Baghdad does not have a good reputation. Check-in staff at airports offer sympathy when you tell them where you’re going. Visiting this city is always hard, but it’s always interesting. After the disappointments of 2011, the year of the Arab uprisings, the Middle East’s overwhelmingly young population is trying, once again, for change. Since October, at demonstrations and sit-ins, Iraqis have been demanding clean politics, real independence and better lives. They have directed a lot of anger at Iran, their big neighbour that controls so much here. Hundreds have been shot dead by security forces that include pro-Iranian militas. Protesters are following closely the crisis that has enveloped the Iranian regime since it shot down the Ukrainian airliner, hoping it might force the country to weaken its grip on Iraq.
I arrived not long after the Americans killed the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The blast marks left by the US Hellfire missiles were still on the airport road, with flowers and photos.
Foreigners, like Iraqis, have to think about their security. The British are often lumped in with the Americans, unsurprisingly, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It keeps feeding into the headlines. When the US removed Saddam Hussein, who saw himself as a Sunni bulwark, Iran’s regime was handed a new political landscape dominated by fellow Shias. Soleimani was the man who exploited the new opportunities best, which was a big reason why the US killed him.
I was a little apprehensive on this trip, the first big breaking story I’ve done since taking a year off to be treated for cancer. But I have always had faith in the essential decency of Iraqis, a feeling that goes back to 1991, when I was in Baghdad reporting on the Gulf War. The Americans and British were bombing the city. In a cold winter civilians had no heat, light or running water. And there was the chance of being killed.
On 13 February 1991, the US bombed a shelter in Amiriyah, a middle-class suburb of Baghdad. At least 400 civilians were killed. The adult men would leave their families at the shelter every evening and then go home to protect their property. By the time I arrived, distraught fathers, husbands and sons were outside the shelter, watching rescuers pull out bodies that were twisted and burned, or in charred pieces. The Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence said, wrongly, that it was a command centre. The bodies being stacked up in the back of lorries were of women, children and old men.
In their terrible, disbelieving grief the men were polite and restrained when I spoke to them. It was the same as they searched through piles of bodies. I was with a man when he found his wife, identifying her only by the rings on her burnt fingers. Britain was a full partner in the war and defended the Amiriyah attack as vehemently as the US. I wonder what kind of reception a journalist from Baghdad would have had in London at the scene of an Iraqi attack that had killed more than 400 civilians.
Iraq was consumed by violence long before the 2003 invasion. The RAF pioneered the aerial bombing of tribes rebelling against British rule in the 1920s. Britain installed a monarchy, which was removed in a coup in 1958. The 23-year-old King Faisal and some of the royal family were shot dead in the palace courtyard. The corpses of the prime minister and of the king’s uncle, the much-hated former prince regent, were mutilated and dragged through the streets. By the 1980s Saddam Hussein, then still a Western ally, was presiding over a republic of fear. Then came the American-led invasion, an insurgency, civil war and Islamic State.
Rise of the militias
After the 2003 invasion Soleimani directed the growth of Shia militias in Iraq. They became experts at fighting the Americans and the British. In 2014 Isis rampaged through Iraq. Thousands of young Shia men volunteered for militias after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, issued a fatwa calling for resistance to Isis. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the militia leader killed alongside Soleimani at the airport, commanded forces that stopped Isis from reaching Baghdad.
That summer I went to the front line with fighters from one of the biggest and most feared Shia militias. I asked my Iraqi colleague why he looked so nervous. He gulped, “Because they kill without hesitation.”
A history of blood
In the great cities of the Middle East one antidote to the pain of the present is the past. Not that it’s necessarily a comfort. If you consider our century to be brutal, think back to the age of swords, with blood running down the cobbles and survivors dragged into slavery. But the message from history is that the people of its ancient cities always endure. Damascus, Cairo, Aleppo, this city and so many other places have come through bad times for millennia.
Baghdad is almost a new town by Iraq’s standards. It was the creation of the Abbasid Caliph Mansur in AD 762, protected by high walls that were built in a perfect circle. For a while it was probably the most dynamic, outward-looking city in the world. Since then it has often been a backwater. It might stay that way for many more years.
Iraqis are proud of their history. When you switch on your phone at the airport the message from the big local carrier Asia Cell is “Welcome to the cradle of civilisation”. Perhaps Qasem Soleimani read it before the American missiles hit his car.
I leave after every visit to Iraq struck by the resilience of people who have been tortured by killing, dictatorship and invasion. But their modern tragedy is that they do not control their own destiny. The US and Iran have trapped them in their 40-year conflict, and no one has yet found a way out.
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor
This article appears in the 15 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing