It is heartbreaking to watch a country fall apart and become accustomed to its cities becoming synonymous with war itself. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, this has been the fate of Iraq. Sadly, recurrent violence in Iraq and the eruption of wars elsewhere, such as Syria, have also pushed the Iraqi story away from the front pages of the world’s news.
Eye on the East keeps an eye on Iraq, albeit with the help of others. What follows is a conversation with a trained lawyer, working with the United Nations on human rights, political affairs and aid programs in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq for the past seven years. We respect his desire to remain anonymous, as he talks about his day-to-day challenges in Baghdad and prospects for the country’s future. In spite of all the challenges, “I need to keep reminding myself that I chose to be here,” he says, “if only to witness history itself and the opportunity to play a role in shaping it.” On a related note, I’m sure you didn’t know the Lebanese were taking tips from Iraqis on how to run elections…!?!
You are no stranger to working in war zones. How is Iraq different to the other war zones you’ve been to?
Iraq is such a unique and fascinating country at all levels. It continues to be an unstable amalgamation of three former provinces from the Ottoman Empire: a predominantly Shiite one in the south, a Sunni-dominated one in the center, and Kurdish in the north, split between Syria, Turkey and Iran. The political, social and confessional fabric of Iraq and its regional importance makes it an unprecedented conflict and a war zone that can be compared to no other.
Do you think it’s just a matter of time before Iraq breaks into two, or maybe three, different countries?
Iraq is facing an existential battle. Its current colonial-drawn borders are nothing more than “lines in the sand.” Iraq will never be the same country that we once knew before ISIL’s [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, aka Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS] advance on June 10. The only foreseeable solution for Iraq is federalism, with autonomy given to the southern and western regions similar to the current autonomous Kurdistan. This is guaranteed in the constitution and we will witness concrete steps towards decentralization in the near future.
Today, everyone is helping the Kurds to save Iraq from ISIL, but they seem more interested in breaking away from Iraq altogether. Ironically, ISIL’s incursion into Iraq presented the Kurds with the golden opportunity to seize the disputed areas they have always fought for. The fighting between ISIS and the Kurds stretches along northeastern Iraq, where they have been fighting for decades to establish an independent state. In Kirkuk, Kurdish fighters have dug trenches for thousands of kilometers, drawing perhaps the lines of their future independent state. “Today Iraq no longer exists as we once knew it,” a Kurdish general close to [Kurdistan President Masoud] Barzani told me, on the Kirkuk frontlines. “We will not wait for others to decide for us, we tried to co-exist with Iraq based on shared principles but that has failed. Why should we wait more before we have our own state?”
When Saddam Hussein looks down (or up) at what’s happening in Iraq today, what would he be telling himself right now?
I think we shouldn’t forget what Saddam’s oppressive regime committed against the Kurds, the masscare of Shias in southern Iraq or the sarin and mustard gas attacks in Halabja were as many as 5000 people were murdered… and all under the eyes of the international community. Not to mention what triggered the first and second Iraq wars, which we all know wasn’t a war triggered out of humanitarian compassion.
The world has seen far worse brutalities than what ISIL is committing. I don’t say this to diminish their atrocities. But it all goes to show the power of the media and the way it has amplified the threat of ISIL as a reflection of the agenda of world and regional powers. The amplification has become more like a political “trojan horse,” where ISIL’s threat is being used as a precursor by regional and international players for furthering a military, economic and political foothold in Iraq and Syria.
How does it feel to live in Baghdad and know that ISIL is just kilometers away from where you are (I don’t want to scare you, but…)?
Living in confined places with ultimate hardship conditions is not easy. You lose it sometimes, and may start banging your head to a wall. Nighttime curfews, no social life,… it’s a big prison. The constant security threats, flying in and out in helicopters and traveling in armored convoys are a constant reminder of the danger zone that is Baghdad. It’s a constant and ultimate test to one’s psychological and professional resilience. I need to keep reminding myself that I chose to be here, if only to witness history itself and the opportunity to play a role in shaping it.
Despite it being a war zone, what do you like the most about Baghdad?
Every time I fly over Baghdad, I stare at its vast areas of palm trees across the Euphrates, old houses and historical palaces scattered along the river’s banks… a surreal image reminding me of what Baghdad once looked like. A Baghdad that now only exists in history books and our imagination…
I know this is very hypothetical, but do you think there would have been an Iraqi Revolution had Saddam still been in power, like what happened in Syria…. before the civil war erupted there?
I believe the answer is yes. Iraq and Syria are politically and socially intertwined. The push for autonomous regions in Iraq has been an ongoing battle since 1920, when the British mandate drew the artificial frontiers of this vast and complex country. It was only a matter of time that all this unfolded…
What’s your take on Iraqi politicians? Do they know what they’re doing?
Iraq is at that exceptional time in its history when it needs real leaders and not just politicians. Politicians bear the greatest responsibility for Iraq’s current fate. I hope they are aware that Iraq’s current battle is a battle of a nation’s life and death and that everyone should be prepared to make concessions and sacrifices.
Are there any lessons worth importing from Lebanon, which Iraq could use to manage its own sectarian tensions?
Ironically, in one of my recent meetings in Baghdad, an Iraqi politician explained to me how the Lebanese parliament is consulting the Iraqis regarding their forthcoming parliamentary elections and looking into lessons learned from the latest Iraqi parliamentary election! I witnessed the election myself and it was a remarkable process I must say!
I believe that there are numerous common denominators between both contexts but also major differences. At the upstream political level, the sectarian tension is deeply rooted in both countries. In Lebanon, political sectarianism is ‘constitutionalized,’ ensuring an ice-thin power balance. In Iraq, this power balance remains de facto, without any constitutional backing. One could argue that the Iraqi framework is healthier, but unpredictable and therefore the intra-confessional power balance model “à la Libanaise” is preferable.
Even after all these years, do you think the West truly understands what’s going on in Iraq and the ways to bring this deadly conflict to an end?
The West will never understand Iraq’s complex political, social and ethnic landscape. What is happening in Iraq today is a repercussion of the destruction of Iraq’s political, military and social infrastructure, exacerbated by the corrupt and discriminatory authority installed by the West. Was all this orchestrated to keep a foothold in Iraq? Definitely yes.