Iraqi author Ghaith Abdul-Ahad on the 'unbuilding' of Baghdad

The World
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, author of the book, "A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East's Long War," in Istanbul, Turkey.

March 17 marked 20 years since then-US President George W. Bush told Iraq's President Saddam Hussein to step down — or else.

Then, 48 hours later, the US-led bombing campaign in the country, known as "Shock and Awe," began.

"Coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war," Bush announced on TV.

Cover of "A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East's Long War," written by Iraqi author Ghaith Abdul-Ahad.

Cover of "A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East's Long War," written by Iraqi author Ghaith Abdul-Ahad.

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Creative Commons

At the time, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was a young architect working in Baghdad. With his home city suddenly in the center of the war, Abdul-Ahad ditched architecture and took jobs as a translator and interpreter for journalists, and later as a journalist himself. He went on to chronicle what he calls the "unbuilding" of Baghdad.

Abdul-Ahad's new book is a rare account of the invasion and the years that followed as seen through Iraqi eyes. It's called, "A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East's Long War."

He joined The World's host Marco Werman for a discussion about his book and his own experiences over the past two decades.

Marco Werman: Ghaith, your book begins actually before the invasion, in this centuries-old cosmopolitan city where you grew up. Just take us to the Baghdad neighborhoods you knew as a kid and as a young man. What did they look like and sound like?
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Well, Marco, I mean, I lived all my life in Baghdad. I rarely left the city. And I have to confess, Baghdad is an ugly city. It's flat. It has no horizon. But the old part of the city, that's where a whiff of the stories of the Abbasids are, you can see it. You can feel it in the packed alleyways and these, kind of, wooden windows. So, you can still feel the old Baghdad. But the rest of the city was just flat, big. Later, these characterless neighborhoods will come to have a very distinctive character and a very distinctive sectarian identity.
All of Iraq at that time was under the thumb of the supreme leader, a man known as "The Savior," "The Inspirer," "The Victorious." I'm talking, of course, about Saddam Hussein. You call him the "Leader Necessity." Explain the origins of that phrase.
He had probably more than 99 titles and he ruled our lives. And for a long time, when I was a child, I confused Saddam with this kind of superhero from Japanese cartoons, and God himself. The narrative in the '70s and '80s was, Iraq was this country of 5,000 years of civilization. It starts with the Babylonian Assyrians, goes through the Arab conquerors, and then, the latest manifestation, the greatness of Saddam. This is how he was portrayed. I mean, you open the notebook, you see his pictures; you go to school, you see pictures; you switch on the TV, you see him talking to you. He was everywhere.
In March of 2003, of course, came the American-led invasion, the second Gulf War. You viewed it in the night sky from your rooftop, huddled under a carpet. During the day, you were cycling through the deserted streets of Baghdad and saw this war. As those first bombs fell, Ghaith, can you remember what was going through your mind?
Of course, there is the shock, the fear, the anxiety. "Where are these bombs going to fall? Are they as smart as the Americans claim?" I don't think I, or anyone I talked to at the time, believed that Saddam would be toppled so quickly, in two or three weeks. This regime that has been three decades building for survival will collapse so quickly. So, yes, I was cycling through the city during the day, but mainly, to witness the destruction from an architectural perspective.
In your reporting, you meet and travel with many of the armed militants fighting over Baghdad, and all of Iraq. You describe one of them, Hameed, as, "the first of many people who protected me in two decades of civil war." He's Sunni, previously allied with Saddam Hussein, and a former military officer. He has a law degree. Why did a man like this become an al-Qaida ally and a militant commander?
On the heels of this American occupation, the city became divided. Suddenly, certain neighborhoods became controlled by Sunni insurgents, others were controlled by Shia militiamen. And a civil war started by this tit-for-tat killing. By the end of 2003, early 2004. Men like Hameed, it's a bit of a natural progression of his mindset to move from being a military officer — who hated Saddam, by the way, because he accused Saddam of doing so many horrible things to the Iraqi people — but he's found himself to have to fight. And at one point, he was, you know, fighting in the same trench with al-Qaida against the Americans. But quickly on, he realized that people like al-Qaida, with their extremist sectarian politics, was going to lead to the defeat of his people, which, of course, that's what happened eventually.
How did those years of turmoil transform Baghdad? Like when you go back, do you recognize what happened during that time?
You know Marco, I started by saying that I am a local of Baghdad, and I lived in the city for 28 years, rarely leaving it. But then suddenly, within two years, I became a stranger in my own city, because I couldn't travel across the city as a local, as a Baghdadi, as an Iraqi. I needed people to vouch for me, because each neighborhood was run by a different armed group. I mean, I would drive through neighborhoods that I knew very well, that I couldn't recognize because of all the the barricades, the concrete walls, the militiamen standing in the street. It turned from your own city into a war zone.
Some 2,500 US troops remain in Iraq, advising and training Iraqi troops. How do Iraqis feel about the presence of those Americans, and just generally, about the 2003 American-led invasion?
If you ask Iraqi people in the streets today, they would tell you, oh, we blame America for bringing this corrupt political elite that we have now, for turning Iraq into this, kind of, country run by military commanders, kleptocratic politicians. In 2003, people were very happy to get rid of Saddam. But they were not happy to be occupied. The occupation was ugly from the beginning and it led to sectarian civil war and it led to an insurgency and all these things. In 2019, there were these massive demonstrations in the street. The youth, a new generation, that grew up in the war, a generation that didn't remember Saddam, and the rallying cry of those people was, one, we want a homeland, because they wanted the country back. Two, they were cursing both Iran and America, because they hold these two countries responsible for the destruction that had befallen Iraq in the past two decades. I mean, of course, the roots of the civil war were earlier, probably in the '90s and the '80s. But they hold America responsible for destroying something, and then handing it to a bunch of thieves and militia commanders.
When you look 10 years into the future, given the dysfunction, corruption, sectarianism that's resulted from the war, will Iraq — and Baghdad especially — still be fraught with that question of, was overthrowing Saddam Hussein, given all the uncertainty that's arisen out of that act, was it worth it?
You know, Iraqis deserve something better than a mad dictator and an illegal occupation. Iraq is a very wealthy nation. We are talking about $100-$120 billion worth of oil money per year. And yet, certain parts of Baghdad, let alone certain parts of the country, are so impoverished, they're like some of the poorest countries in the world. This is the crisis of Iraq. It's an environmental crisis, with rivers draining. It's a social crisis. The corruption in Iraq is worse than any threat facing Iraq in the past 20 years, even worse than ISIS, because you have $20-$30 billion siphoned every year. And that is creating so much anger that will eventually explode and lead to another round of violence, unless it's addressed now.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at George W. Bush says his country is still paying the price for the US-led invasion

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