Iraq Special Report: 'American Soldiers Sacrificed a Lot. But We Sacrificed More'
In 2003, a month after coalition troops invaded, Jonathan Steele reported from across the country on how ordinary people had reacted to the toppling of Saddam. Before the last US combat troops pulled out last week, he returned to track down the people he had met – and ask how their lives had been affected by the war
In Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit, the ruins of the Farouk palace, one of his many mansions, stand bereft and strewn with rubble. It seems only yesterday that I walked through them with the first Iraqi looters in April 2003.
During the night Hellfire missiles from US Cobra helicopters had knocked huge holes in the facade above the Tigris, bringing a triumphant end to the three-week invasion 96 hours after the fall of Baghdad.
Their guns slung, US troops were wandering through the wreckage like tourists, as amazed as we were by the gold-plated bathtaps and marble spiral staircase. Others were too tired to bother, lying on the grass beside their armoured vehicles.
Seven years later little has changed. The taps and furniture have gone, but soldiers' jubilant graffiti remain on the stuccoed walls. "1-10 ADA Ft Hood Texas … Killers," says one. "We weren't the first and we won't be the last," says another.
Surrounded by razor wire and guarded by the new Iraqi police force, the ruins are a reminder of an Iraq that is gone but not forgotten. Everywhere you go in this battered country Iraqis compare their life with what it was under the dictator's rule. The comparison rarely favours the mokhtalin, the word for invaders or occupiers that many use instead of "the Americans" or "the British".
With US combat troops leaving Iraq, I am trying to trace people I spoke to in April 2003. Some have died in sectarian violence. Some joined the exodus of two million refugees abroad or were among the two and a half million forced to flee their homes to safe havens elsewhere in Iraq. Some are hard to find because Iraq had no mobile phone network in those early postwar days and my old notebooks contain only names, ages, job descriptions and a few vague addresses to guide me.
I start in Tikrit, the symbolic capital of Saddam's tightknit family rule. When I visited him in 2003, Dr Bashar al-Duleimi, an ophthalmologist at the main hospital, was protecting the building from looters alongside a team of colleagues. The assault on the nearby Farouk palace had blown in most of the hospital's windows. "If the Americans are ready to offer protection, they can. But we will not ask them," he told me with stiff patriotic pride.
Now, he sits in front of shelves of medical books – mainly in English – and sums up the record of the US presence in Iraq: "We expected more – better infrastructure and better services, yet electricity supply is still only a few hours a day. Petrol is a disaster, with long, long queues."
His hospital has a large generator but ordinary citizens who rely on the public grid and suffer from constant power cuts suffer in the colossal heat. The only improvements are the increased salaries of government employees and access to advanced medical equipment, he says.
The collapse in security is the biggest change since Saddam's time and, like most Iraqis I speak to, he sees the US departure as irrelevant. "I'm happy to see them go. Security won't be worse," he says. Iraq's bloodshed can only be stemmed by Iraqis.
In Tikrit the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007 was one-sided and rapid. The city had a tiny minority of Shia. Fifty were killed and the rest fled, I was told by a Shia building worker who moved his family to Kirkuk and comes back alone during the week.
What worried Dr Duleimi was the violence within the Sunni community in those years. Some were accused of collaborating with the mokhtalin. Others were targeted for being well-off. "They phoned me and warned I would be kidnapped if I didn't pay. They tried to evacuate Tikrit of all its doctors. Many left but I stayed. They told me the money was needed for the jihad. I said it's illegal and if you were true Muslims you wouldn't do this. But every doctor paid up."
Who the "they" were he could not say, reluctant to name al-Qaida. "Who knows if it's al-Qaida? We don't want to exaggerate their strength. Al-Qaida could be only 500 people. In 1963 the Ba'athists took power in a coup with only 700," he says.
My next stop is Falluja, a city that was heavily damaged and sealed off by US and Iraqi forces for four years. Outsiders can now enter only with permission. I need to alert the police in advance and for my security have a police escort vehicle with mounted machine guns in the back as I drive around.
In no other Iraqi city do Sunnis feel such a sense of conflict. They were trapped in the heartland of resistance to Iraq's new arrivals: first the Americans, and a year later al-Qaida, who were never present in Iraq in Saddam's time.
I first visited the city a day after the first mass shooting of civilians by the Americans anywhere in Iraq. On 28 April 2003 they killed 13 protesters who had been calling for US troops to leave a primary school that they had taken over as a billet. Named The Leader after Saddam, the still dilapidated school in a dusty suburb is now dubbed The Martyrs.
Khalid Ismail, who runs a family carpentry business, was one of the protesting parents. "Someone from behind the crowd fired and the US troops were tense and nervous and fired heavily back," he says. Some analysts saw the incident as the spark that started the nationwide armed insurgency, launching a series of IED attacks on US troops.
In April and November 2004 US troops assaulted the town with overwhelming force on the ground and from the air. Almost every building along the main street is still scarred by multiple bullet holes. Many private houses that were damaged or destroyed have been rebuilt at their owners' expense. The Americans promised some help for public buildings but little materialised, residents say.
Ismail fled with his wife and six children to relatives in Baghdad. He repeats what is to become a refrain in my conversations: security, electricity supply, water and other services have got worse since Saddam; only the economy is better.
The attack in November was approved by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia and former Ba'athist who defected in the 1970s, and was appointed by the Americans as prime minister in June 2004. "He had no other choice," says Ismail, who, like most Sunnis, voted for Allawi in this year's election. The resistance in April 2003 was "nationalist and honest", but by the end of the year the city had been taken over by "intruders" linked to al-Qaida.
He wants the Americans to stay in Iraq, even though "they humiliated us and made us hate them". The reason? "No one accepts their country to be occupied but we want the US to limit Iran's interference in Iraq. Iran already controls the government in Baghdad." He mentions Iranian troops' brief seizure of a disputed oilfield on the border last December.
Taha Bidawi, a non-Ba'athist chosen as mayor by local people before the Americans entered Falluja, was glad Saddam had been toppled when I talked to him in April 2003. But he found US behaviour provocative, with their checkpoints and patrols, and he wanted US troops to leave the city to Iraqis.
Seven years later, he reflects the confusion and despair of many Sunnis. No longer the dominant group, they feel victims of discrimination by Iraq's new Shia rulers, who often behave as though every Sunni supported Saddam.
Scarred by Saddam's eight-year war with Iran and the relentless state propaganda that went with it, today's fear of Iran is sometimes shorthand for anxiety over the Shia parties that are blocking Allawi from forming the next government, even though his party won the most seats.
But the biggest Sunni traumas of recent years have been the political murders within the Sunni community and the harsh dilemmas of peaceful versus armed resistance. When does co-operation with the mokhtalin become treachery? "The two mayors who followed me were killed," says Bidawi. "The terrorists or people who call themselves mujahideen killed clerics and educated people because they were working within this political process with the Americans. Our people are poor and illiterate. Poverty undermines religious principles and people can become killers. They are told that killing a foreigner is not a sin."
By extension, killing a collaborator amounts to the same thing.
The Shia community was largely spared this internal agony. Shia militias never targeted their own elite on the same scale. With their demographic majority, Shias became the group in charge over time. They could outplay the Americans. For Sunnis it was different.
Bidawi met people from al-Qaida when they arrived in Falluja. He says he told them Iraqis knew better how to resist the Americans "but al-Qaida had an agenda of provoking civil war". He praises al-Sahwa (the Awakening Council), the movement of local tribal leaders who turned against al-Qaida, were paid by the Americans and, at least until last year, put al-Qaida on the defensive.
In November 2004, the Americans detained Bidawi's three sons on suspicion of working with the armed resistance. Two were released when the US assault was over but the elder one spent seven more months in captivity. Bidawi went to the Americans and pleaded for their release. "An American major told me their arrest might help me, and it was partly true," he says. It minimised suspicions that their father was a collaborator.
Although he feels almost everything is worse than under Saddam – unemployment, security, services – he wants the Americans to stay: "We don't have a strong enough army to defend Iraq. Turkish and Iranian planes violate our airspace. Who will help us?"
We meet in Falluja's dilapidated public library, sheltering from the ferocious 44C heat beside a flimsy fan. While we talk, two shots ring out, clearly very close. We take cover in a side room. Four more shots are heard. My driver is in the front yard and realises the shots were fired on the other side of the wall where street vendors have stalls. The last four shots came from police firing into the air to disperse onlookers. One of the first two shots had felled a policeman.
Senior police officers later give us three explanations of the incident: a policeman challenged a vendor for his licence, firing into the air and sending a second bullet into his own neck by accident. Explanation number two has the suspected illegal vendor shooting the policeman. Finally, we are told the vendor is a "terrorist" recently released from US custody. The family of one of his victims had gained a warrant for his arrest by the Iraqis. The shot policeman was trying to exercise it. In the fog of rival stories the only certainty is that a gunman escaped and a policeman is dead. Amid Iraq's continuing violence it is a lesson on the difficulty of discovering motives even for minor clashes.
On to Baghdad, where my trail takes me to a Shia mosque in a middle-class neighbourhood called al-Beyaa on the city's southern edge.
In western minds the dominant image of April 2003 is US marines pulling down Saddam's statue. For Iraqis, an equally dramatic sign of change and the imminent shift of power was the sight of more than a million Shias filling the highway to Kerbala on the annual pilgrimage to the shrine of their revered seventh-century Imam Hussein. Under Saddam pilgrims were forced to use side roads so as not to form potentially political crowds, and they were never shown on television.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Fadhli is one of the clerics I watched in April 2003, doing his best to end the looting in the occupation's early days. At a makeshift checkpoint outside the Ali al-Beyaa mosque his team were stopping and searching vehicles. Goods identified as stolen from government shops were returned. Food was stored in the mosque to be given to the poor.
Today high concrete walls shield the mosque from the main road and a largely Sunni district on the opposite side. The only entrance is guarded by Iraqi troops. But Fadhli says sectarian tensions have eased, many Sunnis have come home to Beyaa, and the militias have gone to ground.
What's the balance sheet of the last seven years, I ask. "This is a time of freedom and democracy," he says. "We used to be limited to holding prayers. Now we're free to give people advice and criticise the government. But there are negatives – sectarianism, civil war, the delay in forming a new government and the explosions. These have become less in recent years.
"Although the Iraqi army is not yet ready to protect us in terms of numbers, equipment and training, it's right for the US to leave," he says. "We want them to leave altogether at the end of next year."
The best protection from sectarian violence, he thinks, would be a strong and inclusive government, a coalition of Allawi's Sunni-supported party along with the two big Shia groups. "Tehran will accept that," he says. "The Iranians exert influence, they have an agenda, but they are not a threat." Saudi Arabia also wants to bring Iraq under its control, he adds.
I hear similar views from Raid Abdul Reda, an archaeologist at the Iraq Museum. I remember him fuming seven years ago after US troops refused to keep a tank outside the building to deter looters. "Yes," he says when I recall the episode, "I asked the American soldiers to chase the looters out and they came in and did, but when I urged them to stay on guard, they refused. 'We are army, not police,' they said. When they left, the robbers returned."
Sectarian violence forced most Sunnis out of Harir, his area of Baghdad. He is a Shia. Although he blames the murders and expulsions on the Mehdi army militias loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist cleric who became the most outspoken critic of the occupation, he voted for Sadr in March. Sadr had eventually persuaded the militias to halt their attacks on Sunnis. He is content with the US withdrawal: "It makes no difference. There were gunmen and explosions before the withdrawal. They will continue afterwards. We need a strong government like Saddam Hussein. We should make people afraid of government."
He blames the Americans for creating insecurity by disbanding the Iraqi army and police in 2003, dividing Iraqis into Sunni and Shia and helping them to turn on each other. He was not happy that the US toppled Saddam. "I expected the occupiers would destroy our country and our civilisation and the evidence is what happened to our museum," he says bitterly.
Like many Iraqis, he sees the country as a victim. "I feel nervous about the influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait. They all want to see Iraq destabilised."
Paradoxically, one person who suffered a major family blow was among the least resentful towards the Americans. On a visit to Kadhimiya hospital in those early postwar days I came across five-year-old Ali Mustafa with a leg wound and bandages across his eyes. Playing outside, he had picked up an unexploded US cluster bomb and lost his sight when it detonated.
In the sectarian violence of 2006 his father lost his job in a government office because he could not get to work. The sound of gunfire and bombs terrified the small, blind child. The family left Baghdad for Amara in south-eastern Iraq.
On the phone Mustafa Ghalib, his father, tells me that life has improved since Saddam's time. "We feel freedom and democracy. Under Saddam we couldn't say what we thought, even in front of the family," he says. But the US troops have stayed long enough. "Security will improve when the US withdraws. The foreign forces caused many problems, including making my son blind."
In the narrative of the US military and the Republican party, the war in Iraq has been an American success, crowned by a surge of extra troops in 2007 that is said to have ended sectarian killing and defeated al-Qaida. As I go through my notes I realise that none of my Iraqi interviewees has mentioned the surge, let alone thanked the Americans.
When he sums up their seven-year endeavour in a speech from the Oval Office on Tuesday night, Barack Obama will no doubt be smart enough to find a way of praising US forces while not resiling from his opposition to the war and his criticism of the surge. He could steal the words of Enas Ibrahim, the Iraqi reporter who accompanied me on the trip to Tikrit.
At one point a vast convoy of armoured American trucks carrying containers and military hardware trundled southward in the opposite lane. "How do you feel when you see that?" I ask her.
"I feel happy for them," she answers. "They sacrificed a lot but Iraqis sacrificed more."