Ten years ago, amid wide-ranging controversy and despite massive popular protests in cities around the globe, a US-led coalition of militaries launched a huge offensive in Iraq. The country’s leader, Saddam Hussein, widely viewed as a dictator and tyrant, was ousted, tried and hanged.
Unknown thousands of people died as sectarian divisions ripped the country apart in the power vacuum that followed, and as powerful interests – domestic and international, political and corporate – scrambled for control of the country’s vast resources.
Al Jazeera asked two Iraqis to share their recollections of the build-up to war, and their reflections on the decade that followed.
A journalist since 2001, Ali Kurdistani has contributed hundreds of articles for Kurdish journals on topics including Iraqi politics, US regional policy and political Islam. He has also worked in conflict assessment and community development with international organisations and as such has spoken at conferences on conflict resolution, peace and security.
|Journalist Ali Kurdistani was fearful of retaliatory
attacks against the Kurds
“In February 2003, talks about the possibility of US war against Saddam became more serious. But most people here in Iraqi Kurdistan were unsure if the war would actually happen.
“In March, however, the US started more practical preparations. At that time, in general, the Kurdish people were very happy to remove Saddam from power. The only concern was if Saddam would again use chemical gas against us in retaliation.
“Most people here covered their windows and doors. After the 1988 gassing of Halabja [in which as many as 5,000 died, reportedly the largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian area in history], this scared all of us. Whenever we heard the sound of aircraft, I remembered when I was a child – we were scared and covered ourselves in wet blankets, as we’d heard this could be good to decrease the effect of the gas.
“As the war got closer, people – especially women and children – prepared to leave town and go to the mountains and [rural] villages. When my mother left home with my other family members, she became quite emotional by the gate door, and was asking me to go with them. She was afraid for me, staying with my brothers and my father, as I stepped on a landmine back in 1991, and would have found it difficult to run away if anything should happen to us.
“The night before the war was about to start I did not sleep. I wanted to see the first second of the attack launched on Saddam’s targets. At that moment, I remembered the bad times under Saddam. He was one of the worst people on this planet, and he must be ended. This was my dream – one day someone could get rid of that dictator.
“In the early days of the war, we were following it on TV and we saw Saddam’s forces defeated in many places. It started to become clear that they could not attack us, and people became less nervous and started return to home to the city.
“I started walking downtown to see my friends at the tea house and I remember one thing we frequently discussed was the possibility of violence in other parts of Iraq after the war ended. We thought there would be lots of revenge and chaos.
“Day by day we were waiting to hear that Saddam’s era was over and to celebrate the victory.
“We as Kurdish people, in general, did support the war against Saddam’s regime and welcomed the US as a friend and ally. People on the street here were raising American flags and even photos of Bush – and people were very friendly with the forces when going through the city.
“Besides using weapons of mass destruction against the Iraqi people, I think Saddam himself was a weapon of mass destruction – and he was found in Iraq! If he stayed in power he would have continued his massacres and atrocities across the country.
“Ten years after the war, still most people around the world do not know much about one success story – and it may be the only one – the Kurdistan region. I am not saying it is perfect, but the war had a lot of advantages for this region. It was the key to unlock doors.
“For the first time, we can directly communicate with the world and introduce our cause and story. It is true that the Kurds still do not have all of the political rights we have been fighting for during a century in Iraq, but since the war, we have entered a new situation. Since the first Iraqi state, all regimes tried to prevent us from becoming economically successful, and always tried to exclude us from the oil industry.
“But now we are part of this industry, and all the business booming in Kurdistan only became possible because of the Iraq war.”
Farah Ali was a student ten years ago. She later graduated and became a professor in the English department at Baghdad’s College of Arts between 2007 and 2008. With BA and MA degrees in English, she has worked as a translator at Baghdad University’s department of cultural affairs, and at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting since then.
|Farah Ali says that Iraqis
were “unprepared for democracy”
“When the US-led invasion took place, I was still a second year undergraduate student at the University of Baghdad. A few days before the invasion, you could feel the tension everywhere. While walking to my classes in the English department, I could hear students saying farewell to each other, unsure whether or not they would see each other again.
“I remember that almost half of the class were absent on March 17, 2003. People gradually realised “this is it”. I sat with my friend, Sahar, chatting about lectures and the forthcoming exams. Exams that never took place.
“That was my last day in that college.
“When I got back home, my parents told me to pack whatever I could and prepare to go to my grandmother’s house in Dayala [a province in central Iraq]. I was furious, as I didn’t want to leave home. I feared leaving everything behind, as I thought I might not come back again.
“However, my parents forced me to leave, and I travelled to Dayala with my mother, brother, and sister. My uncle took us with his family there, while my father planned to catch up with us later. He wanted to make sure that our house would be safe, in case our neighbourhood got bombed.
“On March 20, during the first hours of the dawn, my mother woke me up to listen to the radio. They announced that the invasion had taken place and Iraq was being bombed. My mother was concerned for the safety of my father, and I wished I was in Baghdad.
“A few days later, my father joined us in Dayala, saying that it was too dangerous to stay in Baghdad.
“My father and I were afraid that Saddam would survive the invasion just like he did in 1991. We used to watch the news, wishing for his downfall. When the US forces fought the army in the province of Al-Nasiriyah (southern Iraq) for 13 days, we started to give up.
“On April 9, I remember a huge gathering in my grandmother’s garden, where neighbours joined us to watch the statue of Saddam being destroyed.
“I was so happy then, as this meant that I was going to go back home. My parents decided to return the very next day, but without taking us. I was so angry with them. I insisted to go back home with them, and they finally agreed.
“When we reached Baghdad I felt that, for the first time in my life, I could not recognise my city. It was completely ruined, and there were people looting whatever they could catch in the street.
“I kept listening to the radio, alone in my room, without having any idea of what will happen next.
“Gradually, things started to get back to normal, and I was optimistic that things would now start to get better than before.
“‘We are a free democratic country now,’ people were telling each other.
“This didn’t last long. What seemed to be relatively good started to break down day by day. During the years of 2006 and 2007, when I was pursuing my masters degree, things become really bad when all the sectarian violence really took hold.
“And now, ten years after the invasion, things seem really bad. We have multiple dictators instead of one, and the political, social, and cultural situation looks even ten times worse than before.
“It is not that Saddam was better than the current government, but the government now is too bad compared with Saddam’s regime.
“I believe that Iraqi people were completely unprepared for such kind of democracy. It is still too early to seek democracy in Iraq. We need to erase deep-rooted ignorance, fanaticism, and corruption before thinking of the process of democracy here.”