“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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred