America Broke Up Iraq Into Sectarian Pieces

A Stranger in Your Own City is a powerful account of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and its catastrophic effects on the Iraqi people. Does the Tishreen uprising mark the beginning of the end of Iraq’s sectarian political structure?

Anti-government protesters draped in Iraqi flags walk through clouds of smoke during a demonstration in the southern city of Basra, November 17, 2019. (HUSSEIN FALEH / AFP via Getty Images)

In April 2003, as US forces marched through Baghdad, a small group of Iraqis gathered and tried to pull down one of the main statues of Saddam Hussein in the city. Around them gathered a few Iraqis and many more foreign journalists. As the statue resisted their efforts, the spectators grew increasingly impatient. Finally, an American marine used a crane in an armored vehicle to bring the statue down, briefly covering it with an American flag.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was among those Iraqis watching this now infamous spectacle. As he recounts in A Stranger in Your Own City, he didn’t think that the marine should have intervened at all, which would “at least allow the façade of liberation to last for a day.” But he then reconsiders: “Maybe in all the declarations and justifications of the war by leaders and commanders who spoke of liberation and democracy, the act of that marine was the most honest.” That day and that image of the falling statue came to signify the start of a new era in Iraqi and Middle East history.

Twenty years later, Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq (2007–9), addressed the US role in the failed state-building effort and recounted that, prior to the invasion, there was only one functioning state institution in Iraq: the foreign ministry. “Beyond that it was a wasteland.” He went on to address one of the most commonly criticized American policies in Iraq: the dismantling of the Iraqi army. “We did not disband the Iraqi army; the Iraqi army disbanded itself, effectively. . . . [The question then was] do we reconstitute the Iraqi army, as it was Saddam’s army, effectively?”1 For him, the answer was a clear no. It would only repeat the British mistake a century earlier of maintaining the Ottoman Empire’s structures and institutionalizing a Sunni-dominated army.

This comment captures the current effort to shift the responsibility for the destruction and tragedy that the invasion of Iraq continues to generate away from the American occupiers and their allies. As journalist Thanassis Cambanis stated in response to Ambassador Croker: “I do want to say, in the interest of a non-Orwellian language, the United States did take the decision to disband the army. . . . The government institutions were in shambles because of the war that we had made. They didn’t collapse into dust. We bombed them into dust.” In this context, Abdul-Ahad’s book is an important intervention in the archives of the US-led invasion and its long-term destructive consequences from the point of view of a witness.

The American intervention started with the 1991 Gulf War, which destroyed key Iraqi infrastructure, and continued with the comprehensive economic sanctions of the 1990s and, finally, the invasion of 2003. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq set in motion a series of deleterious events that reshaped the country’s social and political landscape. Within weeks of the invasion’s start, looting spread to state buildings, emptying them of furniture, equipment, files, and historical artifacts that were housed for decades in national museums. Almost instantly, the Iraqi state’s authority disappeared from people’s lives, replaced by schisms among exiled and communal leaders from various sects and regions. For seventeen years thereafter, from 2003 to 2019, violence took hold of Iraq — from insurgencies and counterinsurgencies to sectarian civil wars and an influx of jihadis who took advantage of the state’s fragmentation and fed on regional disruptions of power relations during 2011’s Arab Spring. Two decades since the invasion, what is now clear is the persistence of the political system that captured the Iraqi state in 2003, fed on its fragmentation, and turned the country into a hostile place for its citizens.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad opens his brilliant account of those years with a musing of his during the civil war. Looking at an old school picture, he attempts to guess the sects of his friends in the photograph. This is not an easy task — not even for someone who has spent his whole life in Baghdad. Tellingly, he states, “Old memories can’t always be translated into the latest sectarian terminology, and I fail to place most of my friends on the new sectarian map of Baghdad.” Abdul-Ahad recounts how he finds himself a stranger in his own city.

He is an insightful guide for anyone who wants to learn how this war changed Iraq. In over four hundred pages, he narrates Iraq’s past and present and tells its history through its people’s experiences, based on extensive interviews and encounters with Iraqis from various walks of life and with diverse political allegiances.

