Thursday 10 August 2023

A Stranger in Your Own City, by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Book Note

 Last month (July 2023) I read A Stranger in Your Own City, by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad (New York, Alfred A Knopf, 2023). Abdul-Ahad’s city is Baghdad, before, during and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, now twenty years ago. Originally trained as an architect, Abdul-Ahad spoke very good English and became a translator for foreign journalists during the invasion, then a journalist in his own right.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

This is not an outsider’s book about Iraq, it’s an insider’s, and therefore all the more disturbing. Abdul-Ahad describes the years of the UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War and the damage they did, causing the deaths of half a million children.  Then he turns to the American invasion.

Abdul-Ahad states that the American provisional authority “represented the worst combination of colonial hubris, toxic racist arrogance and criminal incompetence.” (p. 56) Their simplistic belief that the only relevant division in Iraq was between Sunni and Shia Muslims intensified religious divisions, especially after the Americans substituted a regime of Shias for the former regime, which they believed had been only Sunni. Abdul-Ahad describes how all over Iraq, Sunnis and Shias who had previously lived together in peace now started separating their neighbourhoods, fighting and killing each other.

The Americans fired all “Ba’athist” civil servants, whom they believed to be committed Sunni supported of Saddam Hussein.  By doing so, the Americans ensured the complete breakdown of civil administration, including education, hospitals, infrastructure, etc.  Yet these “Ba’athist” civil servants were often members of the Ba’ath party in name only, as that was the only way to get a job under Saddam Hussain. Contrast this to the conquest of Nazi Germany in 1945, when most civil servants, including leading and committed Nazis, kept their jobs. Nothing good that had occurred under Saddam, including land reform that gave land to peasants, remained after the Americans took over. It was American marines, not Iraqis, who toppled the statue of Saddam (p. 43)

So many other military and political actors emerged after the invasion that I cannot even begin to summarize them.  Among them were tribal chieftains, terrorist Islamists, and various people out to line their own pockets, sometimes even just small groups of young men.  Iraq was one giant location for looting, raping and pillaging.

Among the people Abdul-Ahad interviewed were leaders of the various factions and militias that emerged after the Americans invaded. He was able to interview people few if any outsiders could ever interview, and even to embed himself with the troops of various factions. He survived a direct American hit on a crowd of civilians in 2004, in which 13 were killed and 60 injured. (pp. 72-75). Everyone should read this detailed account of men and boys bleeding, moaning and dying, all because the Americans were targeting one armored vehicle to prevent insurgents from using it.

My friend and colleague Abdullahi A. An-Naim is emeritus professor of law at Emory University.

Abdullahi An-Naim

Originally from Sudan, he was a committed supporter of international human rights when I met him over 40 years ago. Now, he considers human rights and international humanitarian law to both be colonial (see his Decolonizing Human Rights, Cambridge University Press, 2021). He especially opposed humanitarian intervention, on the grounds that the intervening powers lack the time, resources, local knowledge, language skills, and cultural competence to create a rights-protective regime (or even a democratic one) even when they might wish to. The American invasion of Iraq was not for humanitarian motives and the United Nations did not support it. But An-Naim is right nevertheless: the Americans didn’t have a clue what they were doing, and their invasion set the country up for all the internecine, tribal, religious and terrorist wars that followed.