“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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue