We Iraqis had survived Saddam Hussein. It was the US invasion that destroyed our lives

‘The repeated failure to address Iraqis’ concerns has triggered cycles of protests.’ US soldiers and Baghdad residents, Iraq, May 2003. Photograph: Nam Hun Sung/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
‘The repeated failure to address Iraqis’ concerns has triggered cycles of protests.’ US soldiers and Baghdad residents, Iraq, May 2003. Photograph: Nam Hun Sung/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, around this time, the US-led military operation to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein’s regime finally seemed inevitable for Iraqis. With it, the idea of leaving started to sink in.

By leaving, I do not mean fleeing the country. That was not even an option. After the 1990s Gulf war, and the international sanctions that followed it, Iraqis were isolated from the rest of the world. For many, there was no exit. Leaving meant departing schools, universities or workplaces, saying goodbye to friends and colleagues, and moving to relatively safer places within the country, away from the areas targeted by strikes and bombings. But my parents decided to stay at home in Baghdad. “If we were meant to die, it would be better to die at home” – that was our logic.

The neighbourhood where I spent my childhood, adolescence and youth turned into a ghost town when most of our neighbours left. It felt empty and lonely, but we thought it was temporary. Everyone would come back when the war was over, and the scary idea of permanently leaving would dissipate, we told ourselves. We did not anticipate the trajectory that Iraq would follow after the invasion. We shared some cautious optimism about a better future despite our mixed emotions towards the war.

This optimism evaporated quickly. And we gradually started to realise that, sooner or later, leaving the country would be one of two options for many Iraqis. The other? Keeping silent to avoid repression. Herein lies the biggest contradiction: many of those who had endured the dictatorship, wars and economic sanctions and stayed in Iraq would be forced to leave after Saddam was gone. The Americans and their allies seemed to have a plan to eradicate the Ba’athists rapidly and efficiently, based on lies and disinformation about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Yet they had no plan for, or interest in, rebuilding the country and the state afterwards. “Mission accomplished”, they said in May 2003.

The terrible outcome was indisputable. Iraq quickly fell prey to chaos, conflict and instability, experienced an uncountable number of deaths and displacements, and the erosion of health, education and basic services. Behind the statistics, there are untold stories of agony and suffering. The structural and political violence would spill into social and domestic violence, affecting women and children. With every life lost, a whole family is shattered. From day one, the conditions were forming for the emergence of terrorist groups and militias.

The same expat politicians who opposed Saddam and the Ba’athists have since established a system that keeps them in power through an ethno-sectarian network of patronage, corruption and militias. Throughout the years, they have resisted change by designing a rigged electoral system that maintains their positions and self-interest, benefiting from the support of the religious leaders and tribal networks.

It is now a cliche, but an Iraqi phrase captures a profound new reality: “Saddam has gone, but 1,000 more Saddams have replaced him”. I recall two encounters, pre- and post-2003, that reflect this sense of continuity. Nearly four years before the US-led invasion of Iraq, the head of the university department where I studied threatened to move me to a different department because I refused to join the Ba’athist party. He yelled in my face: “Our seats are for Ba’athists only. You have taken a seat that does not belong to you”. Then, amid the sectarian conflict of 2006-07, I was once ordered by a militiaman to leave the lecture theatre because there was a religious occasion to observe. I was at first hesitant but decided to end the lecture for my students’ safety.

The repeated failure to address Iraqis’ concerns has triggered cycles of protests since 2011. Each time, the demonstrations were met with repression. Yet it was what happened in 2018, and later in 2019 in response to the Tishreen uprising, that finally debunked the myth of Iraqi democracy. Young men and women, chanting for their fundamental rights, were met by a lethal state response. More than 600 were killed, and many more were injured, kidnapped, arrested or forcibly disappeared – to the international community’s indifference.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the invasion, I am reminded that there has been no accountability or justice for the victims and their families. The people abroad and at home responsible for the widespread misery that characterises Iraq are in denial. Meanwhile, the government only recently adopted a series of measures further cracking down on free speech and personal freedoms, resonating increasingly with the authoritarian policies of the Baathist regime.

This month, Iraqi politicians and officials met with policymakers, academics, journalists and other representatives from around the world at the 7th Sulaimani Forum, held at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani. At the same time, protests erupted in Dhi Qar province, one of the centres of the Tishreen uprising, over water scarcity, echoing the main driver for 2018’s Basra protests.

At the forum, the journalist Jane Arraf asked the current Iraq prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, what “reasons” and grounds for hope he could give to young Iraqis so they would stay in the country. In his answer, he did not address the root causes of suffering; he instead acknowledged his government’s inability to provide young people with jobs in the public sector owing to “financial conditions”, and spoke about the “Riyada” (entrepreneurship) initiative for development and employment, via the private sector.

Is that it? Will this ensure that Iraqis stay in their country and live with dignity? What about women and children, who remain marginalised in government rhetoric or policies, suffering under the patriarchal norms echoed in laws and legislation?

One of the chants of the protesters three years ago was Nureed watan, meaning, we want a homeland – free from foreign interference, whether from the US or Iran. Twenty years after the invasion, Iraqis are still giving their lives for a place to call home.

Balsam Mustafa is a Leverhulme early career research fellow at the University of Warwick and author of Islamic State in Translation: Four Atrocities, Multiple Narratives.

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