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7 July 2016

In Baghdad, a roadside bomb has killed 200 civilians – no wonder most Iraqis don’t care about Chilcot

Scarred by bombs and the rise of jihadists, Iraq has not had a day of real peace since the 2003 invasion.

By Jeremy Bowen

Here in Iraq, the week has not been dominated by the Chilcot report. Most Iraqis don’t know and don’t care that, 13 years after the invasion, Britain has finally got around to publishing an official account of what happened. Instead, they have been preoccupied with the agonies of daily life in a country that has not had a day of real peace since 2003. Late on Saturday 2 July, an Islamic State (IS) jihadist detonated a huge truck bomb and killed more than 200 civilians. The attack was extreme even by the grotesque standards that Iraqis have been forced to endure.

When the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, visited the site in Karrada – usually one of the most bustling parts of Baghdad – a furious crowd stoned his car. IS is so malevolent, especially for Shias (who were the targets of the bomb), that its malice is never in doubt. Yet the government is supposed to look after the people and keep them safe, and its failure to do so makes it the focus of discontent. Iraqis are fed up with the ineptitude and corruption of the political class. More big demonstrations against the government are likely.

A policeman in Karrada looked at the damage with horror a few hours after the bomb exploded. No trace was left of some of the victims. In terms of lives lost, it was one of the worst single attacks in the past ten years. A map of bomb attacks in Baghdad has been published, each one marked with a red dot. The whole city is covered with them. On some streets, red dots stand in lines, a queue of ghosts.


Aerial policing

As I flew in to Baghdad Airport a couple of weeks ago, I looked at the rapidly approaching terrain below and a few words came into my head. Poor Iraq. Poor Iraqis. This was the place where civilisation emerged. It has water, from mountains in the north that are topped by snow in the winter, as well as from the Tigris and the Euphrates, two of the world’s great rivers. Iraq has enough oil and gas to make it as rich as Norway. Imperialism, Iraq’s blood-drenched politics and foreign invasion got in the way.

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In the 1920s, the RAF dealt with tribal revolts in what was then still referred to as Mesopotamia by developing a doctrine of strategic bombing, known euphemistically as “aerial policing”. The Hashemite king Faisal II, much of his family and their servants were slaughtered during the coup that brought in the republic in 1958. The bodies of the king and the crown prince were strung up on lamp-posts. The Ba’athists who seized power in the 1960s were ruthless and the worst of all was Saddam Hussein, who seized absolute power in 1979.


Nostalgia for Saddam

Saddam spilled blood on an industrial scale. As many as half a million Iraqis and a million Iranians were killed in the war that he started in the 1980s. He launched a genocidal campaign against Kurds; estimates put Kurdish deaths at well over 100,000. Many more Iraqis were killed in the war that followed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the crushing of the Shia and Kurdish revolts that followed it, and by the international sanctions he brought down on the heads of the people.

So the Saddam nostalgia that is so easy to find here now is surprising, even shocking. I met Kadhim al-Jabbouri, the man who set about the giant Saddam statue in Firdous Square with a sledgehammer on the day that the Americans arrived in April 2003. The US troops helped him finish demolishing it. Now, he would like to rebuild the statue. Iraq has been so fragmented by the past 13 years of sectarian conflict, Iranian intervention, Western invasion and occupation and jihadist violence that it has, he said, “one thousand Saddams”. It is so bad that he would rather go back to the days of the original Saddam, whose regime imprisoned him and killed 14 members of his family.


New barbarism

Not all Iraqis feel that way. A young intelligence officer called Lieutenant Hassan, from an elite unit of the army, stood with me in a barbaric prison that was discovered after IS jihadists were driven out of Fallujah. Some of the cages were the size of dog kennels. IS kills hundreds, he said, and Saddam killed thousands.


Republic of fear

Despite that, many Iraqis feel the way that Kadhim al-Jabbouri does. The reasons are the chaos, the lack of order and the random killings. Iraqis knew where they were with Saddam. Oppose him and you faced jail, torture, even death. But for many who stayed out of politics, Baghdad was a clean, modern city – disappointingly modern, I thought, on my first visit in 1990. I was hoping for more Arabian Nights and fewer traffic interchanges. In the evenings, restaurants on the Tigris sold mazgouf: fish from the river, split open, staked upright and barbecued next to wood fires. You would tuck in with freshly baked Iraqi flatbread.

Saddam’s Iraq was, as a memorable book about the regime’s cruelty put it, a republic of fear. But it also had excellent health care and an education system that sent bright young people abroad to study, to Britain especially. Kadhim al-Jabbouri told me that George Bush and Tony Blair sent Iraq back to the Middle Ages.


Hot and cold wars

The invasion of 2003 set Iraq on the road to catastrophe. It was brutal here before, but there were no jihadists, and despite the massacres of Shias in the 1990s after they challenged the regime, the sects coexisted. After the invasion, jihadist killings dispersed Iraq’s Christian community abroad after almost two millennia. The fall of Saddam changed the balance of power in Iran’s favour and did much to cause the current cold and hot wars between the Iranians and the Saudis. And here in Baghdad, the summer sun grills the land and the future holds much more fear than promise.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor

This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers