The Future Uncertain: An Iraqi on His Country

As presidents gathered to salute George W. Bush’s presidency, a leading Iraqi offers up his perspective on what happened to his country in the last decade—and what will happen next. He spoke to John Kael Weston.

Here is an Iraqi perspective, unfiltered, unlike the rest of my series. The following exchanges occurred over two long lunches, sharing Lebanese food, in Pentagon City in late March. Ameer was raised in Baghdad and is an expert on Iraqi politics. He worked for the U.S. Embassy, becoming a go-to analyst for American diplomats, and is now living in the Washington, D.C. area. Saddam Hussein’s regime persecuted his family members and neighbors.

The opening ceremony for President George W. Bush’s Presidential Library was held today in Dallas, with four former commanders in chief in attendance, in addition to our current one. I hope the $500 million library includes a section dedicated to diverse Iraqi voices on the Iraq War. The museum is open to the public beginning May 1—ten years from the day pilot George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier with the banner “Mission Accomplished” prominently featured behind him.

What’s Iraq like today?

The present is confounding and the future is uncertain. No sign of positive gestures much less any solutions on the horizon. We Iraqis do not have common agreement on our national identity. Social rivalry is on the rise, as people react to the tensions on the street, often without being aware of what’s happening behind the scenes politically. Iraqi politicians exploit the current situation to manipulate people. It is true that the Iraqi society consists of multiple factions; however, there is a growing misunderstanding of the concept of citizenship.

Was the invasion worth it—for the U.S., Iraq, and region?

That’s a good question, and many Iraqis will have different answers. In my opinion, it was. Economically speaking, I see some improvement in the per capita income of some people, especially in the federal workers’ income. Iraq became a democracy but with wild and chaotic freedoms. As for the security situation, I am just afraid that one day we would consider terrorism and Iraq’s disrupted security situation as a fact of life.

What happens next?

As I said, the broad picture is vague; no one knows what will happen next. Pessimism is greater than optimism. I personally expect more social disintegration in the society. For a long time, Saddam Hussein was glue, bad glue that kept Iraq’s parts together. The U.S. broke that glue and we had to face another side of reality—continuous calls for autonomous regions make Iraq’s-being much more fragile.

What should the U.S. do or not do?

Today, the U.S. has a little role or influence in Iraq. In fact, in this complex political situation, I don’t think Americans can come up with an effective solution. Americans should wait for the results of the provincial elections. The results will be an opportunity and a balance in the political process, where Americans could consider new plans. Iraq and the U.S. supposed to have an intertwined relationship, especially when both countries signed a long-term strategic framework agreement. The situation is so complex, to such an extent, that even the Kurds and Massoud Barazani cannot start a new initiative, as they became part of the problem. On top of this, the 2013 national budget was passed the Iraqi parliament without the assent of the Kurds.

Should Americans care about what happens in Iraq?

I think the U.S. should have direct communication, economically, politically, and culturally, with the Iraqi people. We should always remember that America was the founder of the political process and the sponsor of democracy in Iraq. After all what we went through, I believe that America is one of the main reasons why Iraq is still solid.

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Are there any good Iraqi books about the Iraq War?

So far very few books, maybe one or two have been written by Iraqi politicians. Meanwhile many books written by ex-Baathists and Saddam Hussein’s henchmen such, Iraq’s Ambassador to the UN (Mohammed Aldori), Saddam’s Lawyer (Khalil Aldulaimi), Saddam’s translator (Saman Majeed) and Raad al-Hamdani (General of the Iraqi Republican Guards). One can notice that these books were written to justify the regime’s defeat in 2003. I recently heard that PM Maliki was working on his memoirs, but we do not know when they will be published. One day there will be great novels written, but the people now mostly talk about the war through oral stories and poetry, which is an Iraqi tradition, because of low levels of education. There are some current ones popular after the Baghdad bombings, which have in their title, “What did we do to deserve this?”

What will Iraq look like a year from now, five years, ten years?

Iraq suffers from many problems and Iraqi politicians seem not be aware of these problems. Today, Iraqi politicians spend much of their time and efforts addressing political crisis, which are big in terms of numbers and size without American sway. As an Iraqi, I believe there is a whole host of emerging problems in the society. The rapid population growth should be taken into consideration as a huge concern. The continuous emergence of what I call them ‘parasitic figures’ in the society, such as opportunist tribal leaders, fraudulent and charlatan clerics, corrupt federal workers, unprofessional politicians who emerged due not to a particular platform but rather escalating sectarian tensions. Kurdistan is somehow out of this circle of societal problems.

If the U.S. had not invaded, would the so-called “Arab Spring” happen in Iraq?

Shiite and Kurdish opposition leaders might have tried to spark the flame of an Iraqi uprising; I believe their chances of success would have been slim to none. My Iraqi friends and I talk about it very often. We jokingly say, not only it would have been impossible for an uprising to flourish in Iraq, but we might have been unaware of the changes happened in the region. Our best bet to know about the “Arab Spring” would have only been through a soccer match between Egypt versus X team. Where we can see pictures of Morsi in the hands of Egyptian fans, which makes us wonder what happened to President Mubarak. We shouldn’t ask ourselves if it would have been possible for Iraqis to revolt against Saddam. We are talking about a guy who has history in crashing the first “Arab uprising” in 1991 after the Gulf War, when helicopters and jet fighters bombed thousands of Shiites rebels in Karbala and Basra.

Syria, what to do… ?

The situation is Syria is devastating and is worse than ever. In Iraq, there is a real concern over the emergence of Alnusra Front and Salafists who are most averse to Shiites in the region. Americans can work with their allies to get assurance from the Syrian opposition to protect rights of minorities, in particular the Alawites to peacefully live in Syria once Alassad is gone.

How close is Iraq to another civil war?

Unlike people of the “Arab Spring” countries, Iraqis do not have a fundamental issue to fight for; however, the protests in the Sunni provinces are becoming a troubling reminder of the dark days of 2007. The slogans repeated by the protesters are becoming more separatist and sectarian. The weekly, coordinated strings of attacks in Shiite areas and the emergence of new Shiites militias, such as Asaeb Ahl Alhuq and Almukhtar groups, makes us feel we are heading towards sectarian clashes at a fast pace, probably faster than what happened in 2006.

Why did the U.S. make so many mistakes?

The complex situation in Iraq was never winnable. I believe that the structure of Iraq was built on wrong basis, which has been for a long time the source of our political problems. I liken the situation in Iraq to former Yugoslavia, which would have continued to have problems had it been on the same old structure.

When talking about America’s mistakes in Iraq, people often talk about U.S. decision to dissolve the Iraqi army in 2003. I think regardless of the U.S. decision, the Iraqi Army dissolved itself an hour after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. On April 9th 2004, the whole military establishment collapsed. Additionally, the former Iraqi army was concerned and embarrassed by its history with the Iraqi people. We all know about Saddam’s adventures in using the Iraqi army against Iraqi people.

Was the Iraq war every “winnable? And are you optimistic or pessimistic or something in-between maybe about Iraq’s future?”

In terms of blood and treasure the war was not winnable for the U.S. But in terms of strategic gains, I would say yes it was winnable. Unlike in the previous decades, Iraq is no longer an enemy to the U.S and constitutes no threats to the world or to its neighbors. I believe, in the long run, no matter how good Iraq’s relationships were with Iran, Iraq’s relationship with the U.S. will be similar to those between the Gulf States or South Korea and the U.S. But this won’t come naturally—both sides need to work harder at building this relationship.

Regarding optimism or pessimism, terrorism will always be our fate but hopefully at a lower level. I am not optimistic. I have big concerns about the tension today between the Iraqi people.