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15 March 2023

I came to Iraq as an idealistic volunteer and was nearly killed in my first week

Working in Kirkuk, I fell in love with the country and its people. But the West’s intervention brought devastation and destabilised the Middle East.

By Emma Sky

Twenty years ago, in the spring of 2003, when I responded to an email from the Foreign Office asking for volunteers to go to Iraq to administer the country, I had no idea what to expect. I was told to get to RAF Brize Norton and jump on a military plane to Basra, and that on arrival I would be met by someone holding a sign with my name on it and taken to the nearest hotel. The British Council, my employer at the time, seconded me to the Foreign Office and off I flew, with a purple rucksack on my back and in my hand a three-month contract to be part of the UK contribution to the Coalition Provisional Authority.

I had never been to Iraq before and knew little about the country, as it had been under sanctions and cut off from the rest of the world. But I was passionate about the Middle East and had worked in Israel and Palestine for most of the 1990s in support of the peace process. I had skills and experiences that I believed would be useful. I was ready to apologise to Iraqis for the war and to help rebuild the country. And I did not want the only Westerners they ever met to be men with guns.

[See also: The A-Z of the Iraq War]

I arrived in Basra to find no sign with my name on it. I spent my first night sleeping in a corridor at the airport, in 50°C heat, surrounded by British soldiers stripped down to their underwear. The next day, I got on a military aircraft to Baghdad, found my way to the Republican Palace, which was the headquarters of the coalition, and announced that I was “Emma from England, come to volunteer”.

I was told there were enough people in Baghdad and that I should try the north. In Kirkuk, I was informed that I was now in charge of the province and reporting directly to Paul Bremer, the US diplomat who was the head of the coalition in Baghdad. I had never run a town in my own country, let alone a province in someone else’s.

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I realised Iraqis took my role seriously when insurgents tried to assassinate me in my first week in Kirkuk. Fighters approached my house in the middle of the night and fired five rockets into it. One of the rockets reached the room where I was in bed, but the explosion was absorbed by the walls and floor. When the insurgents tried to storm the residence they were prevented by the guards – though after the attack was over my guards resigned, saying it was too dangerous to protect me.

I soon discovered that multicultural Kirkuk was home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, Christians, Kakais, Yezidis. It was in Kirkuk that oil was first discovered in Iraq in the 1920s. The Baath party had “Arabised” the province by expelling Kurds and importing Arabs from the south. Following the overthrow of Saddam’s regime there was a struggle for control of the province, with Kurds seeking to annex it to Kurdistan.

I set about meeting local leaders and soon learned that no one was interested in my apologies for the war; they were pleased to be rid of Saddam, and they had high expectations that the coalition could fix everything very quickly. The US, after all, had put a man on the moon, one Iraqi noted. But the de-Baathification order issued by the coalition meant that we had hospitals without doctors and schools without teachers – because, under the previous regime, to hold senior posts people had to be party members. The coalition’s dismissal of the old Iraqi army left many people angry – and armed. In the resulting power vacuum, Iraqis formed gangs to protect themselves, and insurgents and militias flourished as the country descended into civil war.

[See also: The road to war in Iraq]

I returned to Iraq in 2007 as political adviser to the senior American general Raymond T Odierno during the surge of troops ordered by the Bush administration, and was there through to 2010 and the drawdown of US forces.

My experiences in Iraq changed my life in so many ways. I fell in love with the place and the people, its history and its culture. Working there, I felt such a strong sense of purpose, of camaraderie, of responsibility. But I also carry the weight of having been part of something that brought devastation to the Iraqi people, that destabilised the Middle East and contributed to the loss of trust in government in the US and UK.

The 20th anniversary of the invasion is a moment to remember the lives that were lost, and to acknowledge the mistakes we made. Many of the students I teach today weren’t born in 2003. Some ask why I went to Iraq in the first place, or why I did not go home when there was no one to meet me at the airport, or after I was attacked.

I tell them about the post-Cold War era when I came of age: of the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989, and of President George HW Bush declaring “a new world order”; of the launch of the Middle East peace process; the end of apartheid; and the Good Friday Agreement. I tell them about the period of EU enlargement and Nato expansion; the growth of the United Nations and a new international norm of “responsibility to protect” to hold dictators to account for killing their citizens. Of Tony Blair championing “Cool Britannia” and New Labour’s “ethical foreign policy”.

Then I tell my students about the 9/11 attacks; about how fear, power and hubris – but also ideology and delusion – led to the invasion of Iraq; and how the war ended America’s global hegemony.

My students have come of age in a very different world: one transformed by the events of 2003, when as an idealistic volunteer I left for Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Emma Sky, director of Yale’s International Leadership Center, is the author of “The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq” (Atlantic)

[See also: The bonfire of the Middle East]

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe