Tuesday 25 October 2016

The distant scream of a far-off war in a dusty corner of the world called Iraq

Last week's Chilcot report into the war in Iraq opened the floodgates of memory for all of those who witnessed the war at first hand

Fergal Keane

Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30

Former US Secretary for Defence Donald Rumsfeld
Former US Secretary for Defence Donald Rumsfeld

All week the memories have been returning. They are like prisoners kept long in a foreign country, desperate now to tell their tale. For me, Chilcot opened the gates.

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Baghdad, April 2003. I remember the man on his knees in front of the row of graves. They were freshly dug. All morning, he had searched for his son's body. He was pleading with the hospital orderlies. They could not help him. The mortuary had run out of space. There was nothing to do but bury them in the garden.

The staff were too busy caring for the wounded to register the dead. We watched a heart-monitoring machine being wheeled past by a looter.

Everything that wasn't nailed down, and a lot that was, disappeared. The US military stood by and watched. They were the orders.

Across town, they were looting the National Museum. As we drove, our taximan was cut off by another driver. He raced after him and forced him to stop. He jumped out and began to beat the man. It was a savage pounding.

We pleaded with him to stop. But only when he had exhausted his rage - it took a few minutes - did he return to the car. The city was wild with anger.

Flashes of memory: crossing the Tigris and a dead donkey bloated and stinking in the heat. Near the national stadium, close to a crouching American patrol, a man's body swelling, the blood dried and dark on the pavement.

I remember a sniper opening up on the Americans near the Palestine hotel. The firing was coming from across the Tigris. Pop. Pop. Pop.

We all dived for cover. The Americans unleashed an unmerciful salvo of automatic and machine gun fire in response. Maybe they got the sniper. And other people too.

And what of the dark chambers of the regime which had just fallen? These I remember too. Outside the execution chamber in Abu Ghraib lay ropes used for hanging, soiled and redundant, for now. Inside, a rope still hung above the trapdoor where Saddam's enemies were dispatched to eternity.

At Al Hillah, I remember the children hit in a coalition airstrike. A girl of maybe eight with her arm gone. Other children showed us the cluster bombs still lying behind their home.

We followed the US Marines to Tikrit, past the golden domes of holy Samarra and up the long straight desert road which, in those days, was empty except for the rolling columns that bristled with death-dealing intent. I remember sleeping in the old police station where Saddam's portrait still hung on the wall. In the middle of the night, I was woken by high-pitched keening. A cat had given birth in one of the cells. The kittens called out in the darkness.

We chatted to Marines in a teashop on the main street. They were boys who knew nothing of the land in which they were fighting.

The following morning, they found a suspect car. The street nearby was sealed off. A crowd gathered. They smiled at the Americans. I asked my translator what the men were saying.

"They are cursing the Americans," came the response. For this was Saddam's hometown and he had been good to them. I thought of this moment years later when Isil took over Tikrit.

I remember that on April 12, 2003 the US Secretary for Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, declared: "Stuff happens. It's untidy. And freedom's untidy. The Iraqi people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things and that's what's going to happen here."

Wonderful things.

Yes, I also remember much later, watching the Marsh Arabs outside Basra voting in a local election, the first free election they had ever known. These people who had been terrorised by Saddam were free to choose their own local representatives. But this was a brief moment of hope.

The Western media, whose governments had unleashed catastrophe in Iraq, were being urged to see the positive side. Many duly did and in their eagerness not to be denounced as pessimists missed the searing truth: the democracy ushered in by the Coalition Authority was becoming a sectarian zero-sum game.

There were elections and surges and pleasing pictures of queues at polling booths. But the whole edifice was rotting from within.

The weary voice of western pragmatism now says we are where we are in Iraq. But this will not do. It just will not do. The Iraqis are where our leaders put them.

Last week, in the wake of Chilcot, Mr David Frum, one of the principal neo-con cheerleaders for the Iraq war, responded by saying that the "US-UK intervention offered Iraq a better future. Whatever West's mistakes: sectarian war was a choice Iraqis made for themselves."

Granted, he was responding on Twitter, never the best place for a nuanced consideration. But Mr Frum is a very bright man. He has at his fingertips the same information available to any serious student of the Iraq disaster. To imply that responsibility for the horrific sectarian war lies solely with Iraqis is grotesque, an abdication of moral and political responsibility. It is the re-heated version of Rumsfeld's "stuff happens" from all those years ago. No, stuff does not happen. It is made to happen.

As my colleague Jeremy Bowen put it on Radio 4 last week: "The British and Americans lit the fire."

Sir John Chilcot delivered a sober and forensic report. His analysis of the failures of the Blair government is devastating. In his careful judgements, there is a proper sense of humility in the face of so much suffering.

Tony Blair's response has been to insist on the underlying idealism of his purpose. He stresses the absence of deceit in his persuasion of people and parliament while making an emotional "apology" for the suffering that has been inflicted on so many since 2003.

There is no longer any real debate about Iraq. Minds will not be changed. Mr Blair will speak of taking responsibility but he never tells us how. What does it mean to "take responsibility…without excuse" for such a disaster? How will we know?

I remember being on the road outside the hospital in Baghdad when we met a boy screaming hysterically. I cannot remember exactly why except that somebody close to him had been killed. There was tension in the air. Gunmen were on the move. We moved away and found our car and left.

That is Iraq for me this week. A distant scream.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

Sunday Independent

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