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Iraqi Journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad on How 2003 U.S. Invasion Led to Brutal Civil War & Rise of ISIS

Web ExclusiveMarch 23, 2023
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In Part 2 of our interview with award-winning Iraqi journalist and author Ghaith Abdul-Ahad about the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and what followed, he discusses in detail how the 2003 U.S.-led invasion led to a brutal civil war and the rise of ISIS. He also discusses traveling to Syria and the rise of sectarianism, which he examines in his new book, A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue our interview with the award-winning Iraqi journalist and author Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq this week. His book is just out, A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War. He’s joining us today from Istanbul, Turkey.

Thank you so much for staying with us, Ghaith. Part of the power of your book are the places that you describe in Iraq and what happened and the stories of people. But before we go there, if you can talk about how the invasion of Iraq by the United States, led by George W. Bush, president at the time, and Dick Cheney, vice president, led to the rise of ISIS?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: So, I mean, because of the sectarian politics, the sectarian establishment, created in the era after 2003, the political system was based on something called muhasasa, which is dividing the state’s ministries, institutions among the different sects, ethnicities, political parties. So, each one of these, you know, groups will be controlling a number of ministries, and they will be treating these ministries as their private fiefdoms, so siphoning contracts, siphoning public funds, and creating private militias, private armies. That sectarian establishment led to the sectarian politics that led to the civil war in Iraq in 2003.

But that war ended at one point around 2008, when the Sunni insurgency, locked in this brutal civil war with Shia militias, while kind of fighting the Americans at the same time, were defeated, where the Sunnis were expelled from Baghdad. Sunni neighborhoods were purged. And the Sunnis made this deal with — reached out to the Americans, said, “We will give you the jihadis. We’ll give you al-Qaeda, for — in return, you reintegrate us into the society, you end this prosecution, the Shia establishment prosecution against us, and, you know, end the raids into our neighborhoods by the Shia militias.” And that was the agreement. And the jihadis were defeated in Iraq, were expelled into the border region between Iraq and Syria, where they will regroup and come out in the shadow of the civil war in Syria.

But what happened from 2009 to 2011, rather than the Sunnis being treated as equal citizens, the prime minister then, who was supported by the Americans, who was allowed to continue in his position because of the Americans did not want — they wanted him to be there while they’re withdrawing their forces. That prime minister continued the sectarian politics, continued pressuring the Sunni communities, went after these — they called them the Sahwa command or the insurgency command, the former insurgency commanders, continued the raids into there, and the general prosecution of the Sunni communities, which created this sense amongst the Sunnis that this is not our country anymore, that we are treated not even second-class citizen, third-class citizen, always under suspicion.

That, coupled with the dynamics of the Arab Spring, with people going into the streets and toppling dictators. And if you see it — you know, Iraq is a democracy compared to Syria or Egypt or Libya, but the policies are the same, the corrupt establishment, the oppressive security forces. So, whatever people felt in Cairo or Tunis or Tripoli or Damascus was shared by the Iraqis, but only in Iraq it had a sectarian nature. So it was the Sunnis versus the Shia establishment. That sense of oppression, that sense of injustice, allowed the jihadis, who had recruited, who had rebuilt their networks in the shadow of the Syrian civil war in the region between Iraq and Syria, to come back into Iraq, which, of course, led to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq.

Now, there is another element here, which is the corruption in the Iraqi security forces led to the fall of major cities like Mosul, like Ramadi and Fallujah, because, on the paper, while Iraq had, I don’t know, 200,000 security forces — I don’t know the number exactly, but a large number, tens of thousands of security forces — in Mosul, in reality, there was a fraction of these. Why? Because, again, Nouri al-Maliki, through his enshrining this corruption in the security forces, allowed military commanders to siphon the salaries of soldiers, and this corruption of the Iraqi state went into the corruption in the Iraqi army. So, while a battalion would have a thousand soldiers on it on the salary books, in reality, there will be 200 men. And the rest will be — we call them ghost soldiers. The corruption, coupled with all what we’ve been talking about, led to the emergence of ISIS, led to the fall of Mosul.

And, of course, then, from 2014, you have a major, major military push, supported by everyone, from the Americans to the Iranians to Iraqi special forces, militias. Everyone was fighting to defeat ISIS, that — you know, the ultimate enemy in Iraq.

The defeat of ISIS, 2017, '18, could have — you know, could have established another stage in Iraq, another point in the history of Iraq, where all the trauma is over, let's start all over again, because everyone was united. And it was a kind of — it was the moment when sectarianism ended in Iraq. The political corrupt establishment — I don’t want to even call them “establishment.” This clique of kleptocratic militia bosses, corrupt businessmen, wouldn’t let go of this sectarian political system, because it’s the way for them to make money.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ghaith, could you talk — I mean, in particular, you’ve given a large number of reasons for why sectarianism and the sectarian war became so long and so brutal in Iraq. You also traveled in the region. You went to Syria, as well, to see the effects of this as it spread. Following the Arab Spring, 2011, you were in Damascus. Explain how this phenomenon you saw as somehow connected to the Arab Spring. You said it’s important to see the rise of sectarianism and the sectarian war and ISIS in the context of the Arab Spring.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Because what became in Iraq as a traumatic civil war, you know, it did not happen in isolation, did not happen in a glass bottle. You know, the rhetoric — I mean, and very soon the dynamic in Iraq, in Iraqi civil war, fragments into a thousand different civil wars, so anyone who had a grievance, any gangs, any bunch of criminals who want to take over a house, take over a neighborhood, take over a property, they would label it as part of this, you know, civil war. So, Sunnis would be expelling their Shia neighbors. Shia would be expelling the Sunnis. And it became a war over property, over wealth, over money. Kidnapping became a business, like every civil war, in Lebanon and in other places, very soon fragments into criminality.

But along with it, there is the rhetoric, the rhetoric that is being generated and regenerated and rehashed through TV stations in the Gulf, through Iranians, Saudis, Qataris. They’re all playing kind of the narrative of sectarian civil war. So, when the Arab Spring happens in Cairo, in Tripoli, when it comes to Syria, very soon the rhetoric that that whole dynamic of the — so, what started as people, kind of normal people, demonstrating in the streets against an oppressive regime very soon descends into a civil war, when, again, the kind of TV stations in the Gulf region and Saudi Arabia and Qatar reuse this language of — from Iraq, borrowed from Iraq, and implemented on Syria. And, of course, everyone, from the Americans to French to the Lebanese and the Iranians and the Russians, you name it, you know, start pumping weapons and arming different groups in Syria. You have another kind of dynamic of civil war. And there, there are different players, which led to infighting between these different militias, which created the perfect opportunity for ISIS to reemerge as the defenders of the Sunnis and come to Iraq.

And when ISIS took over Mosul in 2014, for a couple of months, the people of Mosul, you know, they didn’t mind. I mean, not all of them, of course, but part of the population didn’t know what is this armed group that is taking over the city. Anything was better than the oppressive sectarian security forces of Nouri al-Maliki. So, in the beginning, people thought, “Oh, they are liberators. They opened the roads. They stopped the the raids into the houses.” And, of course, that very quickly descended into the mad — you know, the criminal terrorist organization that later became ISIS. And, of course, the people of Mosul became the first victims of ISIS.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ghaith, just a minute now before we let you go to your next interview. You end the book talking about the protests in Iraq in 2019, when hundreds of thousands of protesters came out onto the streets of Baghdad. Explain what you think the significance of that moment was, and what hope you see from these protests in present-day Iraq.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: So, the protests happened, again, after the defeat of ISIS, after the liberation of Mosul. That is a new moment in Iraqi politics, I would call. When sectarianism disappeared in Baghdad, everyone knew what can sectarianism do, so it’s like this nuclear bomb: Used once, we don’t use it ever again, because we know what it will lead to.

And, of course, again, it’s a generation, younger Iraqis who grew up after 2003 and only saw the negative impact of sectarianism. It’s not like the older generation, the people in their fifties and sixties who brought sectarianism into Iraq. This was a new generation, a new generation that woke up one day in 2018, that realized the Shia don’t have drinking water and the Sunnis don’t have drinking water, the Shia don’t have electricity and the Sunnis don’t have electricity.

Realizing the impacts of these these politics, realizing that Iraq was suffering from corruption, that this wealthy nation is being — you know, is being destroyed by corruption, that’s the moment when people poured into the streets, with a rallying cry of ”Nureed watan, “We want a homeland.” And it was a very — you know, it’s a very positive moment in modern Iraqi history, when you see the people from different parts of the city, from the richer neighborhoods, from the poorer neighborhoods. No one spoke in a sectarian language. It was Iraqis. And even the Iraqi flag, reacquired, was liberated from its association with Saddam, its association with what’s next. It’s a kind of a point of patriotism, romantic point. All uprisings are romantic.

And, of course, it was, you know, defeated, because all uprisings are defeated. But it established something, a positive reference point that all Iraqis today can go back to and say, “Remember what happened in Tishreen in 2019, when the people went into the street.” This is the significance of Tishreen movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, we want to thank you for being with us and congratulate you once again on your new book. Ghaith is an award-winning Iraqi journalist and author, born in Baghdad in 1975, working as an architect when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, started his journalism career at The Guardian soon after the invasion began as a translator for other reporters. He has since received the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, the British Press Awards’ Foreign Reporter of the Year, the Orwell Prize. His new book is just out on this 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War. To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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