The Price of ‘Victory’
The war in Iraq is over … just not for the Iraqis.
I am an Iraqi. I live in the United States, where, if all goes well, I will soon become a citizen. So it is with decidedly mixed emotions that I've followed the U.S. troop withdrawal from my home country, and the media coverage of what is described here as "the end of the war in Iraq." The war might be ending for the Americans, but for the Iraqis it continues. I worry that it may get worse.
I am an Iraqi. I live in the United States, where, if all goes well, I will soon become a citizen. So it is with decidedly mixed emotions that I’ve followed the U.S. troop withdrawal from my home country, and the media coverage of what is described here as "the end of the war in Iraq." The war might be ending for the Americans, but for the Iraqis it continues. I worry that it may get worse.
When I look back on the past nine years, I can’t help but think of the dozens of friends and relatives who have been killed or wounded in the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion in the spring of 2003. The one that stands out most vividly is my nephew Iyad. Five years my junior, Iyad grew up in our home. He was as close to me as one of my own brothers. But then, one day in the spring of 2006, he was just about to leave his job in a warehouse in southwest Baghdad when a mortar shell came crashing through the roof and exploded inside, killing him and several of his co-workers.
We found what was left of him the next day. His skull had been crushed, his body shredded to pieces. He was 25 years old. We never learned who fired the shell, or why. It probably came from one of the rampaging sectarian militias that were tearing Iraq apart at the time. The only thing that could be established with certainty was that the warehouse was not the intended target. Like so many of the deaths in Iraq over the past nine years, Iyad’s was entirely random. It was just part of the chaos that has reigned in the country for years and shows little sign of stopping.
After all these years, there’s still this one thing that I can’t quite understand. How could the same people who put the first man on the moon — people who are so intelligent, so good at politics, so important in international affairs — have made the mistake of invading Iraq? I can imagine two third-world countries deciding to go to war with each other and failing to plan ahead. But the Americans? Americans are good at business, aren’t they? Normally, people in business would do a feasibility study. You’d think that you’d do that too before invading an entire country. You should make sure you have the right tools, alternative courses of action, back-up plans. But that didn’t happen. There was no plan at all, as far as we could see. They should have been able to see, in a country with so many sectarian and ethnic divides, what would happen. But they didn’t. They didn’t understand anything.
I once had a physiology professor who told us something I’ve never forgotten: "Never change what is functionally acceptable." His saying has come back to me so many times over the years. Don’t get me wrong: There were a lot of bad things under Saddam. There were massacres, there were abuses. But it was more complicated than that. Iraq had an education system that was the envy of the Middle East; people came from other Arab countries, like Jordan, to study there. Iraq had high literacy and good health care. There was a campaign that stamped out polio. Today, almost nine years after the invasion, my parents in Baghdad still don’t have regular electricity. The hospitals and the schools have fallen apart. The infrastructure is crumbling.
I’m not excusing Saddam’s rule. I’m saying that, if you’re going to replace a system like that, you should at least make sure that the new one works at least that well. As a doctor in the old days I earned only $3 per month. Can you imagine? People in my specialty make much higher salaries now — as much as $1000. But back then, I didn’t have to worry about a suicide bomber attacking me on my way home from work.
And we didn’t have to worry about our children getting caught in a crossfire on their way to school, or being harassed for their backgrounds once they got there. My brother, Mohamed, has a son named Omar, a name popular among Sunnis and not so popular among Shiites. Omar’s teacher, who was a Shiite, began picking on him at school, making fun of his name in front of the class. Another boy named Omar wanted to leave the room to get a drink of water, but the teacher wouldn’t let him, saying that "Omars didn’t deserve to drink." No one would have dared to do that in the old days.
My mother is a Shiite. Five of my brothers married Shiites. This is true of many Iraqis. You can’t divide this country along sectarian lines without causing new disasters. Were some Shiites persecuted under Saddam? To be sure. But what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is doing right now looks like he is getting set to outdo Saddam when it comes to sectarian politics. Everyone knows that Maliki is behind the Shiite death squads that have been kidnapping people. Everyone knows that he is now determined to show the Sunnis their place. But aren’t they part of the country too? Do two wrongs make a right? That also applies to the Americans, who first put these people in leadership positions. For 30 years, one of the main concerns of American policy was to isolate the regime in Iran — yet the invasion of Iraq gave the mullahs in Tehran the biggest gift they could have ever hoped for.
I’m actually not that convinced that Maliki and his friends really represent Iraqi Shiites in the first place. Maliki and the others like him spent most of their lives in Iran; they have the mindset of the dictatorship in Iran. The problem is not just whether our politicians are Shiites or Sunnis. The problem is whether they actually care about the country they’re supposed to be representing. I don’t see any sign that they do. They are all incredibly, brazenly corrupt. In this respect, Hashemi, the Sunni politician that Maliki is now trying to arrest, and Talabani, the Kurd leader, are just the same as Maliki and his kind. When I worked with Americans during the war, I spent a lot of time in the government quarter in the Green Zone, and I saw all of our leaders at work. They all tried to spend as little time in Iraq as possible. They often missed sessions of parliament. They all had homes outside the country where they preferred to spend their time.
No one holds them accountable. The only ones who did that were the Americans, and now the Americans have left. And the people who are in power — who are only in power because the Americans put them there — are crowing about how they have triumphed by ending the "occupation." But as much as I didn’t like the occupation I can’t help but feel that the Americans’ departure will make things worse. I can’t help but feel that stability is now farther away than ever. If only we still had someone to act as the referee — a U.N. peacekeeping force, perhaps. But that’s not going to happen.
My lifelong dream was to get my degrees and travel abroad. And now that has happened. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have the chance to come here, to find a new life for my wife and my daughters. We’ve been very lucky. In our case things have turned out well.
But even these small victories, like ours, have come at a huge price. We’ve all seen so many people die, so many people worn away from psychological and emotional stress. You just can’t live a normal life when you drive to work every day without knowing whether a car bomb is going to get you on the way. And that’s the life that most Iraqis are leading now.
Everyone in Iraq wanted a better life. I don’t think there are many of us who wanted it the way it turned out. Now I don’t think you’ll find many supporters of the invasion even among people who were against Saddam. I have many friends who are Iraqi Christians. For them, especially, the past nine years have been a disaster. I wonder whether any of them will be able to stay in the country. A lot of them have left. Many people have left.
Now I live in the States. People ask me where I’m from, and when I say "Iraq," they often answer, "Iran? You’re from Iran?" One of my American friends told me to answer by saying, "Iraq — the place where the war is." I feel like I have a lot in common with the American soldiers who are coming back. The other day I was listening to NPR, and they interviewed one sergeant who said, "I thought everybody would ask me about my experiences in the war. But nobody does. Nobody seems to care." I understand him. I know where he’s coming from. Just because everyone tells you that the war is over doesn’t mean it is.
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