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Iraqis recount their struggles after Saddam Hussein's fall

March 16, 2023 at 8:00 pm

In this photo released by the Iraqi Special Tribunal, Saddam Hussein is questioned by Chief Investigative Judge Ra?id Juhi August 23, 2005 in Iraq. [Iraq Special Tribunal-Pool/Getty Images]

The United States promised its 2003 invasion would herald a new era of democracy for Iraq but, 20 years on, Iraqis across the country’s sectarian, ethnic and political divides say they have yet to see the dividends.

Here are some personal accounts from the past two decades:

A Shia Muslim: Ahmed Nasser

In 2007, Nasser and his football mate, Ihab Kareem, went shopping in Baghdad for new soccer boots before the Iraqi Premier League season began. By the end of the day, Kareem was dead and Nasser had no legs.

A bomb, one of many that ripped apart the capital in the years of violence after the invasion, exploded as the two Shia Muslims stopped for a sandwich, killing Kareem and changing Nasser’s life forever.

“It would have been better if Saddam had stayed, I wouldn’t have lost my legs … This would have never happened because there was no sectarianism under his rule,” said Nasser, who now plays basketball for a Paralympics team from a wheelchair.

A Sunni Muslim: Mohannad Lafta

In his youth, Mohannad Lafta would put up posters of Saddam Hussein, not because he supported him, but to avoid the repercussions of being branded a dissenter like his father, who opposed the dictator’s Baathist regime and was executed for it.

But toppling the dictator, who had ruled Iraq for decades, has not heralded better times.

“I wish I could tell my father, who was executed because of his principles and his rejection of the Baathists’ rule, that those who are ruling the country today are more brutal,” said Lafta, a 51-year-old civil servant.

In 2006, sectarian violence erupted in his predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Baghdad, after a bomb attack destroyed a Shia mosque. Shia gunmen roamed the streets and his family had to move.

“We thought we would rest, but no one rests in Iraq,” he said, describing how his wife and children lived in terror when mortar fire rained down on their new home, forcing another move.

“I don’t want my children to grow up in a country that has been torn apart by wars, corruption and sectarianism. I do not want them to suffer like me,” he said.

READ: Iraq ambush of Americans made a mockery of ‘Mission Accomplished’

A Kurd: Aras Abid

Aras Abid had every reason to want Saddam Hussein out of power, after he was the sole survivor from his 12-member family from a gas attack ordered by the dictator on his Kurdish community in 1988. But he says ridding the nation of Saddam has just created anarchy for others to bleed the country dry.

“During the Baathist regime, there was one family stealing the country’s wealth. Now there are thousands of Saddams stealing,” he said. “I can’t handle this situation. My life is gone.”

After the 1988 Halabja chemical attack, Abid searched through his hometown to find the bodies of his family.

“This was my sister, Awas; this was my brother, Sirias, and this was my grandfather and then I saw my mother, a child was in her arms,” he said. It was his brother, who was six months old. He had died while suckling on his mother’s breast.

After Saddam’s overthrow, Kurds carved out a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, attracting oil and gas investment. But the two Kurdish parties bickered over the spoils, and when the Kurds held an independence referendum in 2017, Baghdad ordered its troops to seize tracts of land and cut the region’s funding.

“Our case is lost between politicians,” he said. “We have been defeated once again.”

An Activist: Jassem Al-Assadi

Jassem Al-Assadi was imprisoned and tortured under Saddam for refusing to pledge loyalty to the Baath Party. Last month, he relived a similar horror, when he was kidnapped and tortured by armed men. This time, it was worse.

“The level and the techniques of torture I was subjected to exceeded the levels the Baathists carried out against prisoners,” the 65-year-old Hydraulic Engineer and environmental activist said, describing being blindfolded, handcuffed, beaten with sticks, electrocuted and placed in solitary confinement.

A member of the minority Sabean Mandaeans: Faiza Sarhan

Faiza Sarhan, 50, a member of the ancient Sabean Mandaean religion, said that seven members of her family were hanged during Saddam’s rule for belonging to the Communist Party.

Under Saddam’s rule, minorities were tolerated and not singled out for their religious beliefs, but were oppressed if they opposed the government.

After the fall of Saddam, they were targeted by Islamists for their religious beliefs and labelled apostates or devil worshippers.

Sarhan does not miss the repression, wars and sanctions of Saddam’s era, but she longs for the tight security he imposed.

Since the US-led invasion, her community, many of whom are gold dealers, have been victims of crime. Many, unable to find justice, have left the country.

Christians, Sabean Mandaean, Yazidis and other minority groups were singled out in the kidnappings and killings during the sectarian civil war in 2006-2008.

“Security was lost when Saddam was gone. Minority groups felt weak after 2003,” said Sarhan, who fled with her family to Syria in 2006. During this time, one of her cousins was kidnapped and her family received threats from a militant group.

She said her sister and cousins were executed under Saddam, not because of their religious views but because of their political leanings and activism. Their bodies were never returned.

Sarhan, who now runs a cultural centre for her community in Iraq, says only 15,000 members of the sect remain in Iraq, compared to 70,000 before 2003. The rest have emigrated.

Iraq War: quotes from the conflict and its aftermath

A Yazidi: Khalid Aloka

Khalid Aloka lived through Saddam’s brutal rule but nothing prepared him for the slaughter of his community in the years after his downfall.

In 2007, Al Qaeda-affiliated militants pulled 24 Yazidi men, including two of his cousins, out of a bus and killed them, leaving young children behind.

Fearing the same fate, he locked himself and his four children in their home for weeks when Daesh – which regarded Yazidis as devil-worshippers – imposed its harsh rule in northern Iraq in 2014 and slaughtered thousands.

“We have Internet and fancy cars, but the security situation has deteriorated … Iraq’s fate is unknown,” Aloka said.

The jihadist group was driven out of the region in 2017, but many Yazidis still live in camps, afraid to return.

Aloka was forced to send his children to Turkiye, then seek refuge in Canada. He and his wife, both teachers, stayed behind.

“We don’t want our children to live the bitter life we’ve lived,” he said by phone from his home in the northern Iraqi town of Bashiqa.

A Christian: Pascale Warda

When US-led forces invaded, Iraqi Christian, Pascale Warda, was in London lobbying European leaders to depose Saddam.

“It was a memorable day for us. We believed that the dictatorship was gone, and that we had all we needed to rebuild the country,” she said.

She wanted to be part of a democracy to follow Saddam’s fall and agreed to be part of the interim government. But Warda, 61, would soon be subject to a violent campaign against Christians by Islamist militants.

She survived several assassination attempts during her 11-month stint in power. But still believes Iraq is better off without Saddam.

Christians and other minority groups were tolerated, as long as they did not oppose him, Warda said.

“This safety (under Saddam) was provided because those who spoke out against the regime faced terror and death … Like the dead, no one could talk or express his opinion.

“If you go to a cemetery, you won’t hear a sound. It was the same under Saddam,” said Warda, who had several members of her family executed by the State. State security returned the bodies of Warda’s relatives in pieces and with missing organs.

READ: US grapples with forces unleashed by Iraq invasion, 20 years later

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