Iraq’s “freedom” is still steeped in blood

Caroline Hawley was the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent as Saddam’s regime began to crumble. She recalls the horror of postwar Iraq — and says although the slaughter hasn’t stopped, the west is no longer watching.

Spring 2003. American and British troops were fighting their way in to Iraq. I was the BBC’s Baghdad corres­pondent, watching with frustration from neighbouring Jordan. I’d been expelled from Baghdad a few weeks earlier and couldn’t wait to get back.

Fast-forward to 9 April. As the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square was torn down we prepared to set off, spending the night in the dusty no-man’s-land between Jordan and Iraq. A short while earlier, I had chosen a bright green, satin-covered sofa in the VIP section of the Iraqi border crossing to sleep on, but then gunfire forced us to retreat and I had to bed down on top of an armoured vehicle. There wasn’t much chance of a good night’s sleep in any case.

By the time we arrived in Baghdad a few hours later, most of the shooting of the war was over – for the time being at least. It was exhilarating to be able to speak openly to Iraqis for the first time. Many of them felt quietly humiliated by the sudden presence of US soldiers in their midst. But, for others, the overriding sentiment was one of joy at seeing the back of Saddam Hussein. The full horror of the past three decades came spilling out. A Shia cleric showed me deep, crater-like marks on his back, burn scars from where he had been lowered into a vat of acid in jail. I saw the torture implements said to have been wielded by Saddam Hussein’s sadistic son Uday, including a large metal flower, inserted into the victim’s anus as a bud and then twisted open – releasing its sharp-ended petals – into an excruciating bloom. I watched as a young man called Nofal had surgery to give him prosthetic ears to replace the ones that had been cut off when he deserted the army. Usually a deserter lost only one ear, but the doctor administering the punishment had taken off the wrong ear, so both had had to go. Nofal was hoping his new ears would help him find a wife.

It was heartbreaking to watch women clawing through the earth at mass graves, desperately trying to find any remnant of their sons. Any bone or scrap of clothing was enough – they just wanted some part of their child to bury. A decade on, it is equally distressing to think how many horrors and burials, kidnappings and bombings lay ahead.

The portents of trouble were there from the start and it wasn’t only due to decisions such as the disbanding of the Iraqi army. In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, an American soldier asked me to explain to a crowd of angry Iraqis why the US military had blocked a major road, stopping all traffic. With no translator, he couldn’t get even a simple message across to them. Another soldier once barked at me: “Get off my road!” “Your road,” I thought. “Really?” It wasn’t an attitude that the Iraqis enjoyed.

It was Iraq’s borders – through which foreign jihadis would cross and cause havoc – that needed watching. A senior Australian coalition official once said to me: “We can’t organise ourselves, let alone a country.” It took weeks before a single salary was paid to government employees, including doctors and nurses who were using their savings to pay for taxi rides to work.

As the National Museum in Baghdad was looted and other state institutions were stripped bare, Iraqis asked why only the oil ministry was being protected. Whatever you think about the reasons that led Britain and the US to war, I still wonder how things might have turned out if only the coalition forces had been better prepared, and had been able to show the Iraqis they cared about them.

I remember the woman who said to me: “Iraq will be like Dubai, now. Maybe even better.” I’d love to find out what she thinks now. Late last year, I went back to Baghdad for the first time since 2005. Flying in was a revelation. Gone was the corkscrew landing to avoid missiles, though my stomach still lurched, returning to a place I had avoided for seven years because I didn’t want to watch anyone else die. I never again want to see a father run screaming down a hospital corridor holding a limbless, bloodied child. It is still happening – you just don’t hear about it much any more. Iraq Body Count lists the deaths of more than 4,500 civilians in 2012. Many more have seen their hopes dashed.

In a cramped home in the suburbs of Baghdad, we met a man called Saad who had just escaped from the mayhem in Syria and was camping with relatives. A Sunni married to a Shia, he fled Iraq at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war after receiving death threats. Now, he’d had to flee for his life a second time and was back in Baghdad, guilt-stricken about being unable to protect his nine-year-old daughter from the levels of violence she had witnessed. He was jobless, and hopeless. “I feel like I’m nothing,” he told me, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Saad’s shame reminded me of the humiliation felt by another man I once interviewed who had been jailed at Abu Ghraib. He was one of the Iraqis pictured in the infamous photograph of the naked pyramid of hooded men. He looked at his feet as he quietly recounted how they had been forced to mas­turbate each other for the soldiers’ entertainment. I visited Abu Ghraib the following year; the Americans were keen to show us how much had changed. Family visits were now allowed and young American soldiers were taking souvenir snaps of prisoners with their wives and children. The name of one of the tented camps for the detainees was Camp Redemption. Who was it, I wondered, who needed to be redeemed?

Iraq remains a troubled place. During my recent visit, I saw little of its restored oil wealth being spent on badly needed social services. The nation, collectively traumatised, has only three child psychiatrists. The ubi­quitous checkpoints and blast walls fail to stop too many bombers. Iraqis complain of rampant corruption. Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government is seen as increasingly autocratic and its relations with the country’s Sunnis continue to sour. That Iraqis now seem to be fighting on both sides of Syria’s war – even if in small numbers – doesn’t bode well. I hope, for the Iraqis’ sake, for happier times ahead.

Caroline Hawley was the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent from 2003 to 2005

A picture of Saddam Hussein is set on fire by US Marines on 7 April, 2003 in Qal'at Sukkar, Iraq. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.