Iraq 20 Years Later

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Jon Alterman: Marsin Alshamary is soon to be an assistant professor at Boston College. She's a research fellow with the Middle East initiative at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She worked at Brookings, and she recently got her Ph.D. from MIT. Her husband, Hamzeh Hadad is an adjunct fellow with the Middle East Security Program at the Center for New American Security and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Marsin and Hamzeh, thanks for joining us again on Babel.

Marsin Alshamary: Absolutely, our pleasure.

Hamzeh Hadad: Thanks for having us, Jon.

Jon Alterman: 20 years ago, the United States went into Iraq and forced Saddam Hussein from power. Where were you both 20 years ago?

Hamzeh Hadad: I was in Canada—where I was born and raised. I was nine when the war happened. I remember it like yesterday. I was young, but the television set was always on the news—mostly American news. I remember on April 9, 2003, when the regime fell and they toppled the statue in Firdos Square. A few months later in December 2003, I actually found myself in Baghdad, visiting with my mother for the first time. That was the first time I was able to see the motherland. It was the first time my mother was seeing her country for 23 years, and there has been a connection with Iraq ever since.

Marsin Alshamary: My story isn't very different. I was in Minneapolis, and I was quite young at the time as well. Actually, a few months ago, I found an old diary of mine from the Iraq War, and I have an entry for when Saddam Hussein was found. It was very confused and ecstatic. I was a child then, and I was in the United States following the news and hearing what my parents and people around me were saying. But I was also filled with this idea that we would finally be able to go to this mystical home that we'd always been hearing about. I actually got to go very quickly. I was in Iraq in June 2003. I remember the borders were staffed by American soldiers at the time, so I got to see the earliest days of the occupation and the invasion. Of course, it was all from the perspective of someone who really was quite young, didn't understand what was happening exactly, and who was very much affected by the optimism in the air—particularly in southern Iraq, where my family is from.

Jon Alterman: What did it feel like? You're relatively young children. You grew up hearing Arabic. Did you grow up speaking Arabic? Was it easy to fit in? And did it feel totally different from the United States? Or was there enough of an American presence with the troops and everything else that you kind of had a U.S.-mediated experience when you're on the ground?

Hamzeh Hadad: I grew up in a household where we spoke Arabic at home, so it wasn't too different. I mean, looking back and remembering seeing soldiers in Iraq. After I completed my master’s degree in 2019, I moved to Baghdad and started working there. I had visited the country often, from 2003 until then, but, when you're here every day experiencing it on the ground, it’s different—even if you were visiting for work. When you're here for a long period, it becomes a more familiar place to you, so when you do reflect on the time when there was an occupation, you question how strange that must have been for local Iraqis.

Jon Alterman: Marsin, what was it like for you? You’re an American and you're seeing American troops. At the same time, you're Iraqi, but for most Iraqis, American troops are really foreign. What did the occupation feel like?

Marsin Alshamary: It was the first time that I saw the American army as something terrifying. They didn't know that I was American. I was with my family in cars, driving throughout the south or to different provinces in Iraq, and you would have to park your car to the side and not move if there was an American vehicle passing. And they were very imposing and very terrifying, and you'd hear about them targeting other cars that moved. It's not like your passport was on the car, so it didn't really matter whether I was American or not. From the perspective of what it was like to be in Iraq, obviously, it was very jarring to go back and forth between the United States and Iraq over the years. And it was very difficult to watch my parents see Iraq for the first time in years—both of them having left in the early 1990s at the beginning of the sanctions era. The minute they laid eyes on Baghdad, they were devastated because it looked very beat down. I remember buildings were burned, and it was in a state of utter chaos and decay. For them, it was this beautiful city, and it was like seeing your home demolished. It was hard for me to see the war through their eyes. I didn't really have an idea of what Iraq was like before the war. I was born there, but I left when I was three. I don’t really have a memory. When I saw it for the first time, I didn't know what to compare with. I just know that very quickly, the Americans became a very imposing force in the country. There was a brief period of euphoria that people don’t talk about very much. It was maybe not across all of Iraq, but it existed in southern Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a horribly oppressive dictator who had killed so many people and had caused so much chaos that people were genuinely happy to see him gone. And for a brief time, they were even happy to see the Americans there, but that was very short lived.

Jon Alterman: As an American, did Iraqis sort of blame you for the excesses of the U.S. government or U.S. troops? Did Iraqis seek to use you as an intermediary, to speak to Americans or understand what the Americans were really trying to do? Did you end up playing that bridge rule?

Marsin Alshamary: I didn’t until I decided to become a political scientist and offered myself up inadvertently to play this role—where it’s like “Marsin, can you say this to the State Department? Can you write about this? Can you do that?” I’ve never been treated by Iraqis who knew that I was raised in the United States as anything but a potential mediator or conduit. There has never been any animosity towards me for being American, and to be honest, I’ve never felt any animosity from Iraqis toward the average American. People—especially Americans who have never visited Iraq—think that if they come to Iraq, the first reaction of Iraqis would be to be angry at them and to hate them. But from my visibly White American friends who have visited, it has been nothing but a very welcoming experience for them. And I think that does say a lot about a certain maturity in the Iraqi street about who to pin the war on and who to pin these experiences on.

Jon Alterman: How has the country changed since you first went? As Marsin points out, Baghdad was a war zone, and there is a lot of damage. There’s obviously physical reconstruction, but there's also a way in which the country now sees a dictatorship very much in the rear-view mirror. As you've seen Iraq change what are the most striking changes that you notice?

Hamzeh Hadad: Iraq is a very young population and a lot of people that live in Iraq today either don't remember Saddam Hussein or they grew up with the 2003 War. So, that has left a lasting impact on them. With the older generations, they will compare different occupations—the British occupation with the U.S. military, for example. They will point to “bridge X” or “building B” and tell you, this is what the British built when they occupied Iraq, but I can't point to anything that the Americans did for us.” It’s interesting to see what different generations will reflect on.

Jon Alterman: Marsin, what's changed?

Marsin Alshamary: As Hamzeh said, seemingly overnight, there is now this new generation of Iraqis that were born in the late 1990s, or early 2000s and have no memory of Saddam Hussein, Baathism, or what it is like to live under that kind of police state. They still live in an environment in which it's there's not a complete freedom of speech and expression, but they don't have the memory of Iraq as that very typical Arab dictatorship which Saddam Hussein imposed. Because of that, there's a sense of nostalgia for the strong man because they feel that Iraq is very weak and that its borders are constantly being transgressed upon, and they're almost nostalgic for Saddam Hussein or someone like him. They think, “Look at the Iraqi army back then, it would have never succumbed to the Islamic State,” or “Look at the law and order back then, no one would ever accept a bribe.” That isn’t true, but there is this idea that the Iraqi state was so strong and powerful and imposing that people respected it, and that it wasn't easily swayed by international actors like Iran or the United States. So, there is this entire generation that compares democracy to an idealized past. That has also even changed as I’ve lived in Iraq, where they impose higher standards of what democracy should look like. They're no longer just satisfied with the fact that they can go out and vote—which their parents had in 2005. For this generation, it's different. In a way, it’s not so bad that they don't have a memory of pre-2003 Iraq because they also don't need to be shackled by it. They don’t need to accept everything that’s happening in the country today simply because it's better than dictatorial rule by one strong man. Iraq looks a lot different in 2023 than it did in 2003. I was very young during Baathist Iraq, and I spent it almost entirely in the United States. But I do have memory of how my mother, for example, communicated with her family during the time. I remember the shadow of the police state reaching me even in the United States—feeling that you had to be very careful about what you said on the phone because you don't want to put your family in Iraq in danger. I compare that to the drastic change in 2003 and onwards, in which you walk around Iraq and you can say anything you want about nearly any political figure. Jon, I kid you not, I sit in the areas of Baghdad most under control of armed-groups and talk to journalists about armed groups without worry. I find that remarkable compared to when I was six and seven, when I was afraid of telling my grandmother certain things on the phone because she lived in that kind of environment. It’s a completely different place and it's incredible that I have gotten to see all these versions of Iraq. I’m very interested in seeing what the next 20 years brings.

Jon Alterman: Do you both feel that there are scars left behind by Saddam Hussein? You talked about others in your generation that aren’t really afraid. Hamzeh talked about how people look cynically at different occupations. But in terms of the memories, you have as a six-year-old knowing you shouldn’t mention certain things to your grandmother, Marsin, do you sense there are scars left behind by Baathist era, or that there are instincts that Iraqis have because of decades of dictatorship by Saddam Hussein that even liberation doesn't eliminate?

Marsin Alshamary: One of the legacies of Baathism and the thing that has had the most impact on Iraqi society is the era of sanctions. It created such a “dog eat dog” world and such an environment of mistrust that it prevails in Iraq today. You asked us in the beginning if we felt like we were visibly foreign or different when we came to Iraq in 2003 and onwards. I speak Arabic with a very clear Iraqi accent, and I can blend in when I speak and express myself. But there was a cultural shock that I experienced in 2003 and every subsequent summer that I came to Iraq—and that I experienced in full force when I moved here in 2020—and to me it can be traced back to the environment under sanctions. There was so much mistrust and fear of other people and their intentions in regular everyday interactions. Whether you're buying something or hailing a cab. To me this all comes from a time period in which Iraqis had very limited resources and could trust absolutely no one. And I do put that on Baathism and on the sanctions.

Jon Alterman: Hamzeh, it's interesting to me that Marsin sees this as a consequence of sanctions and not of dictatorial rule. She talked about how she was concerned as a six-year-old about talking to her grandmother, but the lingering aspects of trust, she thinks is not from the dictatorship, but instead from the sanctions. Does that sync with the way you see things?

Hamzeh Hadad: Definitely. I remember when Russia invaded Ukraine last year and Iraqis could relate to that, both as those who invaded Kuwait in 1991 and as those invaded by the United States in 2003. When the international community started to sanction Russia, I remember hearing a lot of bragging, saying “Okay, now the Russians are going to feel it. We’ve survived wars, but it was the sanctions that killed us.” I've heard that many times, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It's something that lingers with them, and it actually gives them a lot of sympathy for other countries under sanctions. Iran is an example of that. There was a lot of animosity about the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, but there is still a sense in Iraq that the Iranian people shouldn’t be sanctioned. Even when it came to vilifying Russian people, they remember how they were vilified and sanctioned for the actions of a dictator. And as Marsin mentioned, in your everyday life in Iraq, you can see traces of the sanctions that linger with Iraqis—like mistrust and the feeling and mentality of “I have to take what I can get before it might be gone.”

Jon Alterman: You talked about going to Iraq as children for the first time. How long did it take before you decided that this was a place you wanted to really be deeply connected with for the rest of your lives and that you wanted a professional connection with Iraq? Was that something that you immediately felt? Or was it something that developed through university and as you've thought more deeply about what you want to do?

Hamzeh Hadad: For me, it really impacted my life from the get-go. I always knew, from middle school, that I wanted to study political science in university and that I would focus on Iraq—both as a way to understand how Iraq got to where it is but also to look forward. What's happened has happened, and we didn't have a say in that. But now that Iraqis have more control of their country, maybe there's an opportunity to take part and try to influence policy.

Marsin Alshamary: When my parents were forced to move to the United States, particularly my mother, they never really wanted to stay there. My mother kept thinking that we would be able to go back soon—that eventually Saddam Hussein would die or something will let up and we could go back. So, I grew up thinking that the United States was temporary, even though I was American in many ways. I was also very Iraqi because I thought eventually we’d return. I actually resisted studying politics and studying Iraq for a long time, until I was deep in college. But without really realizing it, I gravitated towards questions that stem from Iraq. For example, I wrote a thesis at Wellesley College which examined how clerics responded to an uprising in 1991, and the reason I wrote about that is because my dad and a lot of his friends had participated in the uprising as young men and felt deeply betrayed by clerics. And he would always complain about it, so I always wanted to understand these things. I resisted and wasn’t happy, but I was inadvertently pushing myself closer and closer until I basically had a Ph.D. in Iraqi politics. Unlike Hamzeh, I was not very eager to study Iraq, but I think something that Hamzeh and I both share—probably why we're married—is that in a way, we both feel responsible to be voices for Iraq because we grew up with Iraq being voiceless and powerless.

Jon Alterman: So, as you say, you both have spent a lot of time thinking about Iraq. You both work trying to understand Iraqi politics. What do you two disagree about when it comes to Iraqi politics? Marsin, what does Hamzeh just not understand that you're still trying to persuade him about?

Marsin Alshamary: Well, there's a question about what Hamzeh doesn’t understand and a question about what I’m still trying to persuade him on. I think we disagree on how likely authoritarian retrenchment is in Iraq, where I would say Hamzeh is a greater optimist than I am. There's also something that we really haven't decided on, which is that there is a lot of tension about whether you should accept certain figures in the status quo for the purpose of stability and seeing things through, versus whether or not you should take a stand on every single issue. There is also this tension between being a scholar and an activist. Hamzeh, you tell me, did I characterize that right?

Hamzeh Hadad: I think I am more of an optimist on Iraq, but that's just my nature. Even if I wasn't optimistic, I guess I have a feeling of responsibility. I've met a lot of Iraqis that aren't really hopeful, and I say, “But what choice do you have? This is the country you have, and this is what we’ve got to work with.” So, it’s both a sense of responsibility and a sense of hope. I just hope that nobody loses that hope, because I remember that growing up, there was no hope for Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The price paid to get that hope has been tremendous, so 20 years on, I hear a lot about Iraq fatigue when I’m in Washington and other places. It’s difficult to cope with that because at various points of my life, Iraq has been in the headlines everywhere you go, and at other points, nobody really cares. I believe Iraq is still important because of what it can offer to the region. We’re seeing democracies crumble around us, so, despite our challenges, we are a democratizing state. When I look to Americans, I remind them of the price they had to pay to remind them not to give up. When I look to Iraqis, I remind them that democracy is the best path forward. We don’t need to pursue democracy just to please the United States or some other actor. We can do it for our own sake. It’s about balancing those two things to try to reach a better place for Iraq.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask you both a question about the future. We're 20 years past the invasion, and it still feels like Iraq is in a state of transition. What do you think Iraq will look like 20 years from now? What kinds of transitions do you think will be consolidated? Marsin, we're 20 years in. Give us another 20 years. What do you think the situation is going to be?

Marsin Alshamary: 20 years is actually not a very long time in the life of a country. It will flash back very quickly. Not to sound like a cliché, but I do think Iraq is at a crossroads. But I don't think the crossroads has to be like a flash moment. It's a series of decisions that can take the country in two different directions broadly. I think one series of decisions can orient the country toward building and making the country resilient to future challenges—including the challenges of climate change and of oil no longer being so lucrative. To accomplish that, you'll need a series of administrations which are willing to work on specific issues, invest in diversifying the economy and seeking water diplomacy to make sure we don’t have these dry basins in the south anymore. This won’t be the work of two years. It will be the work of six to eight years. We’re not going to get a leader who is going to be resistant to pressure from Iran and the United States, or a reformer who is youthful and that everyone loves. That’s not going to happen, so this will happen within the political system we have right now—which is a system in which you have to try to please as many people as you can to push through minimal reforms. So, it’s a difficult path. but I think it’s a pragmatic thing for the elite to invest in this because Iraq is facing an existential crisis. Basra is becoming uninhabitable. Baghdad is nearly uninhabitable in the summer. Political elites are facing internal displacement. They're facing a crisis where the population has already demonstrated that they're so angry they're willing to launch a months’ long protest movement. As corrupt and nefarious as they are, I think the political elite will be pragmatic in minimal ways and try to mitigate this. One possible scenario of what it looks like in 20 years is that Iraq might have a small opposition of nonpartisans in parliament, pushing reforms that matter to society and pushing against the conservative grain. The other route that Iraq could easily go down is one of substate authoritarianism, in which leaders of particular governorates or groups of governorates forge their own fiefdoms with themselves as a strongman within a federal system that is not effective at imposing rule and order over the entire country. Some areas will be open to predation by armed actors are going to be entirely run by them. You can already see hints of this happening in Iraq. For example, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is basically a substate authoritarian system. People say that it’s run by two political families, but centrally, it is run by a single political family at this point. It looks a lot different from the rest of Iraq, but you're also slowly seeing this type of government develop in Anbar in western Iraq with the current speaker of parliament, Mohamed al-Halbousi, and his rivalry with local leaders which might coalesce into something that looks like substate authoritarianism. Something like that could develop across Iraq, and then Iraq in 20 years will look like small fiefdoms run by former oil barons and oligarchs and particular families, with a very weak structure in the federal system, constantly infringed on by neighboring states, and always susceptible to shocks across the country (but probably stable within the regions). Those are the two competing visions, which I see now.

Jon Alterman: Hamzeh, I guess your view is more optimistic?

Hamzeh Hadad: My view is much more optimistic. We're looking at 20 years since the Iraq invasion, but Iraq went through a civil war in 2006 and the invasion from the Islamic State Group (ISG) in 2014. So, if you told me that in 20 years, we’re still having regular elections, freedom of speech maintains itself, and that we have no violence, then I'll take it. I’d say that if we're making strides in Iraq in 20 years. But what gives me hope in that is that just two days ago, I met with someone that grew up in, Iraq. He was born and raised in Baghdad and was seven when the war happened. He’s doing his master’s degree at the University of Baghdad. I asked him, “did you ever have chances to leave during turbulent times?” And he said, “Yeah, I did, but I never wanted to.” I said, “Is there any reason now that you would think about leaving,” and he said “No, I’m very optimistic.” He said the one thing that would cause him to leave would be climate change. That gives me hope because for all he’s seen, his next worry is climate change. Maybe if there are more Iraqis like him, they can galvanize that energy and harbor some of that energy for good.

Jon Alterman: As a final question, there has become a consensus in the United States that the Iraq war was a strategic mistake for the United States. As Iraqis—as an Iraqi American and an Iraqi Canadian—what's your response to Americans who say the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake?

Marsin Alshamary: Hamzeh and I were talking about this today. I continuously marvel over what pushed the United States to invade Iraq, and I asked him, “Was it just stupidity in the foreign policy community that they actually thought that they could create a democratic system that would be anti-Iran and pro-Israel?” What hallucinations did they have of Iraq’s potential that flew against the grain of everything we know from political science? So is it about being extremely uninformed, or is there something we just don't know that will be revealed with more declassification of documents in the future? I'm looking forward to reading more and more of what actually happened internally in the lead up to this war, because I genuinely don't understand the rationale behind it.

Hamzeh Hadad: I've always seen it as something out of my hands personally, and out of Iraqis hands for the most part. So, what's done is done, but how do we move on and how do we rebuild this country the way we’d like it and the way we want it to be? I think that's first and foremost, the most important thing for Iraqis—to not lose sight of that. However, it is so important to look back on that decision and learn the mistakes of it, so we don’t continue building on them and to learn not to isolate Iraq again just because in a certain election some politician has been elected that Washington doesn’t like. The lesson is to fully understand the hard and long process that democratization is, and that democracy in Iraq isn’t necessarily going to give you the most pro-American government. But it also won’t give you the most pro-Iranian government. We need to just accept that we are a country that has different political parties, different political beliefs, and that we’re still getting back on our feet and figuring ourselves out. We’re still debating the type of elections that we should have and whether to boycott them or not. Iraqis are having those conversations, and maybe for non-Iraqis, it’s time to take a step back and listen to the Iraqis have those conversations and to urge them to continue this democratic culture of discussion and debate. We can build on the good that has happened since 2003. There has been a lot of bad, but there have also been some good, and you can only look forward.

Jon Alterman: Marsin Ashamary and Hamzeh Hadad from Baghdad, Thank you very much for joining us on Babel.