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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
“Every night my grandmother prays to God thanking George Bush for coming into Iraq.”

For six years these words have been in the back of mind with each passing headline, documentary, and editorial of the Iraq war. They were spoken by an Iraqi named Ahmed Hossein only a few days after Bush's attack on Iraq. Ahmed lived in Iraq throughout the Gulf war and then left his family to pursue an education in Canada one year before the attacks of September 11 occurred.

Back in 2003, political pundits were arguing over their conflicting views of what the results of the Iraq war would be, but it was apparent that many of the more academic pundits thought the war was unjustified. And yet Ahmed's words have kept resonating with me throughout the debates. Ahmed was not naïve. He was a studious medical student who kept up with the politics of Iraq while studying in Canada.

He also seemed to be moderate and rational. Upon meeting me he realized that I was of Iranian descent and when I brought up the topic of the Iran-Iraq war he asserted that it was just the government's war and didn't reflect sentiments of the people – an idea that was shared by moderates on both sides of the Iraq-Iran war.

We discussed how the UN sanctions on Iraq were killing massive amounts of Iraqis. While barely affecting Saddam Hussein's luxurious palaces, the sanctions had a fatal impact on children hospitals where equipment and medicine were scarce. It is estimated that more than 500,000 children alone have died due to the sanctions. When Madeline Albright, the US Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, was asked on television whether she thought that the death of half a million Iraqi children due to sanctions was a price worth paying, Albright