‘In 2003, I and my family were displaced from Baghdad, we went to Diyala [about 50 miles south-east of Baghdad]. I saw on TV the statue of Saddam Hussein collapsing and falling apart and I felt happy because we got rid of this dictatorship. But, on the second day, when I went back home, I found the sight of US tanks and military troops rather painful. Even though I was only 17 years old at the time, I had these very intense negative emotions that almost overwhelmed me. I wished that change could have come through the national decision of the citizens of Iraq, not through occupation. The option of war is not a solid option in order to get rid of dictatorship because war has its own severe consequences that are just as damaging as a dictatorship.’
These are the words of Iraqi activist Enas Jabbar, 37, interviewed just before the 20th anniversary of the 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq. Enas is a human rights defender who also defends the rights of women in general. She is also a leading figure in the Tammouz Organization for Social Development, a Baghdad-based NGO which promotes human rights, gender equality and democracy.
Speaking through a translator, Rand Firas, a fellow activist in the Iraqi Social Forum, Enas shares more of her memories of the invasion: ‘I remember when I was in Diyala. US troops bombarded some armouries where the Iraqi military used to store their own equipment and weapons. Shrapnel from the bombardment killed and injured Iraqi civilians. This is the kind of change the US invasion brought into Iraq. Change should not be brought about using this mechanism and this mentality and these tools. This kind of change is not compatible with the true aspirations of the Iraqi people.’
Enas was taking part in a joint interview alongside another Iraqi activist, Ramiz Majeed. Ramiz, 22, is an editor and translator at the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative (ICSSI), which organised the interview for PN. He’s also an engineering student at the University of Baghdad and the co-ordinator of ‘Equality’, a group that works for gender equality in sports.
Ramiz tells me that he doesn’t remember the invasion, because he was only born in 2000, but that he does remember seeing, on the TV news, Saddam Hussein’s statue being pulled down. He also remembers another famous TV clip of a man holding up a photograph of Saddam Hussein and hitting it. Ramiz adds: ‘Two years ago, I heard that he regrets doing that. He says that it’s not different [now] from Saddam.’
Ramiz remembers being bewildered as a young child during the civil war of 2006 – 2008, when violence between the Sunni and Shia communities was at its height. He says: ‘I was very confused at that time because my family was trying to protect me from the reality. I used to go to school one or two days a week, instead of five, and I asked my mom: “Why am I not going there?” She told me: “There is no school for today, so don’t worry.”’
In reality, it was too dangerous to go outside in their part of the city because ‘there was a clash between al-Qa’eda and another militia’.
Ramiz remembers a time when he was five or so, when he went out to the local shop: ‘There was this guy just walking in front of me and, within one second, the guy was just dead on the floor. Everyone ducked down. I did not understand what was happening but I saw the blood coming out of his head. It turned out that it was a sniper on top of a mosque and he was aiming for that person.’
This is one area where Ramiz believes that there has been improvement in the last 20 years: relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Ramiz says: ‘Now, sectarianism is something that is only talked about by political figures. Iraqis got rid of that ideology. This is a big change that happened step by step throughout these 20 years.’
Feeding on sanctions
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 followed another major crime, the economic sanctions on Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly children under the age of five, between 1990 and 2003.
Enas describes the sanctions as ‘very unjust, very cruel and also inhumane’. They were said to be aimed at the regime of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party ‘when, in fact, the people who suffered the most, who were targeted, who suffered famine, who experienced despair, were actually the Iraqi people themselves’, not Saddam Hussein or the rest of the leadership.
Along with many other observers, Enas believes that the sanctions did not damage Saddam, but actually strengthened him. The regime could blame all the problems in the country on the sanctions, which were imposed by an official enemy, the United States (and its evil allies) through the United Nations: ‘The political system used the sanctions to their own advantage. This fascist system was feeding on that situation.’
As Ramiz was only three when the sanctions came to an end with the US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq, he has no direct memories, but he has often heard others talking about the period: ‘I hear people saying: “Despite the fact that we had the sanctions, despite the poverty, despite the bad economic situation in Iraq, we felt more safe during that time, there was law and order.” Other people are saying: “No, during that time, we did not have money to have any basic needs, and, at the same time, we did not feel the safety that other people are talking about. We were actually targeted.” In a sectarian way, the regime of Saddam Hussein was targeting the Shia part of the population.’
Ramiz himself feels that ‘neither the sanctions and the dictatorship, or the current democracy that we’re having right now, neither of them was able to provide basic human rights and basic human conditions and livelihoods. Poverty is still here, even though we don’t have the sanctions.’
One of the few events in Iraq that has caught international attention since the defeat of the Islamic State terror group has been the huge, largely nonviolent Tishreen protest movement that started in October 2019.
Enas was very firm that ‘the demonstrations didn’t start in 2011 or 2019, they actually started in 2005.’ However, the pre-Tishreen protests were more narrowly focused and, in Enas’s eyes, often ‘limited’ by elite figures in NGOs and by politicians who had returned from exile after the invasion.
There were widespread protests in Iraq in 2011 over poverty, cuts in the food ration, lack of public services (especially electricity and water) and so on.
When the Tishreen uprising started in October 2019, Enas actually heard some of the repression that was directed at the protesters, but she didn’t realise what was happening: ‘My house was very near Tahrir Square, which is where the demonstrations took place in the centre of Baghdad. I was hearing the sound of gunfire and bombing. I did not have that much of an idea about what was actually going on. There was this general state of not realising the amount of horror that took place.’ The internet had been shut down by the government so that news about the terror could not get out.
Ramiz was in Tahrir Square from the first day of the protests, 1 October. (Tishreen is Arabic for ‘October’.)
A 19-year-old university student at the time, Ramiz didn’t think that anything big was going to happen but, when he got to Tahrir Square, he was surprised by the large numbers of demonstrators and by their variety – different ages, different organisations, different perspectives, ‘all united together’.
Another surprise was the government’s brutal response to this nonviolent protest: ‘We were faced by machine guns, light and heavy guns, snipers, metal teargas canisters that were aimed at people’s heads. Not to mention the arrests and the beatings that happened. It was random, it was so random. They weren’t targeting anyone. They were shooting everywhere.’
Ramiz was reminded of the aggressive tactics used by the Iraqi security forces in their all-out war against ISIS in 2014 – 2017.
In the face of all this violence, the protesters remained nonviolent: ‘We kept running and going back and running and going back, yelling our slogans, not being afraid. We were only holding our roses and our flags against these guns.’
Ramiz adds: ‘This is only the first day, 1 October.’
International observers including Amnesty International agree that in the first three months of the Tishreen protests – all around Iraq – over 600 demonstrators were killed by the security forces and by pro-government militias.
Enas says: ‘The number of the casualties who fell down by these horrible methods of repression was actually shocking. There was this general awakening that happened in the mindset of every Iraqi citizen. Because of the level and intensity of what happened, we all realised the illusion that we’re living in, that we have to stand and raise our voices and just act upon something – to refuse the system, to overthrow the system.
Ramiz says that, when the tents started to go up on 25 October, he and his friends decided to stay: ‘We have enough support from other Iraqis, they’re supporting us with food, with blankets, with tents, clothes and whatnot.’
It’s the system
Ramiz goes on: ‘In the first month of the October uprising, there was one clear demand, which is that the people wanted to overthrow the system. In the previous protests and demonstrations, we were demanding better life conditions, water, services, electricity, a better political system, better security.’
None of these more limited protests had won their demands: ‘So, this is how we learned, through our experience, that demanding these small things will not work.’
In previous demonstrations, protesters had sometimes asked for the sacking of a particular official or politician: ‘Now they’re not saying that: we want the dismissal of the whole system, of the whole parliament, the whole ministries, the president, the vice-president.’
Even if an individual was not corrupt, and had good intentions, they would not be able to be productive in that system. Whoever the prime minister was, that person was not really in control: ‘There are other people behind him, controlling him, as sort of a toy. We have America, we have the UK, we have Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, all of them, interfering with our affairs, not to mention internal militias, internal major political parties that are controlling the whole situation, that are backed by the countries that I just mentioned.’
This was a general understanding among many Iraqis, that the system as a whole had to go, Ramiz says.
Enas adds that the development of this understanding had taken many years, until the Tishreen movement finally produced one united national demand that was inclusive and simple and which echoed locally and regionally as well: ‘The slogan was very clear, it was one sentence: “We need a home and we ask for a home or a nation.”’ (Abroad, the slogan has usually been translated into English as: ‘We want a homeland.’)
Over the months, however, Ramiz says, the demands made in Tahrir Square gradually changed into: calling for an early election, for a new election law, for a new president.
Then the government actually met the demand for early elections: ‘They did not meet any other demands, they did not hear our voices, they went exactly for that demand in particular.’
At the same time, for months, ‘we were daily being repressed and killed and violated by the government and by militias and by SWAT [police assault teams] and by the federal police.’
During the pandemic, the protesters set up their own quarantine ‘in our own camps’, Ramiz says. Partly because of the pandemic and partly because of an economic downturn, the camps began to receive less support in terms of money, clothing, and so on.
Even though the Tishreenis were reduced to one meal a day, with barely enough water to drink, they continued their protest – even in the heat of the Iraqi summer. (I was once in a marquee tent in Baghdad in August. The metal poles holding up the canvas became too hot to touch. The air temperature was over 50 ºC.)
What forced Ramiz and his friends to leave in the end was infiltration by drug dealers. Ramiz believes they were planted in Tahrir Square to discredit the protesters by giving the impression that ‘there were drug addicts and alcoholics and we are not Muslims and whatnot’.
Drug wars started happening in the square: ‘This is when people started to leave, because our demands weren’t being met and, even though we survived the government oppression, we might be killed by drug dealers.’
Ramiz and his friends left on 15 August 2020, after 10 months in the Tahrir Square protest camp.
That camp came to an end but other protests have continued, including Tishreen demonstrations every October. Since 2019, in the words of Fanar Haddad, an expert on Iraqi sectarianism: ‘protest culture has become ubiquitous in Iraq, especially in Baghdad and the other Shia-majority areas of the country that were the site of the Tishreen protests.’
The question now
I ask Enas and Ramiz what message they had on the 20th anniversary of the invasion.
Enas says: ‘We hope, we refuse that something like that war could be imposed on any country or any nation whatsoever. I believe in the end that the democracy that was imposed on Iraqis is a rather deformed democracy.’
She goes on: ‘After 20 years of imposed American military intervention, Iraqis still pay the dues for that. The result is an unstable country – economically speaking, politically speaking, socially speaking, culturally speaking, and so on. The destiny of Iraq is not decided by Iraqis. In fact, Iraq has become rather an arena to settle the scores of other countries. For example, what happened when the leaders of the Popular Mobilisation were assassinated, this was an actual example of Iraq being used to settle the scores between two countries.’
Enas is talking here about the US drone strike in Baghdad airport on 3 January 2020, which killed five military leaders from Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) as well as Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and four other senior Iranian officers (PN 2638 – 2639). The PMU are part of the Iraqi armed forces, and their political wing won the second-largest number of seats in the Iraqi parliament in the 2018 elections.
Ramiz says that Enas had made many of the points he was thinking of making. He adds: ‘We’re still being invaded, but this time it’s not only by the US, it’s other countries as well: the UK, Iran, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and all the other big countries. That has created the chaos.’
The big change, ‘the thing that we’re striving for’, might not come for 20 or 50 years, Ramiz suggests. He’s talking about real democracy coming to Iraq: ‘I have a simple question for George Bush. You promised “freedom” and “democracy” and “a better future”, 20 years ago. You did not meet your promises. So, where are you? And where are those promises?’
'We’re still being invaded, but this time it’s not only by the US'
Ramiz goes on: ‘Until this day, democracy is something that we’re only experiencing on election day. In the four other years [between elections], we do not see any kind of democracy, not in decision-making, not in representation, not in any sort of form of democracy.’
Ramiz says that: ‘Back in 2005, everyone was happy about the elections’, but they cast their vote largely according to their religion and their sectarian affiliation. Today, on the other hand, ‘people are not electing this person because he is Shia or Sunni, or he is Christian or whatever, they’re voting for them according to their parties.’
The problem, Ramiz points out, is that people still aren’t asking what programme of action the candidate or the party is promising to carry out.
Democracy is, in Ramiz’s words, ‘so chaotic’, partly because of the sheer number of political parties: ‘For example, we have nine communist parties. We have dozens of Shia parties, dozens of Sunni parties, dozens of Kurdish parties. In total, the last time I read about this, we have over 300 political parties in Iraq.’
When US president George W Bush declared war on Iraq on 17 and 19 March 2003, and in his famous ‘mission accomplished’ speech on 1 May 2003, he said 25 times that the US was going to bring freedom to Iraq.
There’s a long way to go.