The American invasion of Iraq through an Iraqi's eyes

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U.S. Army 3rd Division 3-7 Bradley fighting vehicles take up a position along a road March 19, 2003 inside the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq. (Scott Nelson/Getty Images)
U.S. Army 3rd Division 3-7 Bradley fighting vehicles take up a position along a road March 19, 2003 inside the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq. (Scott Nelson/Getty Images)

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On March 20th, 2003, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq. While Americans watched the war on TV, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad lived it.

"I was one of the people early on," journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad says. "I was like, ‘Why are the American soldiers pointing their guns at the people? I mean, why would they do that?’"

He was on the receiving end on America's invasion, occupation, and intervention in Iraq. One that lead to civil war, and ISIS.

"After the American invasion, the unthinkable became reality. The people saying, ‘Oh, Saddam was not bad after all.’"

Congress is now finally, and quietly, ending its authorization of the Iraq War. Americans may wish to forget it. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad says Iraqis cannot.

"I was thrust in the middle of this huge, big war. The Americans were down in my streets. And I lived through the civil wars in Iraq. And 20 years later, I had to write the Iraqi narrative of the war."

Today, On Point: 20 years of the U.S. war in Iraq through Iraqi eyes.


Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, journalist and author. Staff writer for The Guardian. His new book is called A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War. (@GhaithAbdulahad)


MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The United States Senate quietly voted to sweep two decades of policy off the stage yesterday. 20 years after the United States invaded Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said it's time to repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that launched the war.

CHUCK SCHUMER: The Iraq war has long been over. These authorizations for the use of force against Iraq are no longer necessary for our security. Make no mistake, this vote repealing the Iraq war powers is one for the history books. The American people, as we know, are tired of endless wars in the Middle East.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. The American people are tired of endless war in the Middle East. Imagine then, how the people of the Middle East might feel. Specifically, the Iraqi people. More than a quarter million Iraqi civilians have been killed by direct violence since the invasion. That number is likely an undercount.

Given the impossibility of recording an accurate death toll due to the invasion itself, sectarian violence, insurgency and civil war that have ravaged Iraq in the past two decades. In fact, it was 20 years ago this month, March 20th, 2003, that the United States unleashed Operation Iraqi Freedom with the so-called shock and awe bombing of Baghdad.

The attack came in waves, cruise missiles, followed by F-117 stealth bombers. ... Television screens in the United States, safely filtered through the comforting distance, entertaining production values and sanitized Pentagon approved footage. But let's change our POV for a moment, shall we? Let's pick up the camera and swing it over to a building in Baghdad, to a residence, to a room where an Iraqi man is on the receiving end of the American bombing campaign.

What do his eyes see on that night and on the thousands of nights since? What have the past 20 years of war in Iraq looked like through Iraqi eyes? Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was deep into the night when the bombs started landing in Baghdad, and he was there. And Ghaith, what did you see on that night?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Well, that's when the bombing started falling. And my skin is now really crawling when I heard the bombing sounds because it really brought me to that night, I decided to make my bed on the floor away from the window, and I woke up. I think it was one or two. I don't remember the time, probably, but the house was shaking. And the first thought that comes to your mind because we Iraqis have seen the bombing. My first bombing happened when I was five during the Iran-Iraq war, 1991. And the first thought is, here we go again. This is yet another war. The city will be bombed again to oblivion.

CHAKRABARTI: Ghaith is an award-winning journalist, and he's just published a new book titled A Stranger in Your Own City Travels in the Middle East's Long War. And we have an excerpt of it at On Point Radio. And I have to say, the book is spectacular, and I feel like it's an absolutely necessary addition to the world's understanding, but particularly America's understanding of the past 20 years of American decision making in Iraq.

So tell me a little bit more about when you first found out that first night, those first set of bombing campaigns that the United States launched on Baghdad was called, you know, by Donald Rumsfeld and others as the shock and awe campaign. What did that language say to you?

ABDUL-AHAD: It says to me how little regards you have to the people that you're shocking. And I mean, it was in the regime. ... Maybe it wasn't the security forces or the soldiers. It was also the civilians. I mean, I was a young man. But imagine the families, the children, people who the fathers and mothers who had to worry about their children and what do they feel? And the screams and the cries. I would wake up every morning and cycle through the city and sometimes take pictures stupidly just to document from an architectural point of view the destruction that was taking place in the city.

But it was a city that I don't know how to describe it. Empty streets, smoke rising. The few people who dare to go out to buy bread to do some shopping. It was and again, I would like to emphasize this is a city that was being bombed for the second or third, sometimes fourth time by the Americans. Because remember, in the 1998, we were bombed again. So that feeling of a repetitive destruction of your own city right in front of your eyes.

CHAKRABARTI: So can you tell us a little bit more about that? Because you're absolutely right. I mean, as you just said, you've lived almost your entire life in an Iraq that has been besieged by some kind of war or conflict or sanctions and, you know, kind of an economic war. What was Baghdad like? Tell me more about what Baghdad was like in those days right before the U.S. invasion began.

ABDUL-AHAD: So right before the invasion, we have to remember that Baghdad was a was a broken city. Baghdad was coming out of 13 years of sanctions. I mean, the sanctions still going on. And the sanctions that followed the 1990 war really broke the Iraqi society, really turned a middle-class society secular, somehow into a broken, corrupt society. When the teacher's salary was $2, corruption became a way of life. So the poverty that that increased phenomenally in Iraq, children's, you know, dying in hospitals, schools. I mean, I remember in architecture school, we were scavenging for papers.

So it turned us into a nation of hustlers. And 13 years later, we're told that here is the war happening again. I would argue that no Iraqi wanted Saddam. I mean, we were all happy to see the back of Saddam, but did we really want war? I mean, did anyone come to us and say, hey, Iraqis, do you really want to be bombed again to get rid of Saddam? So it was anxiety, it was fear, but most of it was what's next? I mean, this is a regime that's been planting, planning for this day for 30 years, for more than three decades.

And how will the regime survive? How will we see street fighting? I mean, that was one of my main anxieties is to see tanks rolling in the streets and people resisting them and fighting against them. And of course, that didn't happen in the initial war for I never thought that the regime would collapse in two or three weeks. But that street fighting the turning our cities into urban warfare that came later as a consequence of the war, Of course.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, you just tucked in a little mention of architecture school. And I have to say your background as an architect led you to include some very beautiful and very haunting illustrations that you did there in the book of cities around Iraq that you've visited, of people that you've met over the past 20 years. I mean, they're quite moving. Can you just quickly tell me you why you felt it was important to include these visual representations of the Iraq that you knew over the past 20 years in the book?

ABDUL-AHAD: So I am the ultimate accidental journalist. I mean, I was in my house, I was an architect in my house. And then suddenly you see American tanks down in the streets over these amphibious armored vehicles and Marines and you're suddenly sucked into a new story into one of the biggest news stories in the world that continues to unravel. I stood, I watched the statue falling. I went, next days of Saddam's palace. I became a journalist after the war. Part of me that was an architect that I left that passed on the 9th of April 2003. That point still kind of with me.

And I always doodle in my notebooks and I always, you know, it's a great way to twist deadlines. So that kind of sketching I thought would illustrate much better than pictures the events of the last 20 years. I mean, in a way, pictures capture a single moment. I thought a sketch would kind of give it more depth in a way.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, we're going to get to the toppling of the Saddam statue in a few minutes. But I wanted to ask you, you also in the book describe in quite a bit of detail the room you were in when the U.S. invasion began. You describe it as the red room and all of the supplies that you were stockpiling along, just like other Iraqis were in preparation for. Who knows what was going to happen. Can you just tell us a little bit about, like literally your physical environment in those early days?

ABDUL-AHAD: I mean, Iraq is a very good at stockpiling the moment. We see some things happening. We know exactly what to do, and that's get rice, beans, some olive oil and whatever to an account. So weeks before the invasion, when it became clear that the Americans were actually going to bomb, that the whole charade of weapons of mass destruction inspectors for weapons of mass destruction was not going to work. You start stockpiling, you buy some curiosity to buy all these things and you prepare yourself.

Because again, 1991 was a perfect example of, What will happen when the whole infrastructure is destroyed? Electricity, water. So why both wars are about these things? I was living in a tiny little room because I, you know, could not afford anything bigger. And you sit there and you wait. You wait for what's happening.

I mean, I have to say, before the war, during the sanctions, I was watching my life slipping away from me. I could see life under the sanctions. I wanted to leave the country. I couldn't leave the country. And it's just a life of boredom listening to this great dictator thinking he's great. He's leading his people to death by ... basically war after war, sanctions. And yeah, so that was the life.

CHAKRABARTI: Earlier in the show, you had told us that you were there in Firdos Square in Baghdad on the day that giant statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled. That was April 9th, 2003. And here's how that moment was reported in the United States by CBS News.

CBS NEWS [Tape]: Just in the last few moments, a U.S. Marine tank with a large chain has pulled the statue of Saddam Hussein down. This giant statue crumbled at the knees and toppled over. It's still hanging on the pedestal. But as it collapsed, a great roar came out from the crowd. There it goes. It has fallen down to the ground. It has come up hard. The crowd is going mad, rushing toward it. They've been pelting it with stones.

CHAKRABARTI: Again, that's a CBS News report. Of course, the reporter was in Baghdad, but that's what American audiences saw. Was there a great crowd when you were there? What did you see?

ABDUL-AHAD: I mean, she's very accurate in saying that the American tank pulled the statue. Because we often hear Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam. Iraqis did not topple the statue, not because they didn't want to, but because, you know, they had a few hammers, and it was taking a long time. And the huge crowd actually with journalists. And I was standing there and there was a smaller crowd of Iraqis, and the American pulled down the statue and yes, a few people, maybe a couple of dozen kind of rushed there, and a few of them started pelting the statue with their shoes, with their flip flops.

But the ultimate thing there was this moment when, as this American Marine was climbing on the ladder to put the noose around the statue's head, and he pulls this American flag from his pocket, and he placed the photo on top of the face of Saddam. And there was this kind of collective gasp, I think, amongst the journalists, Oh don't do it. This is destroying the kind of image of liberation of freedom. And I did the same thing at the time. And I was thinking, oh, boy, just let this whole facade live for a few days more, the facade of liberation.

But, you know, later I came to believe that this Marine was more honest than all the politicians in New York, in Washington, in London, because he saw the war as a war between his men and the Iraqi army. And he came victorious. So it was his right to put the flag of his nation on the defeated statue of the dictator. And that moment, the whole idea of Iraqi freedom, I think, collapsed because it was an occupation and it was an occupation that maybe the Iraqis in a firsthand deal inside their hearts said, okay, we will tolerate yet another American occupation of Iraq if the price is getting rid of Saddam and having a prosperous. But of course, they got rid of Saddam, but the horrible Iraq came to existence after that.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you describe also that moment as a coming so very quickly that Baghdad itself had this very short period of time where it hung in the balance, as you write, between dictatorship and occupation, that that was a very striking way of putting it. I have to say, I mean, in that moment where all seemed possible, even though shortened as it was, how did you feel? What were your thoughts about what was possible for Iraq?

ABDUL-AHAD: Well, I mean, before the Americans entered Baghdad, the city, as I say, the city was empty. Very few civilians ventured out of their houses. But in every street corner you see these sandbags. The traffic police were wearing helmets. You see the Ba'ath Party militiamen standing on street corners and military equipment around the house, around the houses, in the streets and all these things. And then something happened between the 8th of April and the 9th.

I woke up on the 9th and suddenly the streets were empty, as if someone gave them an order. And every single security officer militiaman had disappeared from the street. So that is the sense of the quietness. The city is finally free from the grip of the dictatorship and its security forces. And that freedom lasted probably an hour, a couple of hours, until you see the occupiers entering the city. And throughout the years after that, I always ask the question, So what was better, Saddam or the occupiers or the Americans? And as if Iraqis had no option but a mad dictator and an illegal occupation, I mean, we as people deserve something better.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, the sort of very binary thinking that the United States and the West had and perhaps even continues to have about the Iraqi people is a recurring theme. You know, in your memoir, you write about how very quickly after you became a translator for four Western journalists that you always were told to ask people that you were interviewing, whether they're Sunni or Shia, that you cringed every time you had to ask that question. Can you tell me why?

ABDUL-AHAD: Because I grew up in the inner city. I don't want to dismiss the notion that Sunnis and Shia did exist. Of course, they existed as a religious, cultural manifestation and schools of thought, whatever. But the reality is, social class regional distinctions were more important from the sectarian identity. The Baghdad I knew did not have a sectarian identity. And when the journalist came and of course, the journalist, the new American administration, the exiled Iraqi politician that came with them, suddenly Iraq was devised as a matter of three components the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shia.

And as if there was a divide separating the Sunnis of Baghdad from the Shia of Baghdad, this didn't exist. I mean, Sunnis and Shia have both suffered in the sanctions. But the narrative that was brought to justify an invasion of Iraq was Saddam was this super villain, which he was, and he oppressed his people, which he did. But because Saddam was a Sunni then by association, all the Sunnis are culprits in the crimes of Saddam, and they have been pushed to a corner with fingers pointing at them, accusing them of being collaborators and the Shia being the victims.

And that narrative based on victimhood, when one part of the population is a victim, the other are the victimizers. And that were the seeds of the later civil war. That was how the created after the invasion were laid there. And this what we call it, analysis of every kind of sectarian division, the ethno sectarian division of the state.

CHAKRABARTI: It sounds like what you're saying is that the Americans had absolutely no understanding or no willingness to understand the other forms of connections that Baghdadis and Iraqis had with each other family, cultural, ethnic, tribal, and that it was only this religious, the religious sectarianism that was imposed as the most important way to define who was who in Iraq. Do you think that the Americans were willfully blind to the other realities of what constituted Iraqi civil and social life?

ABDUL-AHAD: Worse than willfully blind, they were not only blind, but they took the one narrative that was given to them, fed to them by the exiled Iraqi politicians like Ahmed Chalabi and the others. These exiled politicians grew up in the claustrophobic circles of exiles. They lost family members. They were, you know, chased by the regime. So they grew up in Tehran and Beirut and London within their tiny little communities.

Those are the people who explained what was happening in Iraq to the Americans. And those people were not in Iraq, had never been in Iraq. Some of them left Iraq when they were children. Others grew up, you know, were born in the West. So when the Americans came, not only they were willfully blind, because if you are willfully blind and you learn on the ground, that's fine. No, they came with this means misguided policies fed to them by the neocons, of course, and the Iraqi exiles.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I want to once again hopefully try to bridge the gap between what Americans saw in the United States over the course of the Iraq war and what Iraqis, in particular, you experienced and lived. And so here's another just iconic moment from May 1st, 2003. So we're still in 2003 here where President George W. Bush is standing in a flight suit on the deck of the aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln. And behind him is that famous banner declaring mission accomplished. And he told the cheering sailors on the ship that major combat operations in Iraq have ended. And then President Bush repeated this promise to the Iraqi people.

GEORGE W. BUSH [Tape]: The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done, and then we will leave. And we will leave behind a free Iraq.

CHAKRABARTI: When you heard that, what was going through your mind? How did you respond to it?

ABDUL-AHAD: I was thinking how delusional he was. I mean, he was declaring the end of major combat operations, when more American soldiers would die in the upcoming months and years than during the war. And I was thinking, how can you establish a democracy in a country that was bombed by the Americans, humiliated, put under sanctions, bombed again, and then told to come back with a democracy? And of course, the democracy, we have elections in matter, but elections do not transform trust translate into democracy. When you have political parties armed, you have massive corruption.

So 20 years later, we still don't have the democracy that we were promised by the Americans. And I don't want to lay the blame on George W. Bush and the American soldiers only. I want to say that the process was so flawed and wrong that it was inevitable for it to fail and collapse and produce the mayhem that it produced. However, certain things were not shouldn't have happened. I mean, a sectarian civil war was only happened because of the politicians who came with the United States. The form of government the United States decided to implement in Iraq, but also the Americans lack of security. They did not control the borders.

So anyone who had a grievance against the Americans, namely the jihadis who came from as far as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, wanted to fight the Americans in Iraq and ignite a civil war, but also the Syrians and the Iranians who were on the list of whatever axis of evil thought. Why should we wait for the Americans to invade our country? Let's fight the Americans in Iraq. And suddenly Iraq became this arena for everyone who had a grievance against the Americans to come and fight the Americans.

CHAKRABARTI: You write in the book to put a fine point on what you just said in the book. You say, quote, 'To be fair to Bush and the neocons, the occupation was bound to collapse and fail. Both logic and history tell us that because a nation can't be bombed, humiliated and sanctioned, then bombed again and then told to become a democracy, no amount of planning could have turned an illegal occupation into a liberation.

And then you go on even more pointedly to say that really another victim of the war in Iraq, the U.S. invasion, was the idea of democracy in the Middle East, because, as you say, in leading a sectarian war that would engulf a region, permanently crippled democracy in the Middle East, because people would often ask, do you want democracy? Didn't you see what democracy did to Iraq? Now, I point that out as a very quite eye opening moment in in your book, because there were some people in the United States who were definitely cheerleaders of the war, who also were bold enough to say that, you know, maybe democracy wasn't even ever the point. For example, here is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on the PBS show, the public TV show, Charlie Rose. And here's this is many years ago. This is how Friedman explained the invasion of Iraq.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN [Tape]: What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying, which part of this sentence don't you understand? You don't think we care about our open society? Well, suck on this, okay? That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth.

ABDUL-AHAD: Exactly what he predicted happened. I mean, the arrogance of this. I mean, this is the arrogance for an occupier throughout the history. This is the hubris of an occupying army. But to come from Friedman, I mean, I can't believe it, he said. But also, you know, what happens when you take a big stick and knock at every single door from Brussels to Baghdad and you say, suck on this, people would resist you. And that is exactly what happened. Small acts of resistance insurgency started in areas and in Baghdad, in Najaf and Karbala.

And, of course, as the army know, what the army's know best, which is to, you know, arrest people, detain them, put them in jail suddenly from tiny little cells of resistance into a massive insurgency engulfing the Americans in Iraq. And this is exactly what happened. Sorry, how idiotic you can be to say things like that, as if you can coerce the will of a nation, any person. I mean, imagine what happens in New York if I don't know who the Pakistani or Iraqi army start knocking at doors, every man would, you know, start resisting. And this is what happened in Iraq, not because they wanted to kill Americans, because they saw this as an occupation. And the worst of all, the worst of it all is that this look, this is an occupation.

Look, what they're doing to us was used by the worst kind of ideologues, terrorist gunmen, you name them. And the fighting. The American became such a big label justifying every kind of criminality, kidnaping, killing and violence in the streets of Baghdad, because they say, look, this is an occupation army. And of course, the label of occupation. The Americans chose that label themselves.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, can I just jump in here for a second? We have about 30 seconds before we have to take our next break. And I all of a sudden wonder if you ever met Tom Friedman now. What would you tell him?

ABDUL-AHAD: Well, look what your what your amazing analysis about Iran has led to into a region, not only Iraq, but the whole region engulfed by a sectarian civil war.

CHAKRABARTI: You describe in the book something that happened to you in 2004 where very similar you were on a on Haifa Street in Baghdad. And in fact, someone had bombed a piece of U.S. military equipment and then a helicopter arrived. Can you tell us what happened to you on that day?

ABDUL-AHAD: Two tiny, small helicopters became people gathered around this burned American vehicle after the attack, after the Americans were evacuated. We arrived there, a group of journalists. And then we saw these helicopters, you know. Fly right into the crowd and then fire rockets into the middle of the crowd. And then, of course, I arrived and I see the scenes of mayhem, people losing limbs, eventually people dying in the middle of the street, bleeding to death. And the helicopters went back and forth and did two kind of friends firing into the crowd. And at that time, I mean, I can't describe the fear. It's just like you just want to be sucked into the middle of the ground and disappear. But those were civilians. Those were civilians in the middle of the street.

An armored vehicle was destroyed, but it was a group of civilians who had gathered around it and kind of caused all these incidents, one after the other, culminating in the pictures of Abu Ghraib, the torture. You see this army that supposedly came there to liberate you as again, and I repeat this word, as an army of occupation. Most of them were young kids, 18, 19. I've never seen anything outside the United States, the Manning checkpoints. This inherited racism that comes with, you know, occupation armies dealing with local populations, the ignorance.

And there was a kind of an undertone which is expressed very well by Friedman early on, that this is a retaliation for September 11. But we had nothing to do with September 11 and Iraqis had nothing to do. I mean, I remember I was in Baghdad and we were all shocked at the events of September 11 and we did not see those people. So why are we being treated like this by a supposed liberator? This is one of the things that eventually that violence and the legacy of that violence continued. And and and, you know, like a snowball grew bigger and bigger and bigger until it engulfed the whole region.

CHAKRABARTI: It's even in the opening, the introduction of the book where you sense that same inherent racism, even in some of the journalists that first came into Iraq, along with the U.S. military. Having been embedded with them in the earliest days of the invasion, can you tell us about that?

ABDUL-AHAD: The very armed, very aggressive police is behaving in the United States itself. And this is in a people policing its own nation. So imagine how it happened in Iraq. And imagine the miscommunication, the aggressiveness, the way they took to the Iraqis. I remember once we were stopped at a checkpoint, me and this other man who was a cleric who had a long beard and a short, you know, this stature, kind of a dress.

And the soldiers were toying with him, kind of taking these kind of souvenir pictures and pointing the guns at his head and making, you know, monkey faces. And that was repeated ad nauseum at every single checkpoint in Iraq. It was horrible. It was horrible. You know, today, 2023, even the politicians who came on the back of American tanks talk of the occupation and the horrors of the occupation, I can't emphasize how bad it was.

CHAKRABARTI: In the book you write that the levels of fear, anxiety and violence that Iraqis went through on a daily basis could not be measured or reported, that life was shaped by a cycle of violence and counter-violence, by sectarian politicians spewing hatred from pulpits and TV channels, by the ugliness of the American occupation, by the racism of foreign soldiers and mercenaries, and, of course, by the insurgency.

We focused a lot, of course, on the actions, direct actions of Americans. But you also describe in the book in detail that the Iraqis were the targets of organized violence by insurgents. And this is part of the reason why the death toll over the past 20 years for Iraqis is so high. Do you talk about that a little bit?

ABDUL-AHAD: I mean, of course. I mean, one thing I have to emphasize that the violence I saw as a journalist is so minimal compared to the violence that civilian Iraqis saw. I went out of my hotel to look at incidents of violence, and I came back to my hotel. Iraqis went to schools, were going shopping, you know, had to go to work on a daily basis in street, where, as you say, insurgents and militiamen were manning checkpoints, kidnaping people according to their name, identity cards and the random violence of, you know, of car bombs. So the violence that we started as an insurgency against the Americans very quickly evolved into a sectarian civil war.

So Sunni insurgents would attack Shia neighborhoods. Shia militiamen would retaliate by kidnaping Sunni men and killing them. And that soon became the reality of life in Baghdad. To this to a certain extent, even these Shia militias were working in tandem with the Iraqi security forces set up and equipped by the Americans, because like all occupation forces, it's easier to divide the society into allies and enemies. And that civil war quickly moved from a sectarian civil war into a very. Profitable business model.

Because while I can kidnap those people from the other sect, I can also take the cars that houses their properties. I can negotiate a ransom from their families. And very soon. These insurgents, these militias fragmented into gangs, controlling whole neighborhoods of Baghdad, imposing their taxation on the population.

CHAKRABARTI: One of the things that I appreciated most profoundly in your book was the stories of many individual Iraqis who I'm sure we would have never heard of in the U.S. media. So, for example, can you tell us about Hamid of Tahmina?

ABDUL-AHAD: Hamid was typical of those early insurgents. Early you know, if there was a moment where they could be called resistance. It was a security officer. He was working for Saddam's security. But like many in the official security forces, he was fed up with the president. So he tried to leave, couldn't. And at the eve of the war, he wasn't based in Basra, came back hard to pick up weapons and create a small cell fighting the Americans.

But his violence was for a purpose, to reclaim a position for himself and for other people like him who were fired from the security forces by the Americans. They really wanted to get back to get back that respect. They lost and really wanted to reintegrate themselves into the Iraqi society. Very early on, he finds himself in a very awkward position because while he wanted to target the violence against the Americans, fellow insurgents, especially the jihadis allied and the others wanted to expand to include all the Shia. And he had a very clear, he was telling me this from 2005. He was saying Al-Qaida is very dangerous and it's very, you know, short sighted, very stupid policies of the other Sunni insurgents to align themselves with Al-Qaida.

And, of course, he was one of the people early on who was calling for to talk to the Americans, because we need to have a peace deal with Americans. We need to find a solution out of this kind of quagmire that we are in. And, of course, eventually this is what ended the first phase of the civil war when the Iraqi insurgent, the Sunnis themselves defeated by the Shia militias in the civil war, turned to the Americans for aid in return for, you know, fighting the former allies, the jihadis, Al-Qaida and the first and the civil war could have ended there had we not had a very sectarian prime minister in 2002.

CHAKRABARTI: There's this remarkable theme of scene of him hosting foreign fighters in his home. And I'm hoping I'm not confusing stories here, but, you know, feeding them rice and chicken and fruit. And basically, the goal of those foreign fighters, though, was exclusively religious, that they were there to do religious jihad and to kill anyone who wasn't going to convert to Islam. So in a sense, their goals were actually different, but he was hosting them nevertheless.

ABDUL-AHAD: This is a different commander. This is a commander in Fallujah, which is very similar.

CHAKRABARTI: My apologies. Okay. I'm so sorry.

ABDUL-AHAD: And another commander who also wanted to fight the Americans for the purpose of fighting the Americans. But he found himself in a situation where, as you say, foreign jihadis from Syria, from Yemen, from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia were all flocking to Fallujah. And again, from there, from that moment, you see this divergence in goals. Well, the Iraqi commander in Fallujah wanted to fight the Americans. The jihadis had no interest in Iraq itself. They were there to fight a global war.

And that war was, you know, as outlined to them by bin Laden and others, is to defeat America. It's almost like the Americans were fulfilling their ultimate dream, which is to fight the Americans and hit the Americans out here in Iraq. So everyone came to fight the Americans. So this commander in Fallujah, who was also Iraqi, also realized this early on. And Hameed, to I mean, the last time I met Hamid, he was being chased by the jihadis, the Sunnis, by the Shia militias. And he was, you know, trying to escape in Baghdad and he disappeared. And no one knows who killed him or what happened to him.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, look, there's insurgency. There's civil war. I mean, you could pick any Iraqi city that was severely impacted by all sorts of violence over the past 20 years Fallujah, Mosul, etc. But I want to actually spend the last several minutes here bringing us as close to the present day as possible, because we are talking about a 20 year span here.

So in 2019, young Iraqis launched the machine movement, and these were peaceful protests against government corruption and against the influence of Iran in the city of Hillah, in the province of Babylon, considered the cradle of civilization, of course. Protesters, protesters gathered.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell us why you thought it was important for us to talk about this movement?

ABDUL-AHAD: Because in this whole sectarian narrative about Iraq post 2003, Sunnis and Shia fighting each other and killing each other. Suddenly you have a movement led by a young generation. This is a generation that doesn't remember Saddam Hussein, a generation that grew up in the shadow of the civil war, suddenly realizing after the defeat of ISIS that, you know, both Sunnis and Shia are not getting electricity. And why is that? Because we are ruled by a kleptocratic regime, because the all the politicians are involved in the civil war, but also in siphoning the wealth of the nation.

And that was the moment, the spark. You know, I've seen so much violence in Iraq, and it almost doesn't affect me anymore. But that moment into the in 2009, when I see old woman handing sandwiches to young demonstrators, you can't stop it. You know, tears poured in my face because that was the ultimate moment when I thought the Iraqis regained their narrative, regained some dignity, avenge that violence of the civil war by peacefully protesting again.

And that was a very important. ... The protest failed because all protest failed, but it established this benchmark for the rest of the people to point out and say, look, at that moment we were united. There were no Sunnis and Shia, there were no wealthy and poor. Everyone came together in that square. And that is the moment when a new Iraqi I don't want to say nationalism, but patriotism had been emerging on a new Iraqi identity.

CHAKRABARTI: Can it persist? Can it thrive?

ABDUL-AHAD:  It can. But it's facing severe challenges from the established political parties and the huge amount of wealth.

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from A STRANGER IN YOUR OWN CITY by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Copyright © 2023 by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This program aired on March 30, 2023.


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Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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