As Russia invades Ukraine, Iraqis remember painful war memories

Ukraine’s invasion is a painful reminder for many Iraqis who have lost their hopes and dreams due to conflict.

A Ukrainian Territorial Defence fighter examines a destroyed Russian infantry mobility vehicle GAZ Tigr after the fight in Kharkiv [Sergey Bobok/AFP]
A Ukrainian soldier examines a destroyed Russian infantry vehicle after a firefight in Kharkiv [Sergey Bobok/AFP]

Baghdad, Iraq – The air assaults and gunfire on Ukrainian soil following the Russian invasion are stirring up memories barely sealed in Iraq nearly 19 years after the US-led invasion.

The attack ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine is all too familiar for a Middle East nation that was the centre of a geopolitical struggle for decades.

Many Iraqis, from the capital Baghdad to provinces such as Anbar where the fighting was some of the most intense during the US invasion, are watching attentively as Russian troops are closing in on Ukrainian capital Kyiv – and the Ukrainian armed forces, along with armed civilians, are vehemently defending.

The horrific scenes unfolding in Ukraine have also played out in Iraq. To witness attacks in another part of the world for Iraqis is a painful reminder for many here who have lost their hopes and dreams of an end to war.

“Some world leaders seem to have an insatiable greed for invading other countries,” said Samer al-Idreesi, a 47-year-old from the capital Baghdad.

Having lived through Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the United States’ response attack of Iraq in 2003, al-Idreesi told Al Jazeera he believed all warmongers should be punished.

Then American President George W Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, alleging then leader Saddam Hussein was building “weapons of mass destruction” while harbouring operatives from al-Qaeda, the armed group held responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

“Saddam, Bush, and Putin – they are all dogs,” al-Idreesi said. “And if Putin could learn anything from Iraq, that is this will be the beginning of his end.”

‘Where we could go’

Despite some fundamental differences between the war in Iraq and the one in Ukraine, one thing almost always remains true: ordinary people bear the brunt of conflict.

As civilians in Ukraine bunkered down in anticipation of Russian air attacks and others fled west in the hope of leaving the country, many people Al Jazeera spoke to said they could sympathize with the displaced and were reminded of a similar ordeal.

“I remember that my parents asked me to pack all the things I needed because the Americans were coming,” said Mona Saade, 31, from Baghdad, as she recalled the days leading up to the US-led invasion when she was 12 years old.

“But then, we quickly realized that we didn’t know where we could go – there could be fighting literally everywhere in this country.”

As Saade was speaking on the phone with Al Jazeera, she said a news alert appeared on the TV screen: urban warfare intensified in Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv. She paused for a few seconds and resumed the conversation.

“It’s uncanny how history can repeat itself – it’s like I’m again in 2003, watching news that told us urban warfare was intensifying in Baghdad or in Basra,” Saade said.

Unlike Saade and others who are following the news in Ukraine closely, others are choosing to look away from the vicious news cycle. For them, to see residential buildings bombarded and children crying at the sound of gunfire is a sure trigger of their trauma from having experienced the invasion of Iraq personally.

‘Horrible memories’

Mariam Jaber, a 34-year-old Iraqi who lived in Basra during the US-led Iraq attack in 2003 and moved to the United States shortly after, said any sight of the suffering in Ukraine was “too hard to watch” and it “instantly brought back horrible memories”.

“I choose not to follow the news as closely simply because I think it will be too much for my mental health, and I can only pray that everything will be fine soon,” she said.

Footage of Ukrainians lining up by borders to leave the country and enter neighbouring states has also brought painful and sometimes humiliating memories for many Iraqis.

Following the invasion of Iraq, sectarian conflict soon engulfed the country – many Iraqis had to flee either to other Middle Eastern nations or places in Europe and North America.

Yet their exodus was not welcomed by many Western countries. National borders were shut to them, boats taking refugees to cross the Mediterranean Sea were intercepted, and many still remain in detention centres.

Ukrainians, on the other hand, could enter the European Union, a place many Iraqis have risked their lives trying to enter without a visa.

As Iraqis are cruelly reminded of the invasion in 2003, the US, EU and their allies are slamming sanction packages on Russian oligarchs.

That includes Putin personally with the aim of “imposing costs on Russia that will further isolate Russia from the international financial system and our economies”, according to the latest statement issued by the White House.

From exclusion from SWIFT, a dominant international financial messaging system, to a targeted asset freeze, the West appears determined to ensure Russia faces the consequences of the invasion.

‘Hard to even buy bread’

The word “sanctions” unfortunately is not unfamiliar to Iraqis.

The US introduced some of the fiercest economic penalties on Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The sanctions were so debilitating that a generation of Iraqis suffered unspeakable pain and its rippling effect is still visible in the current Iraqi economy.

“When Saddam invaded Kuwait, the sanctions were so hard that Iraq couldn’t buy pencils for a decade,” wrote Omar al-Nidawi, an Iraq analyst, on Twitter as the West was mulling sanction packages on Russia.

Many Iraqis are conflicted on the introduction of harsh sanctions on Russia: some are cheering the punishments to Putin over the war, while others are worried they could end up only making ordinary Russians’ lives miserable – without doing much in curbing Putin and his oligarchs’ ability to wage wars.

“It used to be so difficult that it was hard to even buy bread,” said Maher Mensour, an Iraqi who lived through the crushing sanctions imposed on Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait.

“They intended to punish Saddam, but all they did was to make our lives unlivable.”

The language put out by the United States, EU, United Kingdom, and Canada seems to suggest this round of sanctions is specifically targeted at Kremlin leaders and some central financial institutions. Yet it is unclear how – and to what extent – those sanctions will affect ordinary Russians’ daily life.

The war in Ukraine is still unfolding and the situation is fast changing. Four days into the invasion, Russia has yet to take control of the capital city Kyiv.

Back in 2003, it took US-led forces more than three weeks following the invasion to ensure the fall of Baghdad.

As people in Baghdad painfully move on from their war memories, some predict even if Russia could take Kyiv, what follows the capture, or even the regime change, would be more defining than the battle for Ukraine itself.

“Did you see what happened after Baghdad fell?” Samer al-Idreesi asked.

“It was pure chaos: insurgents started to appear everywhere,” he added, referring to the conflict following the removal of Saddam and the armed groups still threatening Iraq’s security.

The battles following the invasion were in some way more brutal than the ones fought during it. Rebel groups sprung up across the country, either in opposition to American forces or with the intent to exploit the vacuum left by a lack of central governance.

“No one knows what could happen in Ukraine. Maybe there will be insurgents and maybe there will be more bloodshed, or maybe it will end soon with a peace talk,” al-Idreesi said.

“But I really hope the suffering that we experienced as Iraqis would not be repeated in Ukraine.”

Source: Al Jazeera