“It’s the occupation, stupid”: what went wrong in Iraq

Ten years on, James Rodgers reflects on the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

 

There could have been no hope of escape. This was the human cost of taking on Saddam Hussein: violent death. Even though months had passed since the building had been burnt out, the scorch marks were still visible. Now, some months after the US-led attack on Iraq, a clearer idea of the numbers who had been killed was starting to emerge.

It was not 2003 or after. It was 1992. The schoolteacher who was showing me the gutted brick and concrete building said it had been the local headquarters for Saddam Hussein’s secret police. Countless opponents of his regime had been tortured there. It had been torched by a vengeful population in the wake of the 1991 war.

Now this part of northern Iraq, with its majority Kurdish population, was no longer under the control of Saddam Hussein’s government. I had been able to enter Iraq without a visa, from Turkey. My guide was a Kurd. During the time I spent with him during that reporting trip, he spoke more than once of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons at Halabja. Memories of murderous oppression did not fade.

I thought of the teacher again in the autumn of 2002. The United States, under another President Bush, was once again preparing to attack Iraq. By then, I was the BBC’s correspondent in the Gaza Strip. The post offered a rare perspective. I listened to and watched international English language news media in which contributors queued up to express support for the expected invasion. The people among whom I lived – the Palestinians of Gaza – were overwhelmingly against it. 

In Gaza then, Saddam Hussein was hailed by many as a hero, lionised for his implacable enmity towards Israel. His picture, in which he was often shown in traditional Arab dress, appeared on shop fronts and rear windows. A week or so before the invasion began, with a winter wind from the desert making Gaza unusually cold, there was a ceremony in which funds from Iraq were distributed to the families of those – fighters and civilians alike – who had been killed in the conflict with Israel.

I spoke to another teacher during those days: Ahmed Abdullah, who had arrived Gaza in 1948 as an infant refugee. Arguing that democracy would never come to Iraq on the barrel of a gun, Mr Abdullah shared his fellow Gazans’ opposition to the planned invasion.

He shared something with his fellow teacher, too. Like my guide through the shell of the secret police building, Mr Abdullah had a hatred of being trapped, and oppressed.

As the invasion and occupation of Iraq went on, public support for Saddam Hussein in Gaza fell away with the winter wind. Demonstrations petered out; a large tent set up as a focus of opposition to the war was taken down.

Later that year I went to report from Iraq on the aftermath of the invasion. Arriving in Bagdad in early December, I remember being struck by the number of US soldiers wearing sunglasses even in the dull days of midwinter. They may have seen themselves as liberators. They looked like occupiers.

The timing of my trip meant that I was part of the BBC team reporting from Iraq when Saddam Hussein was captured. I was the first BBC reporter to reach the village where the deposed dictator had been hauled from the hole in the ground where he had been hiding.

The glee with which senior officials celebrated created a false sense of victory. As I noted in my recent book, Reporting Conflict, “It was undoubtedly a triumph for the coalition, especially in propaganda terms, but audiences probably inferred that its strategic significance was greater than it really was.”

It was only months later, in the spring of 2004, that the insurgency began – provoked then, perhaps, not only by loyalty to the deposed dictator but also by hatred of the occupation and the chaos which had come with it.  

While the political leaders who launched the invasion remain largely unrepentant, they also remain ignorant: ignorant of what it means to live under occupation; ignorant of how it feels to live with the threat of suicide bombers; ignorant of how angry any population on earth can feel as a result. The approach was the diplomatic equivalent of the dark glasses which rendered the occupying forces faceless. Policy makers were distant, their perspectives obscured.

Iraq Body Count has calculated that more than 100,000 civilian deaths followed the 2003 invasion. Among the dead, there were probably many who once dreamed of an Iraq no longer under Saddam Hussein’s power.

What went wrong? To borrow that Clinton campaign slogan from the 1992 election, “It’s the occupation, stupid.”

 

James Rodgers is the author of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), and of No Road Home: fighting for Land and Faith in Gaza (forthcoming, Abramis, 2013). He is a former BBC correspondent in Moscow, Brussels, and Gaza. He now lectures in Journalism at City University London. 

A picture of Saddam Hussein is set on fire by US Marines on 7 April, 2003 in Qal'at Sukkar, Iraq. Photograph: Getty Images
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder