From the beginning of the war, the Ministry of Defence ran programmes to prepare British soldiers for the challenges of peacekeeping. Servicemen and women of all ranks were put through crash courses – usually of about two weeks – in the language and culture of Iraq.
Najma, aged 24, who moved to London in 2001, is one of a number of British Iraqis working with the army on such programmes. She and colleagues role-play as Iraqi civilians; though London-based, their work is not without dangers. Like her compatriots in southern Iraq who work with the British, Najma finds that her involvement risks her being labelled a traitor.
“I never tell people about my work,” she says, puffing on a cigarette. “A lot of people have been killed for working with the British or Americans, especially in Iraq. One of my close friends went back as an interpreter in 2004. He was shot dead in less than two weeks.”
A particular concern is the safety of her mother, who still lives in Iraq.
“Last year someone wrote an article on the internet saying that we’re betraying our country and helping the enemy for the sake of money. They didn’t mention names but they listed some people’s initials. I got really scared. At the end of the day I have a family in Iraq. Even if I am safe here, they are definitely not safe there.”
Najma insisted on meeting at a cafe in an area where no one would know her. She says she has been working for the army since early 2005, in bases around the British Isles and in Germany. I ask her if she had had doubts about helping people who had killed her countrymen.
“The first thought that came into my mind was: ‘They are in my country; you can’t change that,'” she says. “The only thing you can do is to try to help the situation. I thought if I could teach them a little bit about how Iraqi people operate, it could reduce the killing.”
But she has had doubts. “Every time the situation changes, my opinion changes. Sometimes I think I’m doing the right thing. Then when I watch the news and see soldiers mistreating Iraqi people, killing people, it makes me wonder why I am working with them. I don’t feel guilty, because if I did I would stop, but it hurts to see them doing these things.”
She has always been different, she says. When she was growing up in west Baghdad, her male relatives gave her a boy’s nickname, because she would run ahead in the street instead of walking behind them as they thought she should. She later determined on a career in the theatre despite the strenuous objections of her family.
Iraqis recruited by the army have to be fluent in English and must have recent experience of their homeland. They are paid £100 per day.
“It is hard work,” Najma says, and it can be overwhelming. “Sometimes the Iraqis forget they are acting and get upset. They start to think that it’s real. I once saw a girl doing an exercise lose it completely. She started crying and just couldn’t stop. She was thinking about Iraq and everything that has happened there.
“My opinion of the British army hasn’t changed from doing this work. They are trying to learn the culture and they’re trying to understand the way we react to what they do there. I’ve heard colleagues say that they wouldn’t work for the Americans who haven’t bothered to learn simple things, and their way of treating people is appalling. For example, they don’t knock on the door, they just break in. That is the Iraqi opinion of American people.”
Najma won’t be put off working for the army, and is determined to continue trying to increase understanding. The child who took the nickname of a boy in the streets of Baghdad still refuses to fall in line.
Days of war
29 January 2002: Bush names Iraq as part of the “axis of evil”
3 February 2003: Publication of “dodgy dossier”
14 February 2003: Hans Blix tells UN Security Council that Iraq is co-operating more
15 February 2003: In London, over a million march against war
17 March 2003: Bush gives Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq; Robin Cook resigns from cabinet
18 March 2003: Commons votes for war; 139 Labour MPs rebel
20 March 2003: Invasion begins (far left)
9 April 2003: Statue of Saddam toppled (left)
1 May 2003: Bush announces victory
12 May 2003: Clare Short resigns from cabinet
18 July 2003: Dr David Kelly found dead after being named as source that war dossier had been “sexed up”
13 December 2003: Saddam captured
April 2004: Reports surface of torture, rape and murder at Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad (right)
28 June 2004: US hands sovereignty to interim government under PM Iyad Allawi
19 October 2005: Saddam goes on trial accused of crimes against humanity
19 November 2005: US marines massacre 24 civilians in Haditha
20 January 2006: Shia alliance emerges as winner of first parliamentary elections
21 August 2006: Bush acknowledges Iraq had “nothing” to do with 9/11
25 December 2006: After Christmas Day car bomb attack, US military death toll surpasses that of 9/11
30 December 2006: Saddam executed
10 January 2007: Bush announces “surge”, proposing 21,500 extra troops and $1.2bn more funds
1 May 2007: Reports of death of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, Iraqi leader of al-Qaeda
1 August 2007: Main Sunni political group in Iraq withdraws from cabinet, plunging central government into crisis
16 September 2007: British hand over control of Basra to Iraq
Research by Edmund Gordon