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The view of Chilcot from Iraq: 'Only those with the wounds feel the pain'

Crouched in the shade near the gate of a cemetery, Shaker Mohammed, a retired gravedigger, was waiting out the final hours of Ramadan in midsummer Baghdad. Relief from the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting was only hours away. So too was a reckoning much longer in the making: the release of a report that aimed to define Britain's role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the effects of which continue to buffet the country, and much of the Middle East.

"Heat you can cope with, but life is another thing," Shaker, 63, shrugged. "I hope this year will be worth celebrating."

Across the Iraqi capital, there is little sense that the long-delayed Chilcot report into Britain's decision to go to war will change anything. Thirteen years after the invasion, the country is still reeling from the upheaval unleashed by the war. What was envisaged by planners in London and Washington to be a seamless transition from dictatorship to democracy has proved to be anything but.

A tussle for control of post-Saddam Iraq has barely relented, and continues to ravage the country's finances, communities and social fabric. Citizens say the relentless grind has become a "forever war" that could rumble on over decades, ensuring that communities torn apart by sectarianism remain at odds for generations.

"Nothing Britain could say or do can address this, or make up for it," said Safa Gilbert, a Christian who returned to her home city on Monday from exile in Lebanon. "Even if they wanted to help, they did not. And all they needed to do is understand the society first."

Up the road from the cemetery, Saleh Mehdi Saleh was engraving tombstones for Sunni Muslims. He plied his trade throughout the invasion, then the eight-year occupation and the five years of chaos that followed. In that time he lost three brothers, four nephews and a sister to violence. He also carved the epitaphs for thousands more and seemed numbed by his unique perspective on Iraq's suffering.

"This was a deliberate mistake," he said of the decision to invade.

Like many in Iraq, Saleh would not accept Tony Blair's claim that the war was planned in order to liberate Iraq from the tyranny of despotism. "They intended this," he countered. "Bush and Blair conspired to destroy the most ancient civilisation in the world. They targeted us because we are rich in prophets and holy men. The beginning of creation was in Iraq and the end of creation will be here as well.

"They did not take away Saddam Hussein for the benefit of Iraqis. Britain was seeking revenge because it was driven out in 1921. There is now absolute authority for Shias to kill Sunnis in the name of the state."

On Monday, a Sunni shopkeeper in a nearby suburb was shot dead by men who emerged from a convoy of four-wheel drives. Both the gravedigger and the engraver dealt with his burial.

"It was retaliation for the bombing in Karrada," Saleh said of the car bomb in a Shia shopping district on Sunday which killed at least 165 people.

Iraq's leaders continue to struggle to assert themselves over an unruly assortment of power bases and militias, which have emerged from the vacuum of the past 13 years. Since late 2012, when the Islamic State group re-emerged, supercharged by the war in neighbouring Syria, state control has slipped to the point where the rule of law is notional and justice often arbitrary.

"It didn't have to be this way," said Fr Miyassar, a priest at al-Ghadir Church in central Baghdad. "In Saddam's time, it was better for the external observers, but from the inside it was worse. After 2003, what was worse on the inside became more obvious on the outside. There was more killing and more targeting of innocent people. Society cannot survive like that."

Some former Iraqi officials say the Chilcot report is Britain's attempt to purge its conscience, more than a decade after some political leaders in London - among them Blair's Labour party - have disavowed the decision to invade.

"I was in the military and I knew we were under threat of occupation," said the 64-year-old retired colonel Abu Ahmed Shimili. "They intended to occupy the oil sites for sure. There was a determination not to let them take over everything, but we couldn't stop them. The darkest days that we went through were the last days of the war. We had to acknowledge as Iraqis that all our efforts had collapsed."

While the push to oust Saddam was short and swift, there was little preparation for what came next. Nor was there an understanding that the majority Shia sect, backed by Iran, whom Saddam had pitched Iraq's military against in a futile decade-long war, would move quickly into the power vacuum created by the dictator's departure.

"That should have been obvious," said Abu Ahmed. "How could it not be?"

The power shift sowed the seed of Sunni resentment, which has festered in Iraq and remains a key driver of a dysfunctional legislature and polarised communities.

Iraq's Shias, meanwhile, have borne the brunt of a relentless bombing campaign by Islamic State, which barely let up even in the relatively "good years" of 2009-10, when, for a while at least, a resurgent economy buoyed by high oil prices increased trade and opportunity and looked like leading Iraq out of the abyss. It was a false dawn.

"Never hope for an occupation to rebuild your army, or reconstruct your country," said Abu Ahmed. "But we did not expect things to reach this level of destruction, economically and socially. When we remember the former regime we know what we have become. Now each ethnicity is a nation to itself.

"They planted an atom bomb called sectarianism inside the state. We did not gain anything else. We are hungry, tired and insecure.

"Nations in the Middle East do not fit the western democratic system. Democracy has been venomous in its application here. The Parliamentary Council of Representatives is the founder of nepotism and profiteering. We are now a nation of beggars. Only those with the wounds feel the pain of the wounds."

For the past eight years, Iraq has consistently rated among the most corrupt countries in the world, and the parlous state of its finances, which can no longer depend solely on a robust price for crude oil, is a direct result of unchecked graft.

The price paid by the country in the form of rampant corruption is a constant refrain. Mahmoud Dhabi, a merchant from Mosul, which remains occupied by Isis, said: "While you can't blame the Americans and the British for turning our leaders into thieves, they should have known the type of people they are."

Back in Baghdad, Hisham al-Thahabee cares for young boys who have lost their parents, most to violence. The orphanage that he opened in 2004 is called the Iraqi Safe House for Creativity and cares for 35 boys, aged five to 19, who would otherwise have slipped through the cracks of a broken society. He has found homes for dozens more and taken in some himself.

Thahabee said 12 years of sanctions before the war heralded a decline in Iraqi society. "It has been like a curve going down since the 90s," he said. "Values have steadily deteriorated, relations have been disconnected, parents have lost control of their kids, and one of the main reasons has been a lesser role played by the father figure, not necessarily by death."

Girls too have been orphaned by the war, but the norms of the new Iraq will not accept them being housed together. "It is a ridiculous way of thinking," he said. "If someone opens a house for girls it is not the government that will fight them, but the society. Instead they prefer the idea of girls sleeping on the streets."

Thahabee said he had lost faith in Iraq's political class to deliver outcomes for the country's most vulnerable. "The mindset is to spend four years filling their pockets, then leave."

Miyassar said Britain would take years to pay a penance. "It was a catastrophic mistake. And we should have learned from the past to make the future better."

He said he believed, however, that all was not lost. "We have more technologies, freedoms and outreach, but they did not use it right. If the political leaders make a decision to save humankind in Iraq, they will. And they can."

[Source: By Martin Chulov in Baghdad, The Guardian, London, 05Jul16]

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War in Afghanistan & Iraq
small logoThis document has been published on 07Jul16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.