Living — and Reliving — the US Invasion of Iraq

Two decades on, I can recall almost every detail of the American occupation and the years that followed

Living — and Reliving — the US Invasion of Iraq
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

“Flashbulb memories” is a term coined by psychologists for moments that stay with us, not just for months or years, but for decades. Not only do we continue to recall these moments, but we also vividly memorize their wider context, down to the most minute details: where we were, what we wore, who we were with, even smells and tastes. These moments have a lasting impact on the rest of our lives.

The period from late 2002 until 2008 constitutes a stream of endless flashbulb memories for me. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was arguably the second most significant event in the 21st century so far, surpassed only by the 9/11 attacks. Much of the subsequent turmoil and unrest in the Middle East (and, eventually, the world) can be traced back directly or indirectly to the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of its institutions. It is sometimes hard to believe that I lived through every second of these seismic years. The irony was that, while Iraq had been in the news cycles 24/7 in that early period, Iraqis ourselves had not. We had been reduced to quotas, statistics and collateral damage.

My childhood was slightly different from that of the average Iraqi. I was born in the northern city of Mosul but spent most of my childhood in a town just outside Denver, Colorado. This was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when my father was studying for his doctorate degree. My family was not in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the resulting Operation Desert Storm, but we returned home to Mosul roughly one year later, in 1992, and remained there until much later.

Equipped with the English vocabulary of an 8-year-old American child, I had an advantage over my Iraqi third grade classmates. I don’t remember ever studying for English exams, and I never had a grade in English under 99%. I also understood that Iraq was different. One day, I asked my mother why we had portraits of Saddam in our school, because we had never had pictures of Reagan or former President George H. W. Bush in our classrooms back in Colorado. My English and love for Western pop culture endured, but my early comprehension of politics gradually faded. By sixth grade, I was cheering for “Baba Saddam” (“Father Saddam”) like every other Iraqi child. Yes, during my teens, I would stay up late and listen to the Billboard charts on Voice of America, and I had a centerfold of Depeche Mode that I found in one of my late uncle’s ’80s magazines. But when the radio stations began speaking of an imminent U.S.-led coalition invasion, America and Britain became my enemies. They were sending troops to attack Iraq, and no amount of soft power was sufficient in this scenario to change my perspective.

Protests erupted worldwide on Valentine’s Day, 2003, and for a fleeting moment it felt that love had shielded us from war. The next day, things began looking and feeling gloomy again. Iraqi state TV — the only TV channels we had under the dictatorship — began broadcasting a new daily public service announcement. It started with basic first aid “in case of shrapnel injury.” The next day, it was “how to escape from a fire.” For the first time, a man in a black turban, who looked somehow different from the imam at our local mosque, appeared on TV saying that the U.S. invaders, should they come, would be met with fury. He called them the “Gog and Magog of our time,” a reference to one of the many end-time prophecies in the Abrahamic religions of cannibalistic creatures that spread chaos and carnage. I asked my father who this man was and what was meant by the “hawza” (the largest Shiite seminary in Iraq) that he claimed to represent. I was aware of the Shiite sect of Islam but knew too little to understand why my father said that this cleric had been forced to appear on national television to defend Saddam and condemn the U.S. threats.

On March 10, Iraq’s defense minister, Gen. Sultan Hashim, appeared on TV and confirmed war was coming to us. He looked calm, almost defeated. My family began stocking up what we could. We bought several cartons of eggs, bags of flour, and whatever nonperishable beans we could fill the pantry with. We bought two additional water tanks and filled them up because we anticipated a water shortage. Most homes in our middle-class neighborhood had private power generators at this time, and we struggled to store enough gasoline to ensure we had some electricity when it would eventually shut off for good.

On March 17, U.S. President George W. Bush announced a 48-hour window during which Saddam and his family could surrender. If they were to leave Iraq, a military attack would be avoided, though an invasion would still occur to locate and destroy the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that were alleged to have been in Iraq’s possession.

The WMD argument remains, to me, one of the most interesting aspects of this invasion, anthropologically speaking. On the one hand, the Bush administration, supported by the London- and D.C.-based Iraqi opposition, asserted that Saddam had enough hazardous materials to create chemical and biological weapons that endangered the entire world. As an Iraqi, I too believed Saddam had WMDs and that he would not hesitate to use them against any invading forces — and on us — if required. We did not believe that the U.S. would subject its armed forces to hazardous weapons, but we did not doubt that Saddam would gas us. Yet, even with that knowledge, we could not support a foreign effort to topple him. Saddam was a madman, and we knew he was a madman, but he was our madman. Arabic has an equivalent to the English phrase “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” and we couldn’t even fathom an alternative.

Our belief, as Iraqis, in Saddam’s power stemmed from being brainwashed into imagining he was invincible; undoubtedly, he would have something up his sleeve if the Americans dared invade. Unlike older generations of Iraqis who had experienced the monarchy or other types of non-democratic government, millennials who came of age around the time of the invasion had only ever known one-man rule. Iraq was synonymous with Saddam, and it seemed like we could not compute a scenario in which he was not part of the future. Iraqis who had lived through the 1960s and ’70s were familiar with the world around them. International travel had been common and tourism flourished, exposing them to a variety of possibilities and outlooks. People like my parents could imagine what a life without Saddam would look like because they had experienced it and would often claim it was better, but those of us who were taught to stand up and clap each time his name was uttered could not. I realized many years later that the inability to contemplate an Iraq without Saddam was common across ethnic and religious lines, but only among apolitical households. Families involved in any type of activism not only could imagine a life without Saddam but also worked to achieve that goal.

On March 20, the military operations began. The first siren in Mosul went off two days later. Our home sat between two strategic targets: Saddam’s palace compound and the al-Kindi military facility, both less than half a mile away from us. The odds of a strike slightly missing its target and landing in our neighborhood were therefore high. To offset the fear, we would gather in one relative’s home, as if dying all together were less tragic than mourning a few. For the next two weeks, Iraqi state media told us the Americans were being defeated and showed corpses of U.S. soldiers on TV. On April 5, friends who lived in Mosul’s western side crossed the 3rd Bridge, also known as Abu Tammam Bridge, and told us they saw Iraqi military personnel abandoning their posts and the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed militia, entering and controlling some of the outskirts. By April 9, the U.S. Army arrived in downtown Baghdad, and it was the end for Saddam’s regime.

Our homemade antenna picked up a signal from Kurdistan TV, which was broadcasting Kuwait TV’s live coverage of the American forces entering Baghdad’s Firdos Square. I was in the living room watching the scenes unfold on our TV screen with my family and my aunt’s family. The Kuwaiti anchor yelled “Allahu akbar!” (“God is greatest!”) as Saddam’s statue fell amid cheers of hundreds of people. I was neither happy nor sad, but wondered if what I was seeing could be real. The man who we feared more than God was just defeated. Had he been a paper tiger all along?

The entirety of the military operations, from the moment they were declared to the toppling of the regime, lasted only 19 days, but it felt like months. All of Iraq had fallen to the invaders, and our leadership had evaporated in under three weeks. When the U.S. tanks entered Firdos Square to topple Saddam’s statue, my first question was whether there would be a massacre. The words “invasion” and “occupation” were associated with Israel for most of my compatriots, myself included. Images of the Second Intifada and Israel’s brutality against Palestinian civilians were fresh in our memory. There was some relief in seeing that the U.S. soldiers were not shooting into crowds. Maybe they would not kill my people after all.

The evening of April 9 was one of the most terrifying of my life. In Mosul, word had spread that many Peshmerga convoys had entered the city, after displacing civilians from the village of Makhmour on Mosul’s outskirts. Interestingly enough, there was more fear of the Peshmerga than the Americans, because the consensus was that the Kurds would avenge years of discrimination. Makhmour village and other areas just outside Mosul were disputed territory that the Kurds had claimed was theirs before Saddam’s Arabization campaigns, and now they wanted to take them back. No one could tell us that our neighborhood would not be next. The concern was so deep that a Kurdish friend of my father’s decided to sleep over so that, should the Peshmerga raid the neighborhood, he could at least negotiate with them to let us stay in our home. No one slept that night.

The next morning, hundreds of civilian vehicles entered Saddam’s palace compound. The compound itself looked like a small town within the city. It had its own bridges and lakes and no fewer than seven palaces. This was the compound in Mosul that Saddam seldom visited. We could only imagine how his compounds in Baghdad looked. A few palaces were visible from our rooftop, so we went up to see what was happening. Mass looting was taking place, unlike anything I had seen in any fiction. Armchairs, sofas, tables, lamps, bed sets, kitchen appliances — anything that was mobile was being carted off. The Americans were not yet in Mosul when the looting happened, but again on television we saw the American Humvee trucks not too far from the National Museum in Baghdad as artifacts dating back thousands of years were being looted. We heard about the museum employees pleading with the Americans to help them stop the pillaging, to no avail. The plundering of public venues that occurred all over Iraq symbolized many things: an expression of taking back some of what Saddam and his entourage had monopolized for decades; a showcase of mayhem that no longer had fatal consequences; and, for the most part, simply looting. Iraq went from organized dictatorship to chaotic “freedom” in a matter of hours.

The Americans entered Mosul about a week later or, at least, that was when I first spotted a U.S. military convoy. I kept telling myself, “maybe it won’t be that bad,” since they weren’t randomly shooting civilians. Not yet.

My first encounter with a U.S. soldier occurred in May that year. Our cars were out of fuel and so were the gas stations. The U.S. military created a rationing system to distribute fuel based on the numbers of license plates. They were also allowing women to cut in line, and my mother did not waste a second. I accompanied her along with one of my aunts for protection, but mostly because at that point I had not left the house for two months. We arrived at the gas station on an “odd number plate day,” but our license was an even number. The American soldier in charge, a very young man, asked us to return the next day and said he would be there to facilitate things. We returned the next day and he was indeed standing in the same location. He was visibly pleased to see us and told my mother, “I remember you from yesterday because your daughter [pointing at me] is jameela!” using the Arabic word for beautiful. His last name was “Thompson,” and he had bright blue eyes and a small pointy nose. He was an occupying soldier, but at that moment he was just a young man attempting cross-cultural flirting. I did not feel violated in any way. There was a power imbalance at that moment, but I did not feel he took advantage of it with those words. That particular interaction only felt human to me. I never knew his first name, but I often think about what happened to him. Did he survive? How many Iraqis did he kill? How does he feel about the war today? Seeing the human side of an occupying force felt conflicting. The soldiers I saw those two days all looked my age. I struggled to imagine them harming anyone.

As the relative calm that followed the first few weeks of regime change gradually descended into violence and American soldiers were being targeted daily, the human side of the Americans became harder to see. There was a cruel, almost demonic side to some of the soldiers who knew and saw nothing but vengeance. The ones who ran over civilian vehicles, the snipers who shot at unarmed civilians and laughed, the ones involved in Abu Ghraib, the soldiers who raped, mutilated and killed 14-year-old Abeer al-Janabi and her entire family in the village of Mahmoudiya just outside of Baghdad.

The fallout of the invasion took shape in the years that followed with the emergence of radical armed groups. In 2007, I was a contract engineer in the public sector. Because of my job, I was threatened via phone by someone claiming to be a member of the “state.” He was referring to the Islamic State of Iraq, the earlier incarnation of what would later become the Islamic State group, or ISIS. I needed to leave my job immediately or face the consequences. I left, of course. The security apparatus could not protect me, just as it had failed to protect many coworkers who were gunned down in broad daylight. Without a job, I opted to go back to studying and enrolled in evening classes. That decision opened many doors for me, and I left Iraq toward the end of 2013.

Iraq, however, never left me. I do not mean that in an emotional, romantic way. I worked in translation and publishing in the United Arab Emirates and wanted to specialize in political Islam and Arabic literature, but was never able to fully break from Iraq. The invasion and its aftermath had defined my career path in unplanned ways. I became a political analyst shortly after my hometown of Mosul fell to ISIS. The local insights and nuances I offered were considered valuable to research centers, think tanks and even some government officials both in the region and in the West.

Last year, I visited Baghdad for the first time in 16 years. It was a quick trip I took at my discretion on the advice of friends. What visitors say about Baghdad having a special vibe is true. It’s a delightful city, lively even with its sadness. Iraq has become a mutant state functioning on the existence of its oil, but nothing about it is sustainable. A network of thugs managing corruption has replaced the political system. But when I was in Baghdad, I let go of my analyst side. I enjoyed the city, the colors, the food, the people. I visited the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, the seventh imam in Twelver Shiism, with friends — one Iraqi and the other Swedish. Noting our different religious affiliations, my Iraqi friend, known for her wicked sense of humor, quipped, “A Shiite, a Sunni and a Christian walk into Imam Kadhim’s shrine.” We quietly giggled, though it was accurate. The shrine welcomes everyone without asking what their faith or sect is. And I realized that there was nothing to fix; and perhaps I should not attempt to. The Iraq I knew was long gone, and it is no longer my battle to fight because I no longer live there, nor do I plan on returning.

I still have scars from the invasion, both visible and invisible. Besides the emotional trauma, I suffered cuts from shrapnel when an improvised explosive device planted right outside our garage door caused my bedroom window to shatter and its frame to collapse. I am also one of the lucky ones. My life took an undeniably better turn because of the war, and for that I carry enormous guilt, which I doubt will fade anytime soon.

This essay is one of a series marking the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Read Ambassador Robert Ford reflecting on his experiences as a former U.S. official in Iraq during the occupation, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad on the “lesson of Iraq” and retreat to fatalism, and Henrietta Wilson on the disarming of Iraq’s WMDs.

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