Thursday 14 December 2017

'But most Iraqis believe removing Saddam was right'

With Chilcot's damning verdict on Blair still fresh, Donal Lynch spoke to some of those affected by the Iraq War

Cross-cultural: Hayder Al Hashim in Kerry in his club colours
Cross-cultural: Hayder Al Hashim in Kerry in his club colours

Alaa Saleh remembers the moment he last thought there would be peace in his homeland. It was a bright spring morning in 2003, and he was in a hotel by the bank of the Grand Canal in Dublin.

When he awoke, there had been over 100 missed calls on his phone. In his panic, he half-presumed someone had died, but when he finally got through to his parents, they told him, simply, to switch on the television.

There, live on CNN, were the first images of a grandfatherly Saddam Hussein being hauled up from his hiding place in a hole in rural Iraq.

It was a moment of poetic and actual justice, and one that seemed to bring false hope, most memorably described in the American hallucination of victory and George W's 'Mission Accomplished' banner.

"We thought then, that they might be right, that this might be a new beginning," Alaa says. "We didn't understand at that point that the British and Americans had no plan."

Two decades previously, Alaa's father, a highly respected professor of public finance in Baghdad, had been served a death sentence by Saddam's henchmen for writing about how public money should be spent in Iraq.

He was forced to leave the country in the middle of the night, with his wife and Alaa, following shortly after. They went first to Algeria, where Alaa's brother, Yasser, was born, and then to London, where the two children were raised. Alaa grew up with a foot in both Arabic and Western culture, but he never saw Iraq again.

He went to university in the UK and the US, and forged a successful career as a management consultant.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as the carnage escalated, it was not uncommon for liberal Londoners he came across, who learned of his background, to "apologise" for the way the British government had handled the war.

His response usually surprised them: "I agreed that mistakes had been made, but I told them that the removal of Saddam was not a mistake. He was a tyrant. He murdered whole families on a whim. He had women raped. He gassed the Kurds. Even the mess that Iraq is in now is better than Saddam being in power."

That's a sentiment that might surprise the thousands who gathered in London this week to protest as Lord Chilcot finally unveiled his findings about the British government's failures in Iraq.

It reiterated what we have suspected all along: that there was no imminent threat from Saddam and that judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction - or WMD - were presented with a "certainty that was not justified".

Intelligence had "not established beyond doubt" that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons. The report was damning about the political leadership that lead Britain into war.

It made a matter of public record Tony Blair's assurance to US President George W Bush that he would be with him "whatever" - a word that perhaps ought to be burned on Blair's tombstone. He has become a political pariah.

Blair's schmaltzy press conference performance was greeted with disgust by some (Will Self memorably observed: "He may have a conscience, but whether that conscience is just dismay at the failure of his own hubristic ambitions, I can't say").

Alaa found the visceral anger directed at the former prime minister somewhat misplaced, however.

"Tony Blair made mistakes, but I think he was poorly advised and poorly prepared, rather than setting out to do harm.

"It's a little bit like the Brexit - the British make a big decision first and don't think through the consequences at all and then can't handle what comes. These people don't have forward thinking. I don't think trying Tony Blair for war crimes would solve anything. You would find it difficult to find an Iraqi who cares about that."

These sentiments are mostly shared by Hayder Al Hashim, a student from the south of Iraq, who is training to be a doctor at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. He says that most Iraqis would not agree with the idea that it would have better just leaving Saddam Hussein in power.

"First of all, many more people died during Saddam Hussein's regime than between 2003 and now (estimated to be as high as one million people). It was much worse. There was no freedom, no election. People were poor and ignorant, there were no mobile phones. Everyone was corrupt, everyone took bribes because they were poor. Saddam murdered so many Iraqis. He used chemical weapons against the Kurdish people."

Hayder also explains that one of his uncles was tortured by Saddam's minions.

In 2003, Hayder was with his family in Iraq as American bombs rained down.

"I remember we were hiding under the stairs so that nothing would fall on our heads," he recalls. "We were sitting around my father, screaming. It was very frightening. Thankfully, none of my family died."

Over the years, however, his hometown did not develop into the hell on earth that Iraq is depicted as on television.

"Baghdad is dangerous, but in Nassiriyah, there have only been two or three bombs since 2003," he explains. "I travel here every summer from Ireland."

He didn't have a hard time adjusting to Irish culture when he moved here four years ago.

"I had some idea of it, you see it in movies or whatever," he says. "I was looking forward. I was with a group of high-school students who got a scholarship. It was really difficult and challenging to understand the Kerry accents."

He got into hurling, he explains, after hearing a teacher at the IT Tralee speak about it.

"I was curious, I was looking at some videos of this sport and I thought it looked interesting. We have no game in Iraq that you can play with a stick, we just have games like basketball and football. I liked the way you caught and hit the sliotar. I trained hard and I loved it."

It would be understandable, perhaps, if the sectarian conflicts that have torn Iraq apart would colour Hayder's views , but he explains to me that he is Shi'ite, his best friend and flatmate in Dublin is a Sunni Muslim.

"That doesn't matter to either of us. We don't care about those differences."

He is similarly matter-of-fact when asked to predict the future of his country. Modern Iraq has been described as a Frankenstein state, made up of distinct ethnic groupings whose conflicts are proxies for murderous agendas in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

There are those who wonder if the best solution might be to follow the example of the Balkans and break up the country into self-contained statelets.

"I think to break apart would definitely be the better thing to do at this point", Hayder says. "That would be the better route to peace."

While Alaa has liberal Brits apologising for Iraq, Hayder detects the stereotyping of his countrymen as terrorists.

"Donald Trump is saying that Iraq is Harvard for terrorists. But Iraq is only student placement for terrorists. The real school of terrorism is Saudi Arabia."

The hand-wringing continues in Britain and casts its shadow over that nation's stance toward the outer world, as its politicians struggle with the question of how to atone for the failures in Iraq

Meanwhile, Alaa Saleh has a powerful suggestion - one which involves taking a clear side on the Donald Trump 'all Iraqis are terrorists' line.

"What doesn't make sense is that the government doesn't allow more Iraqis to take up residence in Britain. The UK didn't stay to clean up the mess that they made - so you would think allowing people to escape that mess might be the least they could do."

It's a suggestion that's practical and rooted in a very English politeness, qualities that the present-day political establishment in London could probably learn from.

Sunday Independent

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