Until 2003, Abdul-Ahad was an architect living in Baghdad. As a child, he had experienced the Iran-Iraq War, attuned to how it touched the lives of people around him — including the expressions on the faces of the Iranian prisoners of war who were paraded in the streets of Baghdad. They were accompanied by Iraqi soldiers who, “like their prisoners, were silent with dark and morbid looks on their faces.” That detailed and sensitive manner of registering his surroundings suffuses the book. Through a series of accidental encounters, the 2003 war turned Abdul-Ahad to journalism, and he started reporting on the war that the Americans had started in Iraq.

When Abdul-Ahad reflects on the war journalists who flooded Baghdad’s hotels in 2003, particularly a hotel where he spent happy summer memories poolside with friends, the difference between their perspective and his becomes immediately apparent. “I swam here every summer. A benevolent, wealthy, formerly Communist grand-aunt paid my entry fees; she also introduced me to Russian literature and ailurophilia.” When he shares this memory with journalists staying at the hotel, they respond with a polite dismissiveness. The foreign journalists are crude, self-absorbed, and, not unlike Ambassador Croker, see Iraq as devoid of history, social complexity, and culture. For them, Iraq is an easily legible wasteland dominated by Sunni Arab rulers.

But Iraqis shared a common identity beyond the sectarian divide — constructed and solidified by the modern state and its practices. It is this common identity that Abdul-Ahad experienced that is made to disappear after 2003, at least for some time, as a new political reality forged by the occupiers, mainstream reporters, and returning Iraqi exiles sets the tone for what unfolds after the invasion.

To say that Iraq has become ruled by sectarian politics only scratches the surface of the post-2003 situation. What Abdul-Ahad skillfully shows is the actual fragmentation of political life along loyalties to communal warlords — whether they come from the old sectarian groups formed in exile or new sectarian, tribal, jihadi, or Islamist nationalist groups that emerged out of post-2003 Iraq and the Arab Spring. Taking us through different episodes of violence, Abdul-Ahad makes clear the depth and breadth of fragmentation and the narrowness of interests among the warring groups.

What sect one belongs to is the first order of division. This is followed by what group within that sect one seems to belong to. Add to that the fact that Shia parties, like Sunni ones, have fought among themselves to secure larger slices of domination in the fragmented political and economic landscape. In the new political order that sanctified sectarianism, Abdul-Ahad conveys how his “sectarian compass was confused.” One telling incident that he recounts is when he visited Um Tahseen, whose three sons were killed by Shia militias, her youngest tortured by Shia officers who asked for bribes to abide by the judge’s decision to release him from prison. Yet she still hung Shia iconography in her house, including calligraphy of the name Fatima, a revered Shia figure. When Abdul-Ahad asks her why she has these frames on the wall after the suffering inflicted on her family by Shia groups, her response is illuminating: “She told me that Fatima had lost her sons too. Um Tahseen belonged to the pre-sectarian age.” The contrast between older Iraqi practices and sentiments and the new violent reality of sectarian strife is all too apparent.

Once communal political groups captured the state, they started to shape the system to cater to warlords’ interests rather than to a vision of state-making. Warlords rely on and fuel war. We see this logic articulated by a militia leader who shares with Abdul-Ahad the difficulty of capturing areas in central Iraq, where there are no clear lines separating the Shia and Sunni communities. Chillingly, the warlord states: “Before separating the two communities, we need wars and demographic cleansing. . . . We need sectarian stories to agitate the people, stories and mythologies. . . . You need to build enough hatred until you and I can’t live together any more — then the divisions become a fact.”

Corruption has become the backbone of the new system of fragmentation. Its function is to consolidate the power of warlords, and it differs from the corruption under the previous Ba‘athist regime. Under Saddam Hussein, the patronage system was not sectarian. It was open to anyone willing “to compromise, and gain access. This was in part because the Leader [sarcastic reference to Hussein] did not tolerate any sub-identity, even that of his own sect, that might pose a threat to his total domination.” Abdul-Ahad convincingly suggests that the Ba‘ath Party was not so much ideological as a party of the state. And that is why, once the state collapsed, party members joined different groups — not always based on ideological convictions but often out of pragmatic motivations to gain political authority.

This book is full of stories. They are not common, unidimensional human-interest stories but complex, sensitive narrations that capture the nature of living through extreme circumstances and escaping death every day. Abdul-Ahad writes as a witness to history, and his approach is distinctive. He writes for himself and those like him who can no longer recognize the landscape of what they once called their home. Not trying to address external political sentiments, his stories are brutally honest portrayals of how the people of Iraq survived the political and economic tragedies of the past thirty years. We learn about an overpacked psychiatric clinic in Baghdad and an underground hospital run from the house of a committed young doctor and her mother, a nurse, in Mosul during the terrorizing rule of the Islamic State. Abdul-Ahad also takes us with him as he speaks to, listens to, and accompanies militiamen, jihadis, new and old army officers, tribesmen, and activists, sometimes including his own personal stories as well.

Iraq, in Abdul-Ahed’s eyes, is a big place, rich with people and their histories. We get a glimpse of a vibrant, cosmopolitan past. We also learn, halfway through the book, about Adbul-Ahad’s own ancestry. His paternal grandparents moved to Ottoman Iraq from an Arab village in what is now Turkey’s southern borderland. His maternal grandfather, a native of Madras, went to Iraq as part of the British-Indian expeditionary force that occupied Basra. In Kirkuk, northern Iraq, he met and married the Iraqi-born daughter of a British engineer who also arrived with the occupying British army. After the partition of India, Adbul-Ahad’s grandfather resigned from the military commission and moved back to Iraq with his wife. These two families made Iraq their home, and their offspring shared the destiny of millions of their fellow Iraqis. With the start of the sanctions in 1991, life became much harder for people. Episodes of violence, corruption, and sectarian schisms after 2003 only made life more difficult. Many of the family members gradually left the country seeking a better life abroad. In three different chapters, we learn about the difficulties and elaborate systems that people who try to leave Iraq have to navigate. The effects of a fragmented state, a corrupt and broken system at home, and securitized immigration policies abroad are evident.

Starting in 2018 in Basra, Iraq’s largest southern city, and later from the poor Shia quarters of Baghdad, a protest movement built momentum, culminating in a countrywide uprising in October 2019. This became known as the Tishreen (October) uprising. While the state has always used violence against civilians, its reaction to these protests was different. Iraqi forces were not simply shooting and killing protestors; they were shooting and killing “the poor Shia that the regime had claimed to serve and protect.” If the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue signaled the end of the Ba‘athist era, Tishreen signaled the post-2003 state’s loss of legitimacy and the beginning of its demise. It brought to the fore the “corruption, sectarianism and all that had taken place in the past two decades,” denounced by the voices of protesters who flooded the streets. There was a newfound Iraqi patriotism, displayed in songs, flags, slogans and a sense of civic engagement among the ordinary men, women, and teenagers who took to protest. “Maybe, the people felt, after many years of sub-identities, they could finally revert to a larger more common identity. Or maybe, after two decades, the flag, patriotism and watan [homeland] had lost their connection to the Leader Necessity [sarcastic reference to Saddam Hussein], and people could own all these again.”

What was distinct about the Tishreen uprising was that it was, in the words of Iraqi writer and journalist Omar Jaffal, a statist movement.2 It came as a response to what Iraqis have described as the condition of al-la-dawla (the non-state). This is a condition wherein collective life is ruled by multiple fragments that occupy the state’s institutional space but do not themselves make a state.3

The Tishreen uprising did not topple the system, and it faced appropriation, co-optation, and brutal violence. But A Stranger in Your Own City concludes with a nuanced optimism. From 1920 through to 2003, the Iraqi state saw many regimes fall, mainly due to the inability of rulers to respond to people’s demands for social justice. Tishreen signifies the beginning of the end of the current system. The movement emphasized demands of political substance: social justice and a state that is civic, secular, and functional. Based on a reading of this history, Abdul-Ahad makes his only prediction in the book: “The failure of the ruling class, the religious parties, regional bosses, the clergy and militias to hear the warnings of Tishreen will lead to their eventual demise.”

About the Author

Nida Alahmad is a lecturer in politics and international relations of the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh.