Ten years ago, before the world’s mesmerised gaze, an iconic statue of Iraq’s former dictator was pulled down amid a throng of jubilant Iraqis. None of those present or bearing witness could have envisaged the extent, scope and depth of the pain that would ensue over the next decade.
Among those who danced in jubilation and took part in slapping the head of the statue with his slippers was a local taxi driver, Abu Ahmed Al-Mishadani. An Arab Sunni and 38-years-old at the time, he too saw this as the end of the darkest of eras and the start of a new dawn. Married to a Shi’i woman and with five children, his aspirations and hopes for the new era of freedom and dignity were unlimited. He had seen the inside of a Ba’thist prison cell and the fiery end of an electric rod too many times to allow himself a moment’s grief over the collapsing tyrant.
Yet since then he has been arrested three times, imprisoned for two-and-a-half years, tortured, had seven of his fingernails extracted, his skull fractured, both his legs and his left arm broken and his ‘honour’ violated more times than he can remember. This last ‘confession’ usually implies rape and sexual abuse, of which he is too ashamed to speak. Each time he was picked up by a different group: militia this, army that. Each time he pleaded with his captors to tell him the reason for his arrest. Each time he got no answer. The only answer that makes any sense to him is the one he gives to whoever cares to ask: I am a Sunni; that’s why. His wife Zahra nods in agreement.
Of course the experience of one individual cannot be used to paint a picture of an entire nation’s life across a whole decade. However, this story is repeated time and again with slight variations in the details, the injuries, the assailants and lasting wounds. There are Shi’as who tell similar horror stories, and Kurds and Turkmens and Christians and Sabians. Indeed, there are far too many stories to consider the experience of Abu Ahmed an isolated case of individual corruption and mishandling.
Ten years on, Iraq lingers at the bottom of the global transparency index, beaten only by five other more corrupt countries. Indeed, according to the very same American politicians who hailed the ‘New Iraq’, corruption is at an unimaginable and on an endemic scale. The Mercer Index points to Baghdad as the worst city in the entire world to live in, bar none.
More than 20 million Iraqis, or 76% of the entire population, do not have regular and constant electricity and/or clean running water. There is virtually no education and health system to speak of, the country’s infrastructure resembles something out of ancient times, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, and more than five million driven into exile either within or outside Iraq. Furthermore, sectarianism has firmly taken grip of a country that, despite its former tyrannical regimes, never managed to dictate the social or political fabric of Iraqi society as attested by Abu Ahmed and hundreds of thousands of other Iraqi families where the make-up is a mixture of all of Iraq’s intrinsic and organic strands.
In the past few weeks, as we commemorated the tenth anniversary of the largest anti-war demonstration in British history – which I chaired – the tenth anniversary of the war and now the tenth anniversary of the occupation of Iraq, the question asked by most media commentators and presenters is: is Iraq better or worse now than under Saddam Hussein?
The question is unfair and any answer tells us nothing new. After all, who proposed that the Iraqis had only two choices: either the dark and tyrannical days of the Ba’thist regime, or the present misery, pain and inhumanity? Why can’t Iraqis condemn both and yearn for something else, far better, far fairer and far more humane? Why should Iraqis answer such an unreasonable question in order to exonerate either a pro- or anti-war position, when it’s clearly a subjective standpoint either way?
A decade on from one of the most controversial and divisive decisions in modern times, few can claim to have fared well. Not the occupying forces which, despite gaining a military victory, lost on so many other fronts. If reports and briefings by security advisors are anything to go by, heightened terrorism alerts in the UK and the US have much to do with Iraq and its ramifications.
The country has never been so close to an all-out civil war, nor has it ever been closer to breaking up into three separate entities, than it has now. With neighbouring Syria in a state of meltdown and Iran aiming to widen its net influence in the region, the impact of the Iraq failure may be felt far and wide – and not only by Iraqis destined to suffer another generation of abject misery.
Tony Blair, under whose premiership Britain went to war and subsequently occupied Iraq, may cite the disposal of Saddam Hussein and the guise of democracy in Iraq all he wants to prove that he made the right decision. The enduring legacy of that decision, however, will be that millions of Iraqis from across the country’s sectarian, religious and ethnic divides, have come to believe that they are now suffering far greater than they did under Saddam. And boy did they suffer.
But for those who did – Abu Ahmed Al-Mishadani, his wife Zahra and thousands more like them, who celebrated the departure of the former dictator 10 years ago – are forced today to grieve over the loss of their collective humanity, dignity and their dream.
The Cordoba Foundation along with The Sharq Forum, organised an international conference on the tenth anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq on Monday, April 8 at the Commonwealth Club in central London.