I lived through Saddam Hussein's fall – and the horror that came next

by Balsam Mustafa

PhD Candidate in Modern Languages & Politics, University of Birmingham

I was a senior university student in Baghdad, Iraq. It was March 2003, and over the past few months, my classmates had whispered to each other about the possibility of a US-led invasion and the likelihood that 35 years of dictatorship and tyranny could be brought to an end. We could not dare to speculate on Iraq’s future, but many were longing to see Saddam Hussein fall. And soon enough, the war came.

An intense and widespread aerial bombardment turned days into nights and terrified our families, many of whom moved to relatively safer areas to protect their children. But a few preferred to stay – my own family among them.

The weeks we spent under the non-stop bombing were the longest, most horrifying, and most traumatic I have ever endured. The nights were especially panicking, our doors and windows shaking in the darkness. To endure it all, we used to sleep in one room next to each other on the floor. We said we were lucky to have survived, unlike other civilians.

But on April 9, a relative silence descended. We gathered in the hall of our house, and watched on our television how US troops had toppled the 39-foot statue of Saddam erected in Farduz Square in Baghdad only a year earlier. It had never occurred to anyone that this would happen so soon.

The spectacle was a bewildering contradiction: a dictator brought down by an occupying foreign invader. I felt happy to see the fall of the dictator but it was painful for me to see my country occupied. It was an awkward feeling, one that I still cannot render in words.

Many Iraqis did hail the collapse of Saddam’s regime, and many of his victims were optimistic about a better future. But that optimism didn’t last long.

The fall of a state

Iraq immediately sank into chaos. The lack of planning for post-invasion security allowed vandalism and looting. American troops protected the Oil Ministry, but other governmental institutions and buildings were left unshielded. And they did not protect my university.

To this day, I recall the devastating scenes at the department in which I studied. Once buzzing with life, filled with the ambitions hopes, and laughter of its students, the campus was soon a burnt-out, sabotaged wreck. I could not hold back my tears when I saw the Interpretation Laboratory at my department destroyed, its valuable equipment stolen.

I also still recall the series of explosions in my neighbourhood when two unknown men set fire to a house filled with ammunition, causing hundreds of casualties and destroying homes and properties. The screams of my family, neighbours, and children, amid the shattering sound of window glass and flying shrapnel, still haunt my memory. It was the first time we witnessed such an explosion – and before long, suicide bombings became a part of our everyday lives.

We watched as the US not only failed to come up with a proper strategy to maintain security, but compounded that failure with various wrongheaded measures. Among these were the decisions to disband Iraq’s 400,000-strong army, to operate the Coalition Provisional Authority on a sectarian basis, and to issue a sweeping decree for de-Baathification, which removed thousands of members of Saddam’s party from the government and security forces.

The selection and formation of the Interim Governing Council, using sectarian and ethnic quotas, left its legacy in a flawed electoral system, designed to serve the interests of divided and corrupt political elites. The still-controversial constitution, rushed through in 2005 with its many vaguely phrased articles, only added to the problem. A security vacuum contributed to the rise of al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State, sectarian divisions, militias, a weak legal system, widespread disenfranchisement among Iraqis, and an endemic corruption deeply entrenched in all institutions and sectors.

From frustration to despair

The fall of Saddam’s statue is now remembered very differently than it felt at the time. Both those who supported or those who opposed the war now remember the day as the start of an occupation whose perpetrators should be held accountable for the subsequent developments and consequences.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s post-2003 political elites are just as responsible for the country’s problems. Despite its many abject failures, their patronage-based political system endures. Small wonder that many Iraqis are reluctant to participate in the upcoming elections.

While Iraqis believe in democracy as a necessary tool for change, they hold little hope for the rigged system they live under today, which allocates positions not according to the people’s will but on the basis of favour-trading. They hold little hope for the post-election bargains that will be struck to share the spoils of power and authority at the expense of their needs.

I myself feel the same pain. When that statue was torn down back in 2003, I was a frustrated 21-year-old. 15 years later, like many other Iraqis, I am still frustrated – but also distrustful and despairing.

 

Balsam Mustafa, PhD Candidate in Modern Languages & Politics, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Added 14.05.2018
During the first century of modern art, Paris was a magnet for ambitious artists from all over Europe. Remarkably, the current exhibition at Paris’ Petit Palais tells us that “Between 1789 and 1914, over a thousand Dutch artists traveled to France.” Prominent among these were Ary Scheffer, Johan Jongkind, Jacob Maris, Kees van Dongen. But of course most prominent were Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian.
Added 10.05.2018
The Jewish Museum in New York City is currently presenting the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), featuring just over thirty paintings by one of the most distinctive and significant artists of the early twentieth century. Focusing on still life paintings, of which he was a master, "Chaim Soutine: Flesh" includes his vigorous depictions of various slaughtered animals - of beef carcasses, hanging fowl, and game. These are dynamic works of great boldness and intensity, and taken together they constitute a sustained and profoundly sensuous interrogation of the flesh, of carnality - of blood, skin and sinew.
Added 08.05.2018
The impact of air pollution on human health is well-documented. We know that exposure to high levels of air pollutants raises the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is growing evidence to suggest that air pollution does not just affect our health – it affects our behaviour too.
Added 05.05.2018
 

The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century.

Added 01.05.2018
Quote from the article: "Who is talking about how globalized the world was between 1880 and 1914 -- until war broke out and fascists subsequently determined the course of history -- and the parallels between then and now? Globalization always had a down side, and was never meant to last forever -- but the gurus chose not to talk about it. It is always just a question of time until economic nationalism reappears, but the gurus have done a poor job of addressing the nexus between economics and politics, and its impact on business, which is the real story."
Added 29.04.2018
"......if we did manage to stop the kind of ageing caused by senescent cells using telomerase activation, we could start devoting all our efforts into tackling these additional ageing processes. There’s every reason to be optimistic that we may soon live much longer, healthier lives than we do today."
Added 29.04.2018
Many countries have introduced a sugar tax in order to improve the health of their citizens. As a result, food and drink companies are changing their products to include low and zero-calorie sweeteners instead of sugar. However, there is growing evidence that sweeteners may have health consequences of their own. New research from the US, presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, found a link with consuming artificial sweeteners and changes in blood markers linked with an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in rats. Does this mean we need to ditch sweeteners as well as sugar?
Added 25.04.2018
Female doctors show more empathy than male doctors. They ask their patients more questions, including questions about emotions and feelings, and they spend more time talking to patients than their male colleagues do. Some have suggested that this might make women better doctors. It may also take a terrible toll on their mental health.
Added 25.04.2018
The English-born Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is arguably America's first great landscape painter - the founder of the Hudson River School, the painter who brought a romantic sensibility to the American landscape, and sought to preserve the rapidly disappearing scenery with panoramas that invoke the divinity in nature. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings" is an astounding exhibition featuring a painter of extraordinary power and vision, underscoring his environmentalism and the deep sense of loss that pervades many works as he reflects on deforestation, the intrusion of the railroad, and the vanishing beauty of the untrammeled wilderness.
Added 23.04.2018
Quantitative evidence from three independent sources — auction prices, textbook illustrations, and counts of paintings included in retrospective exhibitions — all pointed to the fact that some important modern artists made their greatest work late in their careers — Cézanne, for example, in his 60s, and Kandinsky and Rothko in their 50s. But the same evidence indicated that other important artists produced their greatest work very early — Picasso, Johns, and Stella, for example, all in their 20s. Why was this was the case: why did great artists do their best work at such different stages of their careers? I couldn’t answer this question until I understood what makes an artist’s work his or her best.
Added 19.04.2018

People of all ages are at risk from diseases brought on by loneliness, new data has revealed.

Added 09.04.2018

I was a senior university student in Baghdad, Iraq. It was March 2003, and over the past few months, my classmates had whispered to each other about the possibility of a US-led invasion and the likelihood that 35 years of dictatorship and tyranny could be brought to an end.

Added 26.03.2018
In 1815, 69-year old Francisco de Goya painted a small self-portrait. Today it hangs in Madrid’s majestic Prado Museum. Next to it are the two enormous paintings of the uprising of May, 1808, in which Madrid’s citizens had been slaughtered by Napoleon’s troops, that Goya had painted in 1814 for King Ferdinand VII, to be hung in Madrid’s Royal Palace. One of these, of the execution of Spanish civilians by a French firing squad, is now among the most famous images in the history of Western art.
Added 15.03.2018

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking.

Added 03.03.2018

A lack of essential nutrients is known to contribute to the onset of poor mental health in people suffering from anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and

Added 27.02.2018

Mindfulness is big business, worth in excess of US$1.0 billion in the US alone and linked – somewhat paradoxically – to an expanding range of must have products.

Added 23.02.2018

Reverend Jonathan Arnold, dean of divinity at Magdalen college, Oxford, has written about the “seeming paradox that, in today’s so-called secular society, sacred choral music is as

Added 16.02.2018

Orson Welles was a flamboyant showman: Andrew Sarris observed that “Every Welles film is designed around the massive presence of the artist as autobiographer…The Wellesian cinema is the cinema of magic and marvels, and everything, especially its prime protagonist,

Added 08.02.2018

Almost all of us have experienced loneliness at some point. It is the pain we have felt following a breakup, perhaps the loss of a loved one, or a move away from home. We are vulnerable to feeling lonely at any point in our lives.