Amidst massive protests around the United States and the world, on March 19, 2003, the U.S. began its invasion of Iraq. This week on Intercepted, Jeremy Scahill, Murtaza Hussain, and Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad discuss the long-lasting impact of the war on Iraq and its people. Throughout the 20 years since the invasion, Iraq was torn to shreds by a gratuitous American occupation and a U.S.-fueled sectarian civil war. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as U.S. policy gave rise to Al Qaeda — and ultimately the Islamic State in Iraq.
While many commemorations of this bloody anniversary focus on the 2003 invasion, the plans to destroy Iraq were launched much earlier and were supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. Scahill, Hussain, and Abdul-Ahad discuss life under Saddam Hussein, the lead-up to the U.S. invasion, the brutality of the occupation, and the systematic refusal to bring any accountability for those responsible.
“Of course, the Iraqis could not believe that their new colonial masters had no clue, had done no planning and made no preparations for what was going to happen after they invaded the country,” Abdul-Ahad writes in his new book, “A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War.” “When the myth of an American-generated prosperity clashed with the realities of occupation, chaos and destruction followed. Resentment and anger swept the country and all the suppressed rage of the previous decades exploded.”
Abdul-Ahad shares stories from his deeply human reporting on his personal journey from an architect living in Baghdad to a celebrated international journalist documenting the rise and fall of ISIS.
[Intercepted theme music.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
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JS: Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill, senior correspondent and editor at large for The Intercept.
MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussein, national security reporter for The Intercept.
JS: Well, Maz, this week marks 20 years since the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq began — and coming up in the program, we’re going to be speaking to one of the great journalists to cover not just the invasion and occupation, but everything that came as a result of U.S. policy and the U.S. military incursion into Iraq.
But just a few thoughts off the bat on this 20th anniversary, Maz. I think that it’s hard to overstate how much of an epic crime this invasion and occupation was. It was like a crime-a-palooza of immense proportions. And I think a lot of history and context gets lost as we move further and further away from 2003 and that initial invasion.
But it’s important to remember that this was premeditated. It was pre-planned. This was a war of conquest in search of a justification when Bush and Cheney came into office. And, you know, the popular narrative that has emerged, even among the liberal media and the political class, certainly the Democrats in Congress, and increasingly, Republicans, was that the Bush administration got it wrong, they misled Congress, they misled the American people, but I think it’s really, really important to remember that this war did not start in 2003. I mean, you can make a case that the war started 60 years ago when the United States and the CIA helped to put Saddam Hussein in power. But just to drill it down to more recent history, you had the 1991 Gulf War, where Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. But he did so after meeting with the U.S. ambassador, who essentially told him: “We don’t really have a position on Arab-Arab disputes.” And from Saddam’s perspective, he had been a U.S. ally, for quite a long time, certainly during the Iran-Iraq War.
But then you have the Gulf War, where the U.S. just bombed Baghdad back to sort of the Stone Age, in some ways, strikes at its civilian infrastructure, and then imposes the most sweeping regime of economic sanctions to that date in history.
And under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, you had regular bombing of Iraq under the guise of these so-called no-fly zones. And it culminates, then, in 1998, under Bill Clinton, when Democrats and Republicans alike passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which made regime change the official policy of the U.S. government. And what I think really gets lost is just how many American politicians promoted the myth that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Certainly, the Republicans did that. And certainly, the Bush administration did it. But Nancy Pelosi did it, Joe Biden did it. Even Howard Dean, who, when he ran his insurgent campaign for the 2004 Democratic Party nomination for president, was also promoting the myth that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. So for me, looking at this and looking back at these 20 years, it’s astonishing how all of these political figures who not only got it wrong, to sort of use the way that mainstream journalists and politicians talk about it now, that got Iraq wrong, but actually, were a part of the most catastrophic American imperial adventure in modern history.
And I think it’s very on the nose that Vladimir Putin gets indicted for war crimes in Ukraine by an international criminal court that the United States refuses to recognize, while Dick Cheney and George Bush are walking around as free men. I mean, it’s really indicative of the new world order that is being carved out now where the United States and its allies truly believe that there should be one set of rules that apply to them, and then another set of rules that apply to the Vladimir Putins of the world.
MH: Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. And I think it’s quite farcical, even though I do think that Vladimir Putin is committing a crime of aggression so far, it’s quite farcical to use the ICC, which is not recognized by the U.S., Russia or Ukraine as a tool or a weapon in a conflict between Russia, Ukraine, and the United States today.
I think that after 9/11, there was an attempt to create a state of exception for the United States very formally, and Iraq was a demonstration of that. They say that the war was a mistake and there was bad intel. I don’t think that’s actually an accurate description of what happened in 2003 and the run-up to it and the national mood and the justifications. I think they knew very well, the justifications were very slim, and the claims that they were making just to bring the war about were poorly substantiated, but it didn’t really matter. They were trying to make an example of a particular country. And I think Iraq fell victim to that, because as you said, they’ve kind of gotten used to bombing Iraq or sanctioning Iraq, they had been in a quarter/30 percent state of war with Iraq as a default for a long time before that. So it was the easiest country to ramp it up, and to make a spectacle out of this country that they’re going to conquer and destroy. And they did, very thoroughly over the course of about a decade. So that’s what led itself to it.
And what I would say is that, like you said, they tried to create a different set of rules for the United States and other countries — they’re still trying to do that — but I think that effort was mortally wounded in Iraq, because the war went so poorly. It did not wind up being a demonstration of U.S. strength, other than destruction; creation was not an evidence, you know, today or during those years. The Iraq that exists today is a very, very sad, ramshackle place. Even from an American perspective, it’s very much in Iran’s orbit, which America doesn’t like, and Iran was very, very likely the next target or one of the next targets of the Iraq War had the invasion gone better. So I think that there’s still a very limping effort to create this double-tiered system of law. And I think to some degree, the U.S. still acts with impunity, and extrajudicially kills foreign citizens and foreign officials, without much recourse and then pivots back to the law to judge others’ actions. But I think that what we’re seeing now is the limits of that; there are more peer competitors, there are more powerful countries in Asia emerging and so forth, which will inevitably rebel at this double standard, which is very degrading and dehumanizing for the rest of the world when you think about it.
JS: Maz, how old were you when, when the invasion of Iraq happened?
MH: I was 16 years old.
JS: 16. Yeah. I had been going in and out of Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign, but I also wonder how you see different generations understanding the significance of Iraq. I mean, people that came up at the same time as you, what dynamics do you see at play, Maz?
MH: Well, you know, at that time, it was very interesting, because I remember being quite young, but seeing the very quickly bloodthirsty, vitriolic environment which developed. I remember when I was a kid, there would be a lot of racial tensions over the war. And people would sometimes be provocatively cheering for how many Iraqis were killed in x number of days, or passing around snuff films, or videos, or images of torture and things like that. It was quite like, you can see how people could descend into madness over something.
And the question of what Iraq had to do with 9/11, why was the war being fought, it was not really important. It was a very primal thing: Someone roughly like the 9/11 people has to die in huge numbers and has to be a very big satisfying number for x amount of time. That’s, I think, what the real war was really about. I think that some more self-perceptive people in the bureaucracy, when the emotions cooled off and so forth, they tried to retrofit a different reasoning or rationale for it. But that was never very compelling and that certainly wasn’t a national mood at the time that the war took place.
So I think that, at that time, at some point, it kind of became clear as the big disaster, and a lot of Americans were dying in Iraq to which nobody on the American side really banked for; they didn’t think that was gonna happen. I think they had the 1991 Iraq War experience, and the Gulf War experience very much imprinted themselves on them culturally: war is one-sided, it happens in one direction and not the other. But when you’re occupying a country, it doesn’t really work out that way.
So I think that later on the perception soured, but now, very interestingly, what I see is that 20 years after the invasion, there is a very marked effort to rewrite history again and say some of the things you said — that the war was maybe a mistake, or maybe even it was better — maybe it was a good thing. And the intelligence was a bit wrong, but there were some chemical weapons or something like that, which is actually not true. There were some decommissioned weapons we think that Saddam got from Reagan during the ’80s were found in Iraq, not weapons of mass destruction, as was said. I think Condoleeza Rice said famously, if people don’t remember it, there would be a mushroom cloud, perhaps, over the United States. That was the actual weapons of mass destruction narrative to justify the war.
So I think now they’re trying to rewrite it. And there are these younger generations coming up who don’t remember what happened and weren’t there, or didn’t see what was being said at that time, or how everyone was against the war, internationally, except for some people in the United States who were committed to it for many years.
So I think talking about it now is very important. Understanding what happened now is very important, because there are a lot of people who don’t even believe the U.S. can do something like that. They’re accustomed to other villains, or Vladimir Putin is a very big villain today. So, there’s a very fishbowl sort of mentality.
And I think what I’ve seen, and what you’ve seen, is that the U.S. is absolutely capable of killing people in the way that Vladimir Putin, or Bashar Assad, whoever else does. They are very capable of lying the way that they say other countries do, North Korea does, and so forth. All that is very possible in the context of the U.S. system; if we’re not very vigilant against it, and honest about it, and to the extent possible, trying to get some accountability for it, it’s gonna happen again. And it will happen within our lifetimes.
JS: I mean, this is a key point. And I mean maybe this is because I became a journalist, or started reporting on U.S. wars under Bill Clinton, but I’ve always held this mentality that the United States should be held not just to the standard of every other nation, but actually to a higher standard, because it proclaims itself, the sort of cop of the world, and says: Oh, we set the rules for this order. And I really think that what the U.S. did in Iraq was to essentially try to make that country into like one massive crucifix for the world to see; that this what we can do to a society, we can completely obliterate civilian infrastructure, we can dominate this country, we can fabricate a reason for war.
And I know it’s a talking point: Oh, Bush and Cheney should also be in The Hague — but no, really, they should. I mean, they really should.
And in fact, you can make a credible case for war crimes prosecution of multiple officials from the Bush administration following international jurisprudence standards. This isn’t just rhetoric. I mean, this was a government in Bush and Cheney, that not just systematically targeted the civilian infrastructure of Iraq, but also then, post 9/11, was operating gulags around the world, secret prisons, torturing people — torturing them in mercilessly cruel manners. There are still prisoners at Guantanamo right now!
And let’s not just limit it to Bush and Cheney. I could make a very serious case that Barack Obama is a war criminal. I mean, just take one example. The first airstrike that Obama authorized in Yemen in 2009, toward the end of his first year in office, was an attack on the Yemeni village of al-Majalah, and 41 people were killed. The majority of them were women and children — and civilians. And they used internationally banned cluster munitions in that strike.
The United States, under both Democrats and Republicans, has repeatedly committed crimes, that if someone like Vladimir Putin does it, rightly, the world says these are war crimes, and rightly the world says even a head of state should be prosecuted. But the fact is that, yes, Vladimir Putin belongs on trial. But if we’re going to get into the business of prosecuting heads of state, which I believe we should, then how is it possible that some of the most epic crimes in modern history that were committed by the nation that wants to be judge, jury, and executioner go entirely unmentioned, unprosecuted, unaddressed? I mean, this is a stain on the world.
And it’s remarkable that the indictment of Putin comes down, which I think pretty clearly is a justifiable indictment, not to mention other crimes he could be charged with and probably will be charged with, but the idea that it comes down right before the anniversary of Iraq, and George Bush has now been rebranded as the nice painter man, and gets to chum around with the Obamas and Ellen DeGeneres, I mean, it is just a shocking, cartoonish display of how grotesque this brand of American exceptionalism truly is, Maz.
MH: Yeah, I can’t take it seriously this ICC indictment, That was very, very farcical for all of the reasons you mentioned.
I would prefer that if they’re going to act with complete illegality and impunity on their side, don’t pretend that you’re going to charge Vladimir Putin in a court of law that exists and is legitimate, and you recognize and so forth. The U.S. doesn’t even recognize the ICC, actually, so I don’t know what the pretense is of the whole spectacle —
JS: Well, the Pentagon, when they got wind that this was heading in this direction, it was the Pentagon that started saying to the Biden administration: We can’t be cooperating in any of this.
And they were quite blunt about it because of the fear that these standards are going to then be applied to American personnel.
MH: It is absolutely comical and insane.
I often say that international law doesn’t exist, and people will get mad at me — the international lawyers especially, because they don’t like it. And maybe it’s a bit of a provocative statement. But I think it actually is sort of true, if you think about it. That’s why I think the realist foreign policy people make a lot more sense. They’re like this is basically a gang of gang members, and they’re in conflict with each other, and maybe they’ll fight, maybe they’ll steal from each other, maybe they’ll kill some innocent people on the way.
That’s fine. Don’t try to dress it up in this legal moral framework, which everyone knows doesn’t exist. And if it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be trying to destroy the ICC or prosecute — or refuse to cooperate with them, as you said. It’s really a spectacle.
And the Iraq War was just the most blatant, large-scale example of that. As you said, there are many, many examples — since then, ongoing, undoubtedly going to happen in the future, since there’s been no accountability or sort of attempt to chasten people as a result of the Iraq War, seriously. You’d be very short sighted and very foolish to put your faith in international law if you’re looking at the world today, or thinking that’s going to help you, or that’s a thing that you can appeal to or exists. It simply doesn’t. It’s just a tool for powerful nations to deal with their enemies in one way or another.
JS: Well, Maz, we are joined now by one of the most brilliant and insightful journalists to document the U.S. invasion and occupation and everything that stemmed from this catastrophe, including the rise of both al Qaeda and ultimately ISIS in Iraq. His name is Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and he was born and raised in Baghdad.
He’s not a professional journalist by training. In fact, up until the beginning of the invasion, he was an architect in Baghdad, and when U.S. tanks rolled into his home city 20 years ago this week, he began working as a translator for a British journalist, and he swiftly worked his way to becoming one of the most respected journalists reporting from and about Iraq.
His new memoir is a stunning achievement of narrative nonfiction and it offers all of us an opportunity to hear about life under Saddam Hussein’s regime, and its devastating and violent downfall. The book is called: “A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War.”
Ghaith takes us on a journey as he discovers his own country as it was thrust into a vortex of violence and sectarian bloodshed. It spans the period from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, to the ascent and downfall of ISIS. But this is not simply a history book or political analysis, or even a war reporter’s journal. It’s a rare Autobiography of an ordinary Iraqi, whose path in life was forever altered by the decisions made in Washington, D.C. 20 years ago.
I encourage everyone to pick up this book “A Stranger in Your Own City.” I devoured it in two days. It’s really that gripping.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad joins us now from Istanbul, Turkey. Ghaith, thank you so much, not just for writing this book, but for joining us here on Intercepted.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Thank you. Thank you so much.
JS: I wanted to start, because as I read the first third of your book, I was so struck at how unusual and fascinating it is to read an account of a Gen X Iraqi who grew up in the totalitarian, authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein, and just the human depiction of what life was like there. So, to begin, I would just really love to hear you describe your childhood and the impressions that you share from your life growing up during the reign of Saddam Hussein.
GAA: I mean, full disclosure here Jeremy, I had a very boring childhood — minus the wars, I mean, the war with Iran, the war with the United States in 1991 — but as a child, as a family, it was very boring. None of my family was executed or oppressed by the regime. And none of us kind of joined the Ba?ath Party or the regime. So as a family, life was very boring.
But growing up under Saddam. I mean, he was everywhere — I mean, I cannot emphasize — everywhere. He was on TV, in school books, in classrooms. When I was a child, we used to watch this Japanese cartoon called Grendizer, and in my head, the hero of the cartoon, God, and Saddam were all the same person, because this is the person who’s saving Iraq. And of course, the narrative under Saddam, it goes back into the history, and it kind of borrows from everything in Iraqi mythology. So we were taught history in this kind of linear form. It starts with the Babylonian Assyrians, goes into the Arab conquerors, and now it is Saddam, the new manifestation of this great 5,000 years, history, nation.
So that was our life. And it was so dominated by Saddam. But it was also very boring, because he bored us to death. He bored the nation. I mean, every day you see him on TV, speeches about his glory; you have to write essays about how magnificent he is, and the revolution, and all these things. And everyone would tell jokes about him, of course, but we never used his name. We always said “Him” as the president.
MH: Can you talk a little bit about in the years leading up to the war, obviously, there were sanctions on Iraq, and they were very intense, and so forth. And you go into a bit [about it] in the book. Can you talk a bit about how sanctions start to change Iraqi society in the decade or so leading up to the invasion?
GAA: So if the narrative was of this glorious history of Saddam, the conqueror, about our war with Iran, about this magnificent army and whatnot, the sanctions changed all of that. So the 1991 War was really hard on Iraq. But the sanctions really destroyed society. And it turned a middle class, secular nation into what I called a nation of hustlers. When a teacher is paid $2 a month, when a policeman is paid $1 a month — bribe, corruption, it became part of the society.
And again, the narrative of the state changed. And now Saddam became the tribal leader, because his security forces were weak. So he needed new tools to control society. And these came from religion, because religiosity was sweeping through them, at least in the ’90s, and he wanted to utilize the religion. So he created this faith campaign in which he became the faithful the commander of the whatnot, and he utilized this religious language, non-sectarian, but very strong religious language, building mosques, campaigns to memorize the Quran and whatnot, but also strengthen the tribe. And these became his own tools to control society.
Another thing which, as someone who grew up under sanctions, the sanctions prolonged the life of the regime. Because before people could work, or travel, could have a life. During the sanctions, the only access to any form of largesse came through Saddam himself and the circle around his family. And suddenly he dominated everything. So I would argue that it was the sanctions that prolonged the life of Saddam; otherwise, you would have been toppled by a coup, by an uprising, or anything else.
JS: Ghaith, I started going to Iraq in 1997, 1998, when Saddam was still in power, and I was a very inexperienced young radio journalist. And I wasn’t well-versed in the epic history of Iraq, or even so much in the political dynamics between Iraq and Iran, the United States and Saddam. I was in high school when the so-called Gulf War — other people would refer to it as the second Gulf War, but what the American public understands as the 1991 Gulf War — and I knew that the United States had systematically destroyed Iraqi civilian infrastructure. But then as a young adult arriving in Iraq with a humanitarian delegation, much of what I did over the course of five years of going in and out of Iraq was touring Iraqi hospitals all throughout the country, and interviewing ordinary Iraqis. I wasn’t doing interviews with big, famous political people. And I had this sense in these hospitals that they were being converted into death rows for infants; that you had very brilliant Iraqi doctors, who, one after the other in different cities would tell you the same thing: That we know how to treat this ailment that our patients have, or we know what we should be doing, but we don’t have the basic medicines — we don’t even have analgesics, we have to perform operations with no painkillers.
The hospitals reeked of petrol because the hospital workers were using gasoline to clean the floors because of the ban on the importation of all sorts of goods.
And then — and this is what I want to ask you about — under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, you had his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confronted on national television in the United States on the program “60 Minutes” about reports of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dying as a direct result of the sanctions, and then Albright famously said that it’s a difficult question, but ultimately, it’s worth the price.
And I’m wondering, now in retrospect, your sense of the ultimate result of this economic war that the U.S. claimed to be waging against Saddam Hussein’s regime and who it actually harmed the most?
GAA: I mean, that sentence, “I think it’s worth it,” it kind of rings in the head of every single Iraqi since that day. Of course, the regime continued to live. I mean, Saddam started building his palaces, his sons were building their own palaces, his son-in-law — that clique, that regime circle, like in any other kind of dictatorship at the moment under sanctions, the circle around the leadership will continue to thrive. On the contrary, the black market created so much wealth for these people during the sanctions years. So much money was created by the black market and access to the kind of imported foreign goods.
It was the normal Iraqis, it was people like us, who were just suddenly crushed. I mean, I was studying architecture and school, I would scavenge corridors and old drawers looking for used paper so I could draw on its back. It affected our lives, affected our electricity, affected the schools, affected the hospitals, as you say.
And of course, the regime, the narrative of the regime, was these are American-imposed sanctions — which were American-imposed sanctions. So comes the moment in 2003 when the invasion was happening, the Iraqis have already been bombed by the Americans and had been going for 13 years of sanctions — American-imposed sanctions — so I cannot emphasize the anger that was already there towards this country that had already caused so much pain for Iraq.
And of course, Saddam was a mad dictator: Saddam invaded Kuwait; Saddam started a war with Iran. All of these things Saddam did. But it was us Iraqis who were paying the price on a daily basis.
MH: So that brings me to the next question, too, when the Americans invaded. Obviously, in your book, you talk about how they exposed a lot of divisions in Iraqi society, and slowly, over time, those divisions became more salient. Can you tell us a bit about the initial reaction among Iraqis to the invasion or to the arrival of U.S. troops in the country? What can we say about it?
GAA: I think every Iraqi, myself included, had this Faustian deal. We hated Saddam so much. Did we want to be occupied? No. Did anyone ask our opinion? No. But when that happened, when the war was happening, I think — and when the statue fell, and when we realized that Saddam was toppled — I think every person I talked to personally, even people in the army, people in his own hometown, were very happy to get rid of Saddam. Saddam was, again, a deranged, mad dictator, leading us from one war to another, from one crisis to another, just kind of stealing the life of a nation for three decades.
That is on one level. But when the occupation happened, when the people realized that not only the Americans had no plan for the day after, they had no plan to secure the streets — the looting, the burning, the destruction of the infrastructure, whatever that was not destroyed before — the looting of the museum, all of these things — suddenly the Iraqis, who were willing to turn a tiny little blind eye to what America had done to Iraq, suddenly that exploded in anger.
And that is half of the destruction of Iraq. The second half of the destruction came with the sectarian narrative. The sectarian narrative pushed by Iraqi politicians in exile because they were suffering from Sudan, they had their own mentality, it kind of imagined Iraq as made of three components: Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds. And I don’t want to say that Sunnis, and Shia, and Kurds do not exist in Iraq. Of course, they exist. But that sectarian identity had melted away in the last three, four decades. When I went to school, I still don’t know if half of the kids in my school were Sunni or Shia, because it was not emphasized anymore: inter-sectarian marriages, and interethnic marriages were common. The sectarian narrative is based on victimhood.
So if one part of the nation has a [Arabic: ‘mindstet’] of victimhood, then that means the other part of the nation are victimizers. And then suddenly, all the Sunnis of Iraq are, by association, told that you’re all guilty because Saddam was Sunni — although many Sunnis were against Saddam. I mean, so many coup d’états against him were done by the Sunni army officers. Anyhow: All the Sunnis are in a corner, you are guilty. And now it is those people who will be ruling Iraq. That created a split within the society. And that split was the beginning of civil war; a civil war doesn’t start when people start shooting at each other across the street. It starts when this society is divided along sectarian or ethnic or whatever lines.
MH: It’s a very tragic scene in the book, it’s very brief. But there’s a woman who you visit, and her sons have been killed by death squads who are Shia, but then in her house, she had Shia iconography on the walls. And you mentioned that she’s from the pre-sectarian age in Iraq, which I think speaks to what you’re describing the change of people’s identities under the war. Very briefly, you mentioned something about the exiles who came back to Iraq, who were sort of contributing to the growth of that victim narrative, as you said. Can you speak a bit more about that, and what the influence of exiles were in Iraq? I know many of them played important roles in Iraqi politics.
GAA: It played a very important role; it still plays a very important role. I mean, it’s the same clique that came 20 years ago, it’s still ruling Iraq now. So those exiles evolved their identity in exile in London, in Tehran, and whatnot. Most of them were actually from families oppressed by the regime, the regime did not tolerate any kind of opposition, let alone religious-based opposition. And of course, the sheer political parties were severely oppressed and thousands of people were killed and prisoned. So they went to Iran, or London, other places, and evolved into this claustrophobic kind of paranoid way of thinking.
And the process of toppling Saddam did not start, of course, after 2001. The Iraq regime project started since the ’90s, since Clinton time. And they had pushed this narrative for a long time, because what is there to justify toppling Saddam? Oppressing the nation! Of course, he was oppressing the nation, but it was not on sectarian lines. He did not oppress the Shia, more than the Sunnis. Yes, he did not trust certain parts of the population, the Shia; he trusted his own clan, which happens to be Sunni. But in the ’90s, for example, he did not tolerate the Sunni political Islam. So suddenly, the oppression turned against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, and whatnot.
Now, those people in exile who suddenly were the Iraqis that the Americans were talking to. They are the Iraqis. If they want to consult something about Iraq, they will go to those people in exile. And they consulted them about Iraq. And those [people] had their own agenda, their own program. They wanted to take revenge on the population inside because they thought we were all collaborators with Saddam, but they also had no idea of the country. They were mistrusted by the Iraqis inside.
And that mentality of those exiles, I would severely blame for creating a handicapped constitution, and creating this political system we have in Iraq, which we call Muhasasa. That is the division of the state among the different political players. So the Shia would take this percentage, the Sunnis this percentage, and the Kurds that, but of course, these are not the Shia of the Shia on the streets. These are certain political Shia parties who will dominate certain ministries, create a patronage system that would enable them to win the next election. Same thing with the Sunnis: These are not the Sunnis of Ramadi or Fallujah, who are fighting the Americans. These are Sunni politicians, or tribal elders, who would again benefit from the state patronage.
Twenty years later, we have one of the most corrupt states in the world; one of the wealthiest — not the wealthiest, but a very wealthy nation with $120 billion. And yet such corruption enabled by the political system of Muhasasa allows a tiny little elite to siphon the wealth of the nation.
JS: In the book, Ghaith, and I hope everyone picks up this book and reads it, one of the things that are really outstanding is you weave in your personal story and your personal journey. You were not a journalist by training or trade when the invasion began; you, in fact, were an architect. And you describe how you were working, taking on projects to make money building ugly houses for ugly people and trying to scrap together what you could to support yourself and your family. But you then sort of accidentally become a journalist and work your way up in the journalistic system. Talk a little bit about how you ended up in journalism.
GAA: So I started journalism, by accident — the accidental journalist is the word I’m using. The day the statue fell, I was in Baghdad, I was in my apartment, and I saw the Americans down in my street and they were the Marines with these kind of amphibious armored vehicles. I followed them a short distance into the square where the statue was pulled. And something inside me wanted to go walk into Saddam’s palace. I still don’t know why. Maybe I thought I’ll find answers in the corridors; I will learn my history; why Saddam did to us what he did.
Anyhow, I walked the next day, I was carrying a backpack. My English convinced Americans I was British, probably because any English for them that’s not American is weird. So they let me pass. And then I was in front of the gate of the palace. And there was this armored vehicle and a tired soldier. I mean, again, I cannot describe that feeling. We couldn’t stop in front of the Saddam palace gate. You couldn’t pose there, let alone take a picture. And there it was — the gate and an American soldier. So I went inside. I walked into the palace. The Americans were so nice. They gave me a tour of the palace. I saw the massive dining rooms, the opulence in the bedrooms, and whatnot.
And I wanted to leave, I wanted to walk across the second bridge, because it’s kind of a semi-peninsula. And the Americans told me no, you can’t, because there’s still some resistance and fighting at the Ba?ath Party headquarters down the road. So I went back and I saw this red SUV coming and I tried to hitch a ride; I hitched a ride. And there are two British journalists working for The Guardian. And I ended up working as their translator. And I’m so lucky that I was working with one of the most amazing writers, James Meek at The Guardian, which I love, and that’s how I started.
But you know, something else started that day. So I’m an Iraqi, all my understanding of Iraq comes from inside, you know, whatever reading I was doing; I had no access to the outside world. And in the early days, when I was translating for the journalists, and they asked me this question: Can you ask this family, are they Sunnis or Shia? And I would be shocked in the beginning. It’s like: Why would they ask them that question? What difference does it make if they’re asking about their conditions, their life? What difference does it make if they’re Sunni or Shia? And I was shocked in the beginning, sometimes I wouldn’t translate this question, honestly, in the beginning. But later on, within a few months, that way of thinking seeped into my brain. So I started recording when I save someone’s number on my phone, I would write Sunni or Shia and it took me years — until the story that Murtaza talks about, about this woman — when you realize this narrative of Sunni or Shia was a kind of a very important narrative.
Again, I emphasize: There are Sunnis, there are Shia, they had been fighting for 1,500 years, they might fight for another 1,500 years. But that’s a cultural religious identity. It was not a social identity in Iraq.
It took me years to come out of this way of seeing the conflict as a conflict between Sunnis and Shia and to realize that the conflict in reality was a collection of a smaller conflict; people would use religious justification, avenging Ali or avenging Omar to kill, to raid, to loot, because basically, I want to take that house and whatever religious justification I can use, I can use it to take the house.
JS: I wanted to also, on that front, before we get into the descent into civil war, and the role of the United States, the role of tribal politics, the beginning stages of al Qaeda in Iraq and Mesopotamia and ultimately ISIS, I first want to just start at sort of the beginning of this part of the chapter. And that is you have the Bush administration, sending in Paul Bremer, who cut his teeth working under Henry Kissinger, and you had this shock doctrine, as Naomi Klein would call it, where you had political ideologues, Republicans from the United States, who not only wanted to redraw maps in the Middle East but had this idea that they could create a sort of Baghdad year zero where they would build up this free market society. And it could be an example for other American-imposed governments now in the Middle East, and Bremer comes in and one of the first thing he does is enacts a de-Ba‘athification policy, and they end up firing the bulk of the Iraqi army and sending scores and scores of so-called military age males onto the streets with no job. And you, during this time, as the insurgency is starting to bubble, are working as a journalist, and you have to find a way, now in your own city, to navigate from one area to the next as walls are being erected, as the U.S. media and the U.S. regime and Iraq is starting to really fan the flames of this notion that there are strict divisions between Sunnis and Shia and Kurds. And you, then, as a sort of budding journalist, although a very well-educated and sharp Iraqi have to now figure out how to navigate a city that you’ve been able to go around your entire life — talk about that dynamic and what you had to do just to get from one end of Baghdad to the other and stay alive.
GAA: So basically — and I just saw that he had published a piece today saying what went well in Iraq — what Bremer did is by enacting the kind of the firing of the army and sending all these security forces back to their home, and the de-Ba‘athification. It was not a general kind of de-Ba‘athification across the board, it was very well targeted toward the Sunni community. So suddenly de-Ba‘athification, and this whole army thing, becomes a way to target the Sunnis and a tool to target the Sunnis, which of course, creates opposition, which, of course, creates resistance, which leads to violence in the street, and the beginning was violence targeting the Americans.
But the security vacuum created by this occupation — the Americans never controlled the borders — allows anyone who has a grievance against the Americans to come and fight the Americans in Iraq. So you see, the jihad is flowing into Iraq, we had no jihadis before, the jihad is coming on with Musab al-Zarqawi people from as far as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, finding refuge in Iraq and the tribal belt to fight the Americans.
The Iranians at the time, also started — why would we wait for the Americans to come and fight us in Iran? Why don’t we make sure that they fail in Iraq? So they start supporting Shia militias, and of course, that eventually leads to civil war.
Now, I grew up in Baghdad. I rarely left the city. For 28 years, I was basically stuck in the city. I tried to leave the country, tried to smuggle myself out of the country, but failed. So here I am, 28 years of my life and this one city that I almost know — like, I can memorize the map by heart. And within two years, the city is divided, at first not by walls, at first by gunman, by militiaman, by the pictures on the wall, and you realize that this is a Shia part of town, that is a Sunni part of town, cleansing is taking place, Sunnis cannot go to certain parts of the city, Shia cannot go.
So how do you negotiate this, as a journalist who needs to go to both parts? You end up, I mean, basically, a stranger in your own city. You need someone to vouch for you to go into that neighborhood, someone to vouch for you to go into that neighborhood. And of course, I ended up carrying a set of fake ID cards with different mothers, with different tribal names. One to insinuate a Sunni identity, one to insinuate a Shia identity, never very clear, because you don’t know who the gunmen at the end of the streets are, you have to always approach them carefully, exchange a few words to know if they’re Sunni or Shia. That was the madness that became life in Baghdad.
And of course, as a journalist, I do these trips to work. But people lived through these things. People had to go to work, had to shop, had to get married, had to have their life within this divided sectarian city. And again, it was divided and sectarian by the militiamen and the gunman who controlled the streets, not by the majority of the people who lived their life in the city.
JS: To what extent do you think, based on your experience and your journalism, was it an official part of the U.S. strategy in Iraq during this period to emphasize those divisions or that classification of neighborhoods and people as Sunni and Shia? Did you get a sense that this was a program? Or did you get a sense that it was ad hoc, and the United States was trying to get its bearings because it clearly didn’t understand tribal structures in Iraq, it didn’t understand much of what you’re saying about social versus other identification? But did you get a sense that the U.S. was adopting this as a strategy to kind of consolidate its control?
GAA: I mean, look, Jeremy, all imperial powers would use one part of the population against the other. I mean, the British did that in India. And we see what that led to. So of course, the Americans would — I mean, you know, some of the people who created these Ministry of Interior special forces, had that same, that same experiment in Latin America during the wars in Salvador and Nicaragua, so they brought that experience with them, these people who kind of had the beginning under Reagan in the ’80s, and then the ’90s under Bush, they brought it to Iraq. And of course, when they found that one part of the population, thanks to their policies, was opposing them, was fighting against them, of course they would turn to the other part of the population.
And this is why we ended up with security forces that are heavily infiltrated by Iranian-trained militias. I mean, how crazy this is to give the whole Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Interior Special Forces, trained, equipped by the Americans, to militia men who were trained and ideologically allied to Iran.
And of course, these militias would work in tandem with the militias, with the mighty army and another thing to target Sunni population. It was no longer a fight against Sunni insurgents; it was a fight to quote-unquote protect the Shia neighborhoods, to cleanse the Shia neighborhood from the threat of the other. And that was happening right under the eyes of the Americans.
So, I mean, probably it’s criminal negligence, but I mean, how idiotic do you have to be as an Army officer general to not see what was going on in the ground, but setting up the ground for a civil war?
MH: In the book, you segmentally divide it into a first civil war and a second civil war in Iraq. Can you talk about the relationship between the two and then how the first conflict fed to the other, which was the one that featured, as everyone knows, ISIS?
GAA: So by the end of this process, the Sunnis were defeated, basically. They were defeated in Baghdad, they fled the city, they went to exile, to Amman, to others, but the insurgency itself — and I don’t mean the jihadi kind of insurgency, but the Iraqi insurgency that started in the beginning to resist and oppose the Americans — they realized they cannot fight three enemies at the same time. And I’ve been told that by so many of their commanders: We’re fighting the Americans, we’re fighting the Shia militias, and of course, there was the conflict within the Sunni insurgency between the jihadis and the nationalist movements.
So they realize at one point that their real enemy is not the United States with the Shia militias because — again, this is a sentence I had so many times — the Americans would pack one day and leave, but it’s us who will be stuck here with these militias.
So another Faustian deal comes in which the Sunni insurgents would ally themselves to the Americans, defeat the jihadists for the price of the Americans protecting them, stopping the militias from attacking them, and then reintegrating them into society. A lot has been made about Petraeus’ surge and I think the defeat of the insurgency did not happen because of the surge; it happened because the Sunni insurgency itself decided to split and fight the jihadis.
And then you had a point in 2008 and 2009 in which history could have changed. The insurgency was over, those former insurgents came to the government and said: Payment time — can we get integrated back into the state? Can we have our role back into society? Instead, the Americans directly supported Nouri al-Maliki’s bid to become prime minister for a second time, although he lost in the elections by a small margin, they supported him to stay in power, thinking that this is our man. The Americans wanted to leave Iraq by 2009; they thought al-Maliki is our man that we can work with.
al-Maliki turned out to be a worse sectarian version than the militias themselves. Because al-Maliki’s version of sectarianism was taking over the state itself. He went after the insurgency, and other former insurgents, al-Sahaba were called. He went after the leaders, he went after Sunni politicians; consolidated his powers, weakened the state, and created this patronage system in which people bought positions in the army. People would pay $150,000 to become an army commander, as long as he was loyal to al-Maliki.
And how did he get his money back? By inflating the number of soldiers. So al-Maliki kind of weakened the security forces just for the sole purpose of creating a patronage system, ensuring the loyalty of army officers, ensuring the loyalty of other kinds of tribesmen and tribal elders, and that sectarianism, that marginalization of the Sunnis the second time, happened at the time of the Arab Spring, and you have the sectarian issues in Iraq now going to Syria, you have the security vacuum on the border, in which al Qaeda can regroup, rearrange themselves, come back to Iraq, and this time calling themselves the Islamic State.
JS: I was saying Max as we were discussing your book before we got on to speak with you about your description of Nouri al-Maliki and his reign — and of course, to the extent that Americans pay attention to this stuff, he was very clearly America’s choice. The U.S. government was constantly boosting him and promoting him and referring to him as building the new stable future of Iraq, but I just want to read a couple of quotes from your book. And I think it’s really important for people to understand the role of Nouri al-Maliki in creating the conditions that led to the end of your book, which is about the rise and fall of ISIS in Iraq — and, to an extent, Syria.
But you’re describing — and this is this period from 2009 to 2011 — you write: “Iraq, a nation that still yearns for the brutal days of Saddam and calls them the days of safety and security, the lines between strong and authoritarian are often blurred.”
In another section, you write: “Six years after the toppling of the dictator, a few hundred thousand Iraqis killed a brutal insurgency, trillions of dollars wasted, and 5,000 dead U.S. soldiers, the country was being rebuilt on the same model of a concentration of unaccountable power, shadowy intelligence services, and corruption.”
And then you note that by 2010, both the United States and Iran were supporting Nouri al-Maliki’s illicit effort to stay in power after losing the election. And you write that both the U.S. and Iran were backing him because, “he had become their chief ally” in the case of Iran, and the U.S. because they were planning to withdraw and didn’t want to disturb the status quo. And al-Maliki has been waging this war of revenge and annihilation against Sunnis while building up or consolidating the sort of sectarian nature of the national army. Talk about that moment, and then how we start to see the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq.
GAA: So al-Maliki was trying to rebuild this authoritarian regime. And it’s a yearning that people have in times of disasters, in times of civil wars, they yearn to be the strong man, because they think, foolishly, that a strong man would solve the problems. I mean, this is why people, they thought: At least under Saddam we didn’t have sectarianism. Or: At least under Saddam the schools were functioning and whatnot.
And al-Maliki played that kind of card. He showed himself as a strong leader. But of course, he was a tiger made out of paper, even empty paper, because the security services, although very brutal — torturing, kidnapping — I mean, in this period between the two civil wars, the security forces were becoming, they took the role of the militia, so they will kidnap 20-30 men and put them in jail, torture them until the families would pay and release them. And they tend to be Sunnis, of course.
So he really soiled the image of the Iraqi security forces, people were calling them al-Maliki’s Army. And that is the condition that he created. But also the security forces were also hollow from the inside. So when the shock came, when the attack happened, they crumbled very quickly, because they had no belief in nationalism. The army officers were there just to make money, the soldiers were there just to make money. There was nothing that can resist a tiny little push by a group of jihadis on pickup trucks. This is why the collapse happened so quickly.
And this was, again, a very short-sighted American policy and error, thinking that let’s enable another strong man, let’s turn a blind eye to all the atrocities is committing against the public. Let’s turn a blind eye to corruption. And then, just so we can leave in peace, and then the whole collapse happened. When ISIS came in, the Iraqi army collapsed and whatnot, and when the Americans started retraining and restructuring these basically broken Iraqi army brigades, but these were the same American army brigades that were first created by Americans, were first trained by the Americans, were first equipped by the Americans. It was mind-boggling how America had again failed in creating an army, a national army, for the countries they occupy.
MH: So you described a bit there, the origins of ISIS, or its ascendance and the conditions it ascended. Can you speak a bit more about the local dynamics that actually led to the creation of the emergence of ISIS in Iraq? Because in the U.S. and abroad, there’s a particular narrative that’s a bit simplistic, but in your book, you talk a lot about the different threads. Tell us a bit about how ISIS came to be and to reemerge with the role it had by 2014.
GAA: To understand ISIS, you have to see it in the context of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring, which started as this beautiful moment when the people poured into the streets, denouncing their dictators, denouncing the oppression, denouncing decades of corruption was quickly captured — at least in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen — by the same sectarian narrative that was first created in Iraq.
So you see these gulf countries — Qatar, Saudi Arabia — their TV channels suddenly borrowing language that they were using in Iraq. So suddenly, it is the Shia army of Assad versus the tribesmen of Syria — kind of injecting sectarianism into it. It’s not only them, of course, the sectarian dynamics were also there on the ground. But that’s sectarian, the quick movement of the Syrian Civil Syrian uprising, to the Syrian Civil War, to sectarian civil war, created this dynamic somewhere in the middle of these oil-rich regions in the east for the jihadis to come back. Suddenly, you have, again, all these battalions, Syrian battalions funded, equipped by the CIA, the Pentagon, the French, the British, the Saudis, everyone was funding a battalion of their own. And in the case of these battalions, the jihadis emerged as disciplined, as well-equipped, and were good to the civilians.
And this is the trump card they played every single time: In the time of chaos, the jihadis emerge as the people who would save the civilians, same dynamic in Yemen, and Somalia, whatnot.
Anyhow, they restructure themselves; they re-equip themselves. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni towns, again, start with popular demonstrations — for the first time the Sunnis realize that they can have a peaceful solution to the problems that they had since 2003. They went into demonstrations, they made a protest camp in Ramadi and other towns; their demands were very basic in the beginning. They wanted to end the oppression, reintegrate into the society, and release female prisoners — all could have been achieved and done. But al Maliki’s mentality, and the people around him, saw it as a Ba‘ath plot to come back to power. Yes, of course, the Ba‘athis where they are and tribesmen and insurgents and everyone were there in these kinds of demonstration camps. But the demands were genuine, were really popular, genuine.
The jihadis entered this dynamic of the Sunni uprising against al-Maliki and the short-sighted tribal leaders, insurgents thought they can use the jihadis to defeat Maliki. And then then, of course, they will control them because of course, they’ve been doing it all along — and they failed in 2003. And they will fail again. And the jihadis came into the dynamic, controlled Fallujah, controlled Ramadi. And then within one year, the unbelievable thing happened: Mosul, Iraq’s Second City toppled within two days. I spoke with Army officers and soldiers who just fled — fled because there was no command, there was no command structure. So many weapons, American weapons, and American equipment fell into the hands of the jihadis because the soldiers did not fight because they did not believe in their leaders.
JS: One of the most powerful chapters or sections of the book is when you tell this story of the fall of Mosul, which, of course, within Iraq, was considered to be a wealthy place, a stable place. You had a lot of businessmen and important tribal figures that lived there; it was economically well off relative to other parts of Iraq and you, you weave between two personal stories of individuals that you met in Mosul: One is the story of a woman who was a doctor, and she shares with you how she was able to function under the Islamic State rule and ultimately culminates with her smuggling or stealing medical supplies from the hospital that were intended only to in use for the Islamic State Personnel, their fighters, and their families. And she essentially converts part of her private home into an operating room; she delivers babies on a dining room table. I mean, it’s a gut-wrenching, personal story.
And then you also interview a man who shared with you, who’s a very well-educated man — a scientist, I believe — portions of his personal diary. And you also referenced the German writer Hans Fallada, who was writing about life under the Nazis and sort of what was going through the heads of his characters. But you share the personal diaries of, for all practical purposes, an ordinary guy, as he watches and lives through this transformation. Talk more about what happened then as people went — almost literally overnight — from one set of rules under this chaotic American occupation, Nouri al-Maliki’s government, to all of a sudden you have these fighters coming in and implementing their own radical program.
GAA: It’s a very good point because life in Mosul, the change did not happen overnight. So al-Maliki’s army collapsed, the Iraqi army collapsed, and it fled and left the city. And suddenly the people of Mosul believed that they were free because those new gunmen — no one knew who they were. Some called them tribesmen, some called them rebels. And in the beginning, for the first two months, life was okay for the people of Mosul, as long as you were mainstream Sunni and did not involve yourself in politics. But of course, as life was, quote-unquote normal for the people, changes were happening in society. And all these radical movements, they start by purging the society of any threat, and then gradually implementing set after set of regulations. First, they target the Christians, and they target the minorities, the Shia and the others, and then they start confiscating their property.
And you know, Hans Fallada talks about this very well in describing life in Berlin, in Nazi Berlin. At the beginning, people say: Oh, as long as it’s not targeting me, it’s fine. As long as I can keep going to my job and keep having my family out, it’s fine. And, oh, it’s my Jewish neighbor. So it’s fine. It’s the leftist, it’s the communists. The same thing happened in Mosul. And only people realize how horrible the situation is when suddenly ISIS could control the life of everyone — be it Sunni, be it Shia, be it Christian, everyone becomes a prisoner. They have to pray in a way; they have to live their lives according to the regulations of maniacal, mad organizations.
Now, that also has another dynamic. The majority of the people, they just lowered their head and survived. Some like the scientists just observed and wrote his diary, but he never tried to do anything — like the majority of the people were just trying to survive, find enough money to buy cigarettes, feed his family, and go on. But others, a very tiny minority — of course, others collaborated — so people benefited from ISIS rule because they brought oil from Syria, they started business; ISIS was a very capitalist enterprise. You want to do business, you do business; you want to import, you want to export, you want to do business with Turkey, with Syria, with anyone, it’s fine, as long as you pay us our taxes. And that way, ISIS was this kind of culmination of a militant terrorist organization, plus very capitalist.
But then a very small minority, like the doctor who tried to resist, and she resisted in the way she could by enabling others to have access to medicine that was hoarded by ISIS to only treat their foreign fighters and the foreign families and the jihadis who had joined them. She basically created her own clinic in her house. And she resisted in these tiny little ways by throwing parties and music for cancer patients, for children suffering from cancer. And that was her act of resistance.
Others tried to do different forms of resistance, this painter who just wants to try to stay sane, he hides his children, locks them in a room, and two years later, the youngest two, they forgot how they lost the capacity to speak, because that was the terror of the people of Mosul. So when this moment happened, when the liberation of Mosul happened, it was deliberate. It was the moment when sectarianism ended in Iraq, for a brief moment, when Shia, Special Forces guys, soldiers, policemen were welcomed by the Sunnis of Mosul because that is the moment when the whole of Iraqis realized what sectarianism had done to Iraq. It’s like you have a nuclear weapon, and you use it. And then you have the impact of a nuclear weapon.
Again, the Sunnis of Mosul did not convert to Shi’ism. They’re still Sunnis. And the Shia soldiers went to fight in Mosul to liberate the people of Mosul who did not become Sunnis. They were Shia. But it was a moment when everyone had a common enemy. And that enemy was so deranged, that it unified the Iraqis in this tiny, beautiful moment of solidarity.
MH: Towards the end of the book you talk about a couple of years ago in Iraq, there was another wave of protests — and there were many young people — about the economic conditions of the country, which are still very dire. So can you talk a bit about the kleptocracy, as you’ve described it, which currently is still embedded in Iraq, and what the consequences continue to be for Iraqis?
GAA: So starting with the defeat of ISIS and the emergence of this new Iraqi — I don’t want to call it national identity, but it is kind of a trans-sectarian identity. Suddenly, people realized that this whole sectarian division had led to so much bloodshed, culminating again in ISIS, and by 2017-18, I would say sectarianism almost disappeared from Iraq; it became a shame to use sectarian terminology. The politicians who had built their power on sectarian rhetoric suddenly found themselves — they couldn’t use the same terminology.
But also the defeat of ISIS led to this point, when, with the emergence of this new national identity, with the emergence of a new consciousness, it lead to this realization that hold on — the Sunnis don’t have electricity, and we don’t have electricity, too, as Shia, the Kurds are maybe doing better.
But it is all of the rest of Iraq that is suffering from corruption, lack of services. And why are we living in these conditions? Because this kleptocratic coalition of sectarian politicians, corrupt businessmen, government officials, are siphoning so much of the national wealth. I mean there are parts of Baghdad today; I mean Iraq has an average of $120 billion a year budget for the last 20 years. And there are parts of Iraq today that are on par with some of the poorest nations in the world, let alone parts of the south of Iraq, and this whole sectarian narrative, it is the Shia now that are going to benefit because the Sunnis, Saddam’s people, were benefiting before.
Twenty years later and the Shia have the same poverty; the schools are wretched, the hospital systems are broken, there is no electricity — so hold on, that whole sectarian narrative did not work. And that led to again, a bright moment in, I would say, modern Iraqi history, these youth that kind of spilled into the street, calling for two things: We want a homeland, we want to take back our homeland from those people. And they denounced both Iran and America, accusing both of fighting the wars on Iraqi soil.
So that was a beautiful moment of Iraqi national consciousness, I would say. And of course, it did not change the political system. It did not end the rule of the kleptocracy, because popular uprising cannot do that. But it established a moment, established a reference point in which the people can do something if they’re united and go to the street.
Twenty years on, what do we have? We have this mutant state. It’s a country that has oil wealth, but it’s poor. It has a constitution that guarantees freedom of thought, and yet, it uses the same Penal Code established by the Ba‘aths in 1969. The space for freedom of expression is eroding — and the social division, the kind of social crisis we have in Iraq because of corruption, it threatens another severe explosion.
I mean, if you see the modern history of Iraq, every 2030 years, we have this explosion, because our narrative changes. So we have something until the ’50s, monarchy; then we have a republic; then it’s a socialist republic; then it’s a strongman, Saddam; and then a sectarian regime. And because none of these rulers realize the challenges they’re facing, realize how far they are from the society, a collapse happens.
Saddam did not react to what he did to Iraq by the ’90s. And that led to his demise in 2003. The same thing is happening now in Iraq. If these politicians, religious parties, and their militias do not realize the gap, the challenges facing Iraq at the moment, it will lead to another explosion and another round of violence within the next — I don’t know — within the next decade.
JS: Ghaith, we only have a couple of minutes left. But we are now this month, remembering 20 years since the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. What do you think are the most important realities for particularly the American and British public to understand because they led this war, about the legacy of what their governments did by invading Iraq on the basis of lies?
GAA: So if I can quickly narrate this anecdote, I was in Baghdad last week, and I was hanging out with this notorious kind of murderer, a hero of the sectarian civil war; had killed hundreds, and his name became synonymous with the worst atrocities in Iraq. And he was driving around Baghdad in his SUV; he was showing me around his neighborhood. He faced no accountability. There is no accountability in Iraq; no accountability to the people who devised the war, who led the war. The people who killed Iraqis. Iraq is all foreign. This is the legacy 20 years on. Without accountability, without holding those people accountable to the crimes they did in Iraq, whether outsiders or insiders, we will never have healing. The trauma will continue to regenerate itself.
I don’t want those people to go to jail— although I would love to see an International Court of Justice putting those people on trial — but what I want is accountability for the people to be held accountable for the crimes they committed against the Iraqi people.
JS: Well, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, your life story is one that I think all of us can learn a tremendous amount from. The book is so beautifully and devastatingly written, and on behalf of Murtaza and myself, and everyone at The Intercept, I want to thank you not only for being with us but for writing this powerful, powerful book. Thank you.
GAA: Thank you very much, Jeremy and Murtaza. Thank you so much.
MH: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is the author of the powerful new memoir “A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War,” published by Alfred A. Knopf. He is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker who was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq.
[End credits music.]
JS: Intercepted is a production of The Intercept.
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Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussein.