrics of it — and, you know, supporting anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism and all that kind of language. And he and his ministers were always dressed in military uniforms, you know, the sunglasses, the cigar — all the paraphernalia of a revolutionary leader.

After 1990 and the invasion of Kuwait, as religiosity spread throughout the Middle East, and not only in Iraq, Saddam had to change the narrative. The party, the security forces were weakened because of the sanctions, because of the bombing, because of the [inaudible]. He needed a new way, a new narrative, to control the society. So, the religion served to — served multi-purposes. A, it created this — in a society that is suffering, the religion was a solace, was a way to find answers against those, you know, Americans who are imposing the sanctions. So that served a purpose. The spread of religious movements in the Middle East, Saddam, by adopting a religious narrative himself, he managed to kind of pull the carpet, basically, from all the Salafi jihadi movements that were spreading around in the region. That, religion, became a way to control the society — the mosques, the network of preachers.

But also the tribes became another method to control the society. Where he cannot send his weakened security forces, he can depend on — what’s the word? — faithful loyalists, loyalist tribes, tribe elders. And that happened all over Iraq, not in a specific region, not to a specific sect. Suddenly, Iraq moved from a secular, whatever, country, adopting secular rhetoric, let’s say, into a country adopting tribal and religious rhetoric. That religious rhetoric, of course, it did — Saddam did not allow any extremist religious movement to exist in the country, Sunni or Shia, because any political formation would threaten his rule. But that religious narrative, that religious rhetoric allowed, created the basis upon which both Sunni and Shia religious movements emerged after 2003 to oppose the Americans and fight the jihad against the Americans.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, let’s go to that moment, when the Americans come in. You describe a scene in the book when you see an American marine covering a statue of Saddam Hussein with the American flag. So, if you could respond to that? I mean, explain what your response and the response of others there was to that, and then the fact that you yourself, a few days after the invasion, you were arrested. Explain what happened.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: So, you know, I was in my neighborhood, in my house. I saw the Americans there, and I followed them, like many Iraqis, and stood in the square. We saw the statue being toppled — toppled by the Marines, by the way, not by the Iraqis. Iraqis couldn’t bring it down, so the Marines pulled their vehicle, tied the noose, pulled the statue.

And then we all saw on TV this iconic image of this U.S. marine pulling a U.S. flag from his pocket and covering the face of the statue with it. And, of course, at that time, there was this kind of collective gasp of, “Oh my god! What are you doing? You know, at least allow this — the charade of liberation to last for a day.”

Later, I came to realize that that American marine was a very honest person. I mean, he, unlike all the generals and the politicians and the people in the Pentagon and George W. Bush, who talked about liberating Iraq and liberation, that marine saw the war as it was, as a war between the United States, between his army, and the Iraqis. The Iraqis were defeated, and he was victorious. It was his — in that act, he was more honest in reflecting the realities of the ground, because that quickly became the reality on the ground.

Those soldiers were no longer liberators. I mean, that facade of liberation probably lasted for a day. But very soon you see them pointing their guns, manning checkpoints. Like all arrogant hubris empires throughout histories, once you send your soldiers into, you know, occupying another foreign land, the soldiers, the young people, who have no idea, if never exposed, they will see all the Iraqis as their enemies. I mean, look at the previous segment. They see part of their own society as the enemy. Imagine how they saw us Iraqis.

A few months later, I was driving back with another Iraqi friend. It was the day Saddam was arrested. We were stopped at an American checkpoint, Army checkpoint, at night. They were suspicious of us. Why are two Iraqis driving at night? Because it’s our country. And then we were put in jail. We were released next day, but as I woke up in the morning — we slept in this bare, former Iraqi military police cell. The irony of it — I, someone who had dodged the Iraqi military police for five years, end up in their cell by my supposed liberators. But this next morning, they take us to a yard, and there’s a long line of Iraqis. We’re all crouching on the ground, some of us blindfolded, others not. That was the face of the supposed liberation, which was never liberation. It became occupation very, very quickly.

And, of course, insurgency starts, for whatever reasons — some jihadi, religious, some nationalist. They fight against the Americans. The Americans will behave — you know, they will — one village, a few people fight from one village. Thanks to American policies, by rounding up men, by putting them in detention, by humiliating, by breaking into houses, you will see the whole village, and then the whole community, and then the whole province fighting against the Americans. So it was doomed from day one. There was no scenario in which an American Army, with all its legacies in Iraq, in the Middle East, in the region, can transform that adventure, which soon it called it occupation, with all the connotation of the word “occupation” in the Middle East — turned it into something else. And that’s the disaster that led.

AMY GOODMAN: Ghaith, I wanted to stick with April 9th, 2003, that day that the statue of Saddam Hussein was brought down. I remember CNN so clearly. You have CNN domestic and CNN International. On CNN International, they were showing a split screen of the statue coming down, repeated over and over again. Of course, the marine was just outside the frame. It looked like Iraqis brought down that statue. But on the other side were the casualties of war. Now, CNN domestic had the same access to that video, but that’s not what they were showing. They were just showing Saddam Hussein’s statue coming down. In the same way, on March 20th, “shock and awe,” Americans love fireworks, and that’s exactly what it looked like. So you see the bombs in the sky, and you see a statue coming down, but not the casualties of war.

Can you talk about what that was on the ground — ultimately, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died — and how that led to, as you talk about, the rise of ISIS? What everyone thought in the United States, there’s this huge division between Sunni and Shia. You said you didn’t even want to ask that question to people when you were translating for other journalists, because you said you didn’t often know who was Sunni or who was Shia growing up, that this was also aggravated in a fractured society by the occupation and invasion.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: So, to go back to that kind of point about the CNN and the domestic CNN, in 2005, I came to New York for the first time in my life. And I switched on the TV, and I — you know, 2005, Baghdad was burning. In the fighting, the insurgency, Americans were dying every day. And I thought, like, I would see this kind of war being broadcasted daily to the American audience. And there was nothing. There was nothing. I don’t remember the channels on local TV in New York, but there was nothing, as if, you know, the life was going on. I come from Iraq. Your country has been occupying my country. There was nothing.

Anyhow, the point is, after 2004 — 2003, the 9th of April, that occupation, with all its problems, did not stop there. It created its own dynamic within the society. With the occupation came a group of exiled Iraqi politicians who had evolved their sectarian political thoughts in exile, in kind of very claustrophobic, very traumatized places, in Tehran, in London. They have all lost people. They have all lost friends and cousins. So they saw the regime, they saw Iraq, in this binary way of Sunnis versus Shia. And because they were outside the country, they were isolated from the country, so we never had any connections with them.

The way they saw the invasion — and let’s remember that kind of the regime change in Iraq started in the mid-'90s, late ’90s, with the Iraq, whatever, act in 1998. So it did not start in 2003. The narrative that was sold to the Americans was a narrative of a part of the society dominated by another part of the society. And that was criminal, a horrible way of thinking of the Iraqi society. I grew up in Baghdad. I don't want to say there are no Sunnis or Shia or Kurds. I don’t want to say there is no oppression against political Shia parties. I don’t want to say that we were all equal. But it was not a sectarian regime. It was a Saddam, his clan and his tribe regime that dominated. And in the army, some Sunni officers in the army tried to topple Saddam in the ’90s. So, the narrative that was sold was a sectarian narrative. And, of course, in every narrative based on victimhood, if one part of the population are victims, then the others are the victimizers.

When the Americans came, they saw Saddam as a Sunni, so, by association, every single Sunni in Iraq became tainted by the regime, was pushed into a corner. The process of de-Baathification, of purging the army — or, kind of the army was totally disbanded — all these policies were directed against the Sunnis. So, of course, what do the Sunnis do, who had never a communal identity of themselves? They are pushed into a corner, and they had to reject this American adventure in Iraq, this American occupation in Iraq.

The lack of security in Iraq after 2003 allowed everyone who had grievances against the Americans to flood into Iraq, and that includes the jihadis but also includes the Iranian establishment, who wanted to defeat the Americans in Iraq because they were the second on the “axis of evil.” All these different elements led to the establishment of a civil war. In the common narrative of Iraq, people talk about the civil war as it happened in 2005 after the bombing of the Shia shrines in Samarra. For me, personally, I think civil war, in terms of fighting, in terms of killing, started early in 2004. But also, the civil war starts in a society not when men carry guns, but when the society is divided between us and them. That is a prelude to a civil war. And, of course, that civil war, you know, coupled with corruption of the Iraqi establishment, with the sectarianism of the Iraqi security forces, led eventually to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, because — who were benefiting from the chaos in the region to reestablish their alliances.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ghaith, could you say, because you also — just to go back, you attended Saddam Hussein’s trial. Could you describe the scene at that trial and what you think the repercussions were of how that trial was conducted for what followed?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: You know, Nermeen, the problem with Iraq is we don’t know the history, and we don’t know our history. We still don’t know why Saddam started the war against Iran. We still don’t know what are the dynamics, what are the policies that led him to invade Kuwait and all the madness and upheaval that we lived through after that.

So, I thought, finally, here is Saddam on trial. Why don’t we do an international tribunal? Why don’t we put him in front of U.N., like what happened in Bosnia and Serbia and other countries?

But, no, because of the Iraqi politicians, the sectarian Iraqi politicians did not want — and the Americans, both of them — the Iraqi sectarian politicians did not want to hand him to the U.N., because he will not be executed, of course. And he was going to be executed, regardless of the result of the trial. And the Americans, who didn’t want — didn’t want to hand anything to the U.N., didn’t want any U.N. involvement. And probably the U.N. didn’t want to be involved in that project itself.

Instead, what did we have? Instead of Saddam being put on trial in front of the Iraqi people and us knowing what he did and why he did that to our community, to our life, to our society — instead, we have a charade of a trial in which Saddam not only emerged as this hero in the Arab world, he exonerates himself. He reinvents himself as this dignified man carrying his Qur’an, going there in front of a bunch of, you know — I don’t know how to describe them. It’s just like a circus court, a charade. The Americans, through that trial, turned Saddam into a hero in the Arab world, in an Arab world defeated, looking for a savior, for a hero. And they look at him. So, since then, you drive in the streets of Amman, Kabul, Sana’a, you always see a picture of Saddam on the back of, you know, taxi windows. Why? Because he was reinvented for them, thanks to that kind of trial, thanks to the charade of the trial. And, of course, we never got any reason. But then, of course, what happened with his execution, in mutilating his corpse, and the sense of — iihana, we call it in Arabic — it’s to defeat a defeated segment of the society. It was all playing into the sectarian narrative.

AMY GOODMAN: Ghaith, we don’t have much time, but I wanted to ask you: 20 years later, what do you want the world to understand about the U.S. invasion, about your country Iraq, and if you have any hope at this point?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Amy, I just want accountability. I don’t want people to go to jail. I don’t want people to, when they die, that — I want accountability. I want all the people who executed this war, who planned this war, the people who murdered Iraqi civilians, be it Americans or be it Iraqis themselves, you know, militia commanders, politicians, I want all those people held accountable — accountable not to go to jail or shot and executed, no. I want the history to be told properly, so that people in Iraq now, 20 years later, can have a peace of mind, can have a moment of reconciliation with themselves. This is what we are lacking.

I mean, you look at Iraq now. What is Iraq now, 20 years later? It’s a very wealthy country, $100 billion, $120 billion a year. And yet parts of Baghdad and parts of the south of the country are really poor, in wretched state. And you look at the Iraqi political establishment, and you see many people there who still command militias, who had committed atrocities during the civil war, who led to the death of thousands of people, and they’re there sitting in the parliament or appearing on TV every day. Why? Because there is no accountability. Same thing with your country. I mean, people are either dying peacefully or going to paint and reinventing themselves as ski resort trainers and whatnot. This is a disaster. You know, all these lives, Iraqi and American, by the way, are lost, are wasted for nothing. And accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: Ghaith, we have to leave it there, but we’re going to do Part 2 and post it at democracynow.org. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, his new book, A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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