Iraq 10 Years Later: The Bitter Days Continue because Policy didn’t put People First (Al-Sheemary)

Banen Al-Sheemary ( @balsheem), a young Iraqi-American woman and activist, writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

Ten years today, I remember sitting in front of the television and watching the sky turn bright yellow because of the massive blasts. Silent, I turned away from the screen to see my parents’ reaction. Absolute silence. That was the first time my parents were without an opinion on something the news was covering. There was a sullen quietness as they watched their beloved country explode into flames. My twelve-year-old self had already been indoctrinated with the simple good guy, bad guy mentality, to which many Americans unfortunately adhere. I struggled to understand the logic behind the invasion of Iraq. Was Iraq a bad country? What had they done wrong? Why is it America’s right to invade and change it? I looked over at my parents again and I could tell their hearts were reeling. “Believe it. Liberation is coming,” said a confident George W. Bush as he spread more war propaganda in his visit to Dearborn. All I knew was that the ruthless Saddam Hussein would soon to be gone. What would become of Iraq? Under the guise of Operation Iraqi “Freedom,” the complete destruction began of what had been known as Iraq.

My family had fled Iraq as refugees in the early 1990s. March 20, 2003, is a bittersweet date for me, since it marked the day I could return to the country. But it is also the day “Shock and Awe” began CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stated that in his thirty years as a journalist, he had never witnessed anything like the attack on Baghdad. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” warfare was a quick and easy solution, with no concern for civilian life.

The Cradle of Civilization was overtaken by incessant chaos, destruction, and death. In an instant, Iraq was forever changed. It is now home to 4.5 million orphans, two million widows, over four million refugees, while over half the population lives in slums. This was Iraq. As the Bush Administration boasted about its questionable accomplishments, all I could see was the Iraqi body count rise. The post-2003 Iraq is not the country my parents longed for. Barred from returning to Iraq until 2003, I will never know the country in which I was born as it was before sanctions and occupation warped it. I was too young to remember my family fleeing during the first invasion of Iraq. Before we fled, we got rid of all our belongings. My baby pictures were burned to ensure that when Saddam’s thugs checked, there would be no proof of my existence. It was as if my identity was erased, and until March 20th, 2003, I was locked away from this part of my life.

From Desert Storm, through the Clinton Administration, and into the 2003 occupation of Iraq, I still couldn’t trace the U.S. government’s plans for Iraq. But what I was sure of was every administration’s jingoistic attitude that shaped foreign policy and consistently disregarded human life. Iraq saw treacherous times in the nineties because of the imposition of history’s most comprehensive sanctions. Iraq was broken and denied any ability to thrive, even in the most basic of ways.

These brutal sanctions led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. My older sister recalls Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine K Albright’s infamous interview in which she was asked if the price of half a million Iraqi children was worth it. She simply said we think the price is worth it.” It was an easy decision for the Clinton Administration to make on behalf of all Iraqis, because Iraq was forced to pay. As young as I was, I understood that people of different religions and backgrounds weren’t treated as equals. This dangerous underlying notion, that certain people are more worthy of life than others, heavily shapes our foreign policy and is upheld from one administration to the next.

In retrospect, the amount of propaganda that fueled and attempted to legitimize the war was and is staggering. I recall watching the news and being angry at the distorted images of Iraq and its people. I now understand how the media engineered public opinion to justify the invasion. Maintaining the “us” versus “them” binary was crucial in validating the administration’s agenda and furthering the so called war on terror. Soon enough, I heard my classmates echo falsity and absurd CNN headlines. I’ll hold back on the silly names I’ve been called as a result of this. Hearing my parents’ stories about Iraq helped me put the pieces together. The story starts back in their young adult years.

My parents never experienced Iraq under sanctions. During the seventies and eighties, Iraq was a powerhouse of academia, with a thriving economy. In 1979, an Iraqi dinar was equal to $3.20. Nowadays, an Iraqi dinar is practically worthless. Saddam’s effort to lead in the Arab world led to many positive reforms, especially for women. My mother enjoyed free transportation to work as required by the state and a six month fully paid maternity leave. Despite his cruel methods of subjugation and obsession with monopolizing and maintaining power, his push to make Iraq the leader of the Arab world, meant economic and social reform. The build-up of the case against Saddam Hussein’s actions can be attributed to sanctions and paranoia as international pressure mounted on the regime. My family resides in southern Iraq and we are a people, amongst others, that have been brutally persecuted by Saddam’s party for decades.

Many of the conversations I have regarding Iraq revolve around “Well, Iraq is better now because Saddam is gone and America is there.” Sanctions, Saddam’s regime, and the American invasion and occupation left millions of Iraqis with broken homes, empty fridges and bleak prospects for the future. Whether under totalitarian rule or a foreign occupation, millions of Iraqis are still suffering. The choice and trite discussion of who Iraq is better under is irrelevant and ought to be put to rest.Ten years passed and in my privileged University of Michigan classes, discussions around this foolish debate and refuting the claim that oil was a decisive factor for invading, are still major topics. It was time for me to return and experience the Iraq of today.

January 2012 marked my first return to Iraq. Before my flight, I sat in the airport reading as the time passed. Hundreds of American soldiers returning from Iraq were received by family and friends, applause, and even a news crew. I shook my head because of what the soldiers represented to me. For many, they symbolize freedom, nobility, and honor. To Iraqis, they are the physical manifestation of terror, supremacism and occupation. I thought back to the times I was called un-American because of my critiques of America’s policies in Iraq and my nonexistent support for the military. I was “crazy” for not supporting the push to remove Saddam from power. People equated the administration’s bombing campaign with patriotism and justice, completely disregarding the consequences of war and foreign occupation. Iraq has become fragmented and pieced. I think of how long it will take to assemble the pieces back together; to try to bring together those shards of glass that once made a beautiful piece of work.

Nowadays, the occupation dictates every aspect of Iraqi life. The remnants of a brutal and careless invasion show on the faces of the people that live everyday as a struggle. Suicide and car bombings, fighting between armed militias, kidnappings, and snipers result in a feeling of despair and no sense of security. Simple everyday tasks like walking to a local market or sending children off to school become impossible. On my first day back in Iraq, massive explosions rocked Baghdad. I was awakened to the realities of this so called newly democratic country. Both the Iraqi and American governments promised many things for the people, like building a sewage system. The could not even fulfill this basic necessity. Inadequate water resources have caused massive death and disease in several cities. The two-hour electricity limit halts any work that needs to be done for the day. Birth defects will continue for decades because of the depleted uranium weaponry used by American soldiers. This was Iraq.

“The war in Iraq will soon belong to history” stated Barack Obama in an address marking the supposed end of the occupation of Iraq. America will remember it as history, but Iraqis live through it. I shy away from reading articles on the commemoration of the invasion of Iraq, written by journalists who don’t understand. I become frustrated and always stop after reading just the headline. I laugh at every mention of the lessons to be learned and how America can move forward. Iraq is stuck in a phase of despair, but we as Americans must learn from the occupation? I watch as oil companies, “defense contractors,” and corrupt government leaders profiteer off of an occupation that cut Iraq from any lifeline it had. The fortress called the U.S. embassy, staffed by thousands of foreign soldiers stands as a permanent reminder of the occupation.”

America is able to move forward, rebuilding its economy, but Iraq and its people, must endure the harsh and unwelcoming decades to come.A lesson to learn from Iraqis is one of human dignity and perseverance through trying times. Have we learned? In a new documentary covering Dick Cheney’s legacy, he mentions, “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” And today, mainstream media outlets and the government aggressively continue to build a case against Iran, eerily reminiscent of what we saw ten years ago. We will never learn until we stop seeing people and countries as strategic plans, a means to an end, as valueless and unknown.

My first visit to Iraq was in 2012, because the occupation made it too dangerous to travel there. One afternoon, my uncle and I drove through Hilla. I forced him to speak about the occupation. After an hour of hearing horrendous stories of crimes committed by American soldiers, he tiredly says “We are nothing to them. To America, we are simply strategic. Through their eyes, our lives aren’t worth anything.” That was the end of the conversation. I noticed that Iraqis never speak of the occupation. It was as if it was a past memory. I sense that Iraqis have perseverance built within them because of the decades of unrest that they have lived through; they keep on living every day as they can. These are the Iraqis that are reconstructing what is rightfully theirs.

Everyday Iraqis have been partaking in reconstructing Iraq after a destructive occupation in which they were robbed of their agency, future and country. Iraqis create and expand projects as the current government continues to neglect the citizen’s needs. Upper class citizens and Iraqi expatriates living in the US or Britain play a role in funding these projects. Many social service facilities are being rebuilt, with a focus on widows, orphans, the elderly, and disabled. Whether it is building bridges or starting up a water filter company, these projects are opening doorways for job opportunities and steadily decreasing unemployment rates. Despite the lack of security and political and economic turmoil, the hardships that Iraqis face are slowly easing and will be solved by the resilient Iraqis who continue to resist and struggle for a better life. Iraqis are forging a path of their own to recreate their Iraq, one away from the government’s corrupted plans and free of the American occupation’s stifling grasp.

Ten long and painful years have passed.The orphan Mustafa from Baghdad says “I feel like a bird in a cage here. I wish there was someone to listen to us.” Indeed Iraqis are listening. I see the same resilience and perseverance in Iraqis, that I see in my parents. Years will pass before Iraq will prosper, but I see a future for Iraq because of the millions that are working for it. When I visit Iraq I smile and blink the tears away. The anger from my heart dissipates when I see shops open for business, human rights organizations assisting widows and orphans, and college students organizing for an event they’re sponsoring. It will come together. Justice and progress will flourish because the people demand it and they will succeed. This is Iraq.

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Banen Al-Sheemary has been active at the University of Michigan with Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, Iraqi Student Association, and Muslim Student Association’s Social Justice and Activism Committee

11 Responses

  1. President Obama once said that “American values sometimes clash with American interests”. The sad part is that American interests – I would say short-term interests – always win over American values. The illegal invasion of Iraq and the constant saber rattling against Iran are two such examples. I would argue that in the long-term these interests would seem to be illusory. America would benefit more if it sticks to its values and act accordingly.

  2. Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), to which the author of this article belongs, has been castigated at University of Michigan by pro-Israel activists as being an anti-Semitic group – which SAFE has disputed. One Yemeni-American student at U-M ran for Ann Arbor City Council in 2009 and was falsely identified by some as a SAFE member apparently to damage his chances of getting elected.

    SAFE remains a controversial organization in the City of Ann Arbor.

  3. 2nd try – Hopefully you can click on the links below.

    An excellent article by Ms. Al-Sheemary.

    In late March 2013, this news emerged, on the epidemic of birth defects in Iraq following its bombardment:

    1. See the BBC News report, released March 21, 2013. These birth defects have been attributed to war munitions, by interviewees at the Iraqi Health Ministry & also at Basra Maternity Hospital: link to bbc.co.uk

    2. See the BBC documentary, first broadcast March 22, 2013, with longer interviews, including Dr. Muhsin Al-Sabbak and Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani. The BBC also interviews Iraqi Health Ministry staff members. They confirm that a World Health Organization report will show an increase of birth defects following the bombardment of Iraq: link to bbc.co.uk

    3. See also CNN: “Birth defects on the rise in Fallujah”, March 20, 2013, at: link to cnn.com

    4. See also SBS World News Australia: “Iraq’s epidemic of birth defects linked to war”, March 21, 2013, at link to sbs.com.au

    5. See also Al Jazeera: “Epidemic of birth defects in Iraq and our duty as public health researchers”, March 15, 2013, at link to aljazeera.com

    6. See again Al Jazeera: “Iraq: War’s legacy of cancer”, March 15, 2013, at link to aljazeera.com

    7. See Democracy Now: “Ten Years Later, U.S. Has Left Iraq with Mass Displacement & Epidemic of Birth Defects, Cancers”, March 20, 2013, at link to democracynow.org

    8. See also MSNBC: “Bush promised Iraqi civilians a better future. What are their lives like now?”, March 18, 2013, at link to tv.msnbc.com

    9. See also the Chicago Tribune, March 21, 2013, in the column “Soul Poison”, at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/sns-201303201630–tms–rkoehlerctnbk-a20130321-20130321,0,1598481.column

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    This Chicago Tribune column summarizes the harm done to Iraq:

    “The invasion and occupation of Iraq caused the violent deaths of perhaps a million Iraqis — God knows, maybe more — and displaced more than 4 million; it shattered the country’s physical and social infrastructure, unleashing sectarian mayhem in a formerly stable, secular society; and through reckless use of radioactive and toxic weaponry and horrific irresponsibility in the disposal of war waste, it has bequeathed a legacy of cancer, birth defects and much, much more to the nation’s present and future…

    “…We eviscerated Fallujah during two invasions in 2004, not simply destroying it but contaminating it with depleted uranium and white phosphorous, along with high levels of other toxic metals. Now miscarriages, birth defects, cancer, neurological diseases and conditions for which there is no medical term plague the city at levels higher than those seen in Hiroshima in the wake of the atom bomb….”

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  4. Banen, you tell a heart breaking story! The invasion of Iraq resulted in the distruction of the Iraqi state with all its components, human and otherwise. Now it is Syria that is being subjected to same fate but by way of political Islam, the new tool box.

  5. Thanks Banen for this reminder. All the “experts”" like Bremer, Cheney and so many “journalists” care not at all for the Iraqis or any other real humans.

  6. Thankyou for this essay.
    The USA has not learned anything – and will do it again as long as the country remains unpunished.

  7. I suppose that the attitude of the “American” ‘leaders’ was (and probably still is) that the Iraqis owe the “Americans” something for the efforts to remove Hussein. Because of this attitude, the Iraqis should have rolled over and acted liked dogs cowering before their masters. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case except when leaders and armies come from the same cultural backgrounds (e.g., Germany) but this only lasts for a while, even if it does happen.
    Hussein had the same sorts of problems that Nasser had when he began the Arab solidarity, one the one hand opposition from the ‘West’ and, on the other, opposition from those whose cultural biases favoured the local leadership. Even with Iran, it became a matter of ‘the enemy of your enemy is our ally’ thinking, pitting Iraq against Iran, setting in motion a war of attrition between the two nations that would enervate both and leave compliant states stronger in the end (e.g., Saudi Arabia). Now, Iran is emboldened by the disaster in Iraq. Why should the Iranis succumb to the same sorts of blunders that befell Iraq?
    As far as SAFE is concerned, that is, its being identified as ‘anti-Semitic,’ this is – again – a ‘Western,’ Euro-Centric position that has no relevance in the modern World. ‘Anti-Semitism’ was a European construct that addressed adherents of Middle Eastern religious mythology that cannot be applied to the Middle East or Arab World as a whole in that most in the region are Semites of long lineage. So, how can those who are something by blood against what they are? As it stands, one might conclude that the only ‘anti-Semitism’ going on in the Middle East is being waged by those Europeans who have thought it clever to invade and occupy, before establishing themselves among the indigenous as the “Master Race.”
    The ‘masterly’ can co-opt the language and promulgate the lies and distorted beliefs and then declare victory. This is the war that Hussein really fought and still has not lost. The notion of ‘victory’ becomes validated when the intended goals have been proven to be achievable and then success reinforces the standing of the victors. But, as we’ve seen, lies and distortions do not ever overwhelm the Truth. Like cheap coats of paint, they eventually become worn and peel, revealing the underlying structure.

    • The writer speaks of George W. Bush in his visit to Dearborn.

      Many Iraqi exiles in Michigan joined the efforts of the Iraqi National Congress, which was created and funded by the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency at the behest of Pres. George H.W. Bush to foment the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime.

      Iraqi attitudes about U.S. involvement in Iraq are widely varied. Many saw the U.S. as needed to overthrow Hussein. The Shi’ites and Kurds in Iraq virtually begged the U.S. to intervene militarily on their respective behalfs in 1991 to remove Hussein from power. Without the U.S. assistance, brutal retribution was carried out against these groups.

      Hussein’s sadistic and violent internal security forces supressed any type of possible anti-government conduct. One popular Shi’ite imam was killed by having his forehead pop riveted. Ayatollah Ali Sistani had his home machine-gunned. These acts were by the Iraqi security forces under the Baathists. One former security agent testified that he would torture detainees on behalf of Saddam’s regime by using a pair of pliers on the inside of these detainees’ mouths. Saddam’s regime committed crimes against humanity at Halabja by using nerve gas there against the Kurds and committed many other atrocities. One by-product of this internal repression was sectarian violence was kept to a minimum. Hussein skimmed billions of dollars of oil revenues that could have been used to improve the plight of Iraqis and brought upon sanctions upon Iraq by his imprudent conduct. The Baathists were the worst nightmare of the Iraqi people.

      Incidents like the Abu Ghraib abuses and the Abeer Qasim Hamza gang rape and murder are undoubtedly true and painful episodes in Iraqi-U.S. relations. However, most U.S. Armed Forces members serving in Iraq did so with honor and dignity and are proud of their contributions to that nation. Al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and other extremists, such as Ansar al-Islam have been largely eradicated within Iraq.

      Persecution against Kurds, Jews, and Chaldeans have long historical roots within Iraq and predate American military involvement. There are likely less than 100 Jews in Iraq – many have relocated to Israel since 1948 – and the Chaldean community that has settled in America, almost all, have no intention of returning.

      One thing that I have noticed in Metro Detoit thae last few decades has been the closing of many Roman Catholic churches, however at the same time Iraqi Catholic-rite (Chaldean) churches are being constructed.

      Much of the problems within Iraq have been a by-product of a freely-elected government and a free society. America has not been perfect, but a geat deal of the violent acts arise inherently from the sectarian nature of Iraqi society.

  8. I cannot agree more with the article. though I cannot agree with the comment of Saddam’s “positive reform efforts” actually these reform were introduced before his ascend to power. With many Iraqis traveling and getting education abroad, those who returned pushed for reforms and improvement. My aunts finished universities before Saddam. I lived in Iraq and I remember when my educated father could not get a job since he did not belong to the Baath party. I remember how his educated friends were escaping Iraq and encouraged us to do the same. No Saddam did not improve the Iraqi’s life he terrorized their life and did it even more with the help of the American sanctions.

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