What the Left Got Wrong About Iraq

Anti-war activists ignored Saddam Hussein's horrendous crimes against ordinary Iraqis. Do they have anything -- beyond anti-Bush demonstrations -- to offer the oppressed in...

On May 15, 2003, in the early days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, I took a trip to al-Mufwrakiyya, a village on the banks of the Tigris River two hours south of Baghdad. A U.S. military crane had just toppled Saddam's statue in Baghdad, and I was hard at work documenting the human costs of the U.S. invasion.

Hospital officials in nearby Kuwt had already briefed me on the situation in al-Mufwrakiyya. U.S. airplanes and tanks had destroyed houses and killed innocent women and children there. At least four women had been killed in that village, they told me — all of them while hiding in their homes.

A reporter for staunchly anti-war Pacifica Radio, I expected to find the villagers angry at the Americans because of their suffering as a result of the war. But that's not what I found.

It's not that the war had been easy. A few feet away from the green reeds on the banks of the Tigris lay the rubble of 11 houses destroyed by American tanks. As I approached, one villager gave me the list of the services absent in his town since the fall of Saddam. There was no electricity, no security, no telephone service, and no running water. An American tank destroyed his cousins' house, he told me, but he was being forced to pay for the reconstruction.

Elsewhere in the town were a handful of houses that had been bombed by the Americans. Three Iraqi civilians died during the invasion — all of them women taking shelter in their homes.

After some asking around, I found the home of one of the victims. He was a poor man, 63 years old, with no furniture and no art on his walls. The only color in his receiving room was a faded Persian area rug. We were quickly joined by his nephew. They offered tea, and I accepted.

“It was on April 1st at 8 in the evening. That's when my wife died,” he explained, showing her death certificate. “The planes came and hit this area. There were four airplanes, and when they came they started to bomb the civilian houses. Most of the people had already left this area when there was heavy bombing, but we stayed in our homes. We were happy when we heard the Americans coming. We were just waiting for the Americans to come.”

Still, his family was scared of the invasion. The old man explained that 13 people crammed into the small house that day: all of his daughters, and his daughters-in-law, and sister, and sister-in-law, and his mother. Some of them used to live in Kuwt, he said, but when they heard the war was coming, they fled the city for the comparative safety of small-town al-Mufwrakiyya.

“After that, the tanks began to shoot the area, targeting a few of Saddam's fedayeen, and then the airplanes bombed the town,” he said, explaining that his wife and niece died when a missile hit his home. His niece was killed when shrapnel from the bomb hit her neck, her 2-year-old baby in her arms. “The baby was injured, too,” he said, “but thanks to God, the next day we got her to the hospital.”

“We had to stay here all night with the dead bodies,” said the man's nephew, a 42-year-old tailor. His wife also died in the air strike. “The next morning we took them to Kuwt to be buried.”

They offered to give me a tour of the damage.

One bedroom was completely destroyed by a Tomahawk cruise missile. The steel door separating it from the rest of the house was full of shrapnel. The steel door, the old man said, was all that saved his life. “I would have been killed, too,” he said. “As it is, I have pieces of shrapnel in my stomach and the back of my head.”

His nephew pointed to huge cracks in the house's walls and foundation that needed to be repaired before the winter rains came, or the whole house would collapse. But since there had been almost no electricity in al-Mufwrakiyya since the war, he had been thrown out of work like most Iraqis. So, he didn't have the money to support his family — let alone repair the house.

The old man pointed around the room. “I will have to sell everything to pay for the repairs,” he said. Even so, he didn't have much to sell. His furniture and television were destroyed in the blast. “I will have to sell my stove, my cabinets, my silver. I will have to sell it all,” he said.

Despite the carnage, he didn't hold any ill will toward George Bush, who was responsible for the death of his wife and the destruction of his house. He said the invasion was the only way to remove Saddam.

“Only America could do this,” he said. “If it weren't for America, Saddam would stay. Then his sister would take over and rule the same way. It would go on for generations. Even his grandson would come and grow up and rule Iraq in the same way as Saddam. But thank God now he's gone, and thank God, He brought America to get rid of Saddam and take him away. Now, when the tanks pass in the streets, the children greet them.”

His nephew spoke up. “There will always be sacrifices,” he said of his dead wife. “We wanted Bush to win the war, so we encouraged the Iraqi military and fedayeen not to fight here.”

He told me he was jailed twice by Saddam. The first time was for a year, beginning in 2001, for making a banned pilgrimage to the Shi'ite holy city Karbala. In February 2003, he said, he was jailed for marrying in a traditional Shi'ite wedding. “I was taken to Abu Ghraib prison in a special section for political prisoners. I was held upside down with my feet tied to a rope behind bars, and then they shocked me with electricity,” he told me. “It went on for two days. It would have continued forever, but one of my relatives bribed the jailer with 400,000 Iraqi dinar [about $250, a relative fortune in a country where the average factory wage was $20 a month], and I was released.” [page]

“Thanks to God they got rid of Saddam,” the old man's nephew summed up. “We are thankful to the Americans. So it depends on them now if they will stay in Iraq or go back to America. They did their job. They took away this criminal, Saddam; they should go home. They saved all the Iraqi people from Saddam.”

He invited me to lunch with his family, but I declined. I had to get back to Baghdad before nightfall, I explained. The Americans had successfully overthrown Saddam, but they were unable to keep any semblance of security in the country. Heading back late would have been an invitation to robbery or worse.

On the way back to Baghdad, I noticed something I hadn't seen before. Everywhere I looked were signs and banners in support of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Tehran-backed organization dedicated to turning Iraq into a Shi'ite fundamentalist state along the lines of Iran. In the early 1980s, Saddam had purged its ranks, murdering tens of thousands. Now, Saddam was gone and the sad-eyed face of Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim was posted on nearly every lamppost and in many shop windows.

Two years later, I think often about the villagers of al-Mufwrakiyya. These are the people who heeded Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's fatwa (al-Hakim having been assassinated by a car bomb) to vote in this January's election and gave the majority of seats in the country's new National Assembly to Shi'ite theocrats who had been brutally oppressed during Saddam's regime. They are the people most on the anti-war left choose to ignore.

Anti-war activists don't like to think about this group because it challenges their assumptions about the war. In a way, people who suffered under Saddam are a lot more pragmatic than most American activists. During the war, the Shi'ite Islamist Badr Brigades joined the American coalition against Saddam Hussein, but immediately after the fall of Saddam, turned their attention toward ending the occupation.

“Do the Americans accept it if the English govern their country?” Grand Ayatollah al-Hakim asked a congregation in May 2003. “Even though they share a similar culture? How can we accept a foreign government whose language is different than ours, whose skin is different than ours? Our brothers, we will fight and fight, so that the government we have is independent, that it is Iraqi.”

Two years later, the inheritor of his political organization, brother Sayyed Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, echoed those words in comments to United Press International. “No dignified person is willing to see foreign troops in their country,” he said as his theocratic slate cruised to victory at the polls. “And the Iraqi people are no exception. We hope, upon the formation, at the earliest, of strong and efficient military, police, and security organizations, foreign troops will leave the country.”

Of course, not everyone in Iraq supports al-Hakim or a Shi'ite theocracy, and not everyone in Iraq has decided to voice his or her opposition to American occupation peacefully, at the polls. Over the last two years, a significant number of otherwise nonpolitical Iraqis have decided to join the armed resistance. But even many of those who now support attacks on the Americans supported the initial invasion.

Among them is businessman Shanam abu Jabar. A member of a prominent Sunni family, he hardly had positive experiences with the old regime. His father and older brother were executed by Saddam's government. He remembers watching U.S. and European anti-war demonstrations on television in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion.

“We said, 'Thanks a lot, but shut up. After they get rid of Saddam, you can go ahead and have your big movement, but now just shut up,'” he told me last spring.

“They didn't know anything,” he continued, offering me an extravagant meal of rice and lamb stew. “They didn't live here and know the truth about Saddam. Nobody can imagine what Saddam did with his people — only the people who lived here. Maybe if we had stayed under Saddam's regime, we would all have been killed.”

Shortly after the Americans took over, though, Shanam changed his mind about the U.S. military. “What will I tell my children?” he said. “How can I tell them that I let the invaders rule over us?”

Shanam told me his relatives joined the resistance first. They were arrested, he said, and some are being held at the now-notorious Abu Ghraib prison. They're among the more than 10,000 Iraqis currently held, mostly without charge, by the U.S. military.

“It's the same struggle as under Saddam's regime,” he told me. “Now it's been rebuilt by the Americans themselves.”

He said regular U.S. military patrols through his neighborhood showed him America likes to fight, but he was upset at the lack of electricity, employment, and clean water — all of which were in greater supply under Saddam's regime.

“The military mind of the Americans didn't know how to deal with the resistance,” he told me. “They didn't know how to control them or make them on their side, because it's not just a matter to have a gun and fight. It's a matter of our thoughts. We will join the resistance by our thoughts for all the people who are unable to fight. The women, the children, and the young men don't want to fight, but they are against the Americans because of the way the Americans behave toward the resistance; how they go against the resistance.”


The reason I recount these stories now, long after I first heard and reported them, is that they point toward a different narrative of the war than often heard in anti-war circles. It's not the fact that the Americans invaded Iraq that makes Iraqi people so angry; it's the fact that they stayed. It's the fact that the U.S. government has made little effort to rebuild the electricity and telephone grid, even as it handed out $80 billion more for the military occupation.

People are angry because U.S. troops ride tanks and Humvees through residential neighborhoods every night; because they've arrested thousands of people and thrown them, without trial, into Abu Ghraib prison, where many have been tortured. They're angry because the streets are too unsafe for their children to go to school. A respected study by Johns Hopkins University, published in the British medical journal Lancet, conservatively estimated that 100,000 Iraqi civilians died prematurely in the first year of U.S. occupation — 58 times more than died during the last year of Saddam's regime.

According to the researchers, in the years before the invasion, most people died as a result of heart attack, stroke, or chronic illness. (Most of Saddam's worst atrocities — including the gassing and forced relocation of the Kurds — occurred in the 1980s, when the U.S. government backed his regime, or after the 1991 Gulf War, when George H.W. Bush urged the Iraqi people to rise up and then withheld support for their revolution.) After the invasion, about the same number of people had died from these “usual” causes, but there was a massive increase in the numbers of violent deaths.

There's no doubt, in my hindsight, that the Bush administration's policies in Iraq have been a colossal failure — except insofar as they have enriched Bush's friends at Halliburton and Bechtel.

In hindsight, it's easy to view these developments as inevitable. Ever since the Bush administration protected the Oil Ministry while allowing the looting of ancient libraries and the country's National Museum, it's been clear to me that policy-makers in Washington care little about the Iraqi people.

But has the anti-war movement shown any more concern for the people who have been victims of both the Saddam dictatorship and the American invasion?

In a way, I think the left and the right have shown an equal lack of concern for ordinary Iraqis. This is why, I think, before, during, and after the invasion, many anti-war activists focused their protests on the missing weapons of mass destruction or the lack of a strong link to al-Qaeda, rather than on the daily life of Iraqi people. And that's why many on the left were unwilling to address the brutality of Saddam's regime when George W. Bush first made the case for war.

Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11, like most journalism by the anti-war left, presented Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a peaceful place. The only image of prewar Iraq in the entire film was of a small child flying a kite on a clear day. In the film, no mention was made of mass graves or mass incarceration by the Ba'ath regime.

It seems to me that those who oppose war have an obligation to put forward solutions, however partial, that could help the citizens of countries controlled by brutal dictators escape tyranny without war. What solutions can we offer to the Shi'ite villagers of al-Mufwrakiyya and middle-class Sunnis like Shanam abu Jabar? Is their suffering under the U.S. occupation more reprehensible than it was when Saddam Hussein was the military overlord? Is there something short of invasion that could have saved those oppressed people?

If the anti-war movement wants to be relevant in the lives of those targeted by our government, activists must first admit that they were wrong to downplay Saddam's brutality. Activists must admit that, in merely opposing war, they have not put forward ideas that could compete with war as the solution to evil dictatorship.

Ending the occupation of Iraq is important. An attack on Syria or Iran would be a disaster. But what is the anti-war movement's plan to show solidarity with the Iranian and Syrian people? In Syria, the security state is total. In Iran, the noose is tightening around pro-democracy advocates.

We should focus at least as much on human beings as we do on weapons of mass destruction (present or not). We should do everything we can to avoid giving people only the choice between the horrors of war and the horrors of dictatorship.

Aaron Glantz is a Pacifica radio correspondent who covered Sacramento for KPFA-FM (94.1) and who spent five months in Iraq. His book, How America Lost Iraq, was published earlier this month. He'll be at Books Inc., 2251 Chestnut St. in San Francisco, on Wednesday, May 25, at 7:30 p.m.

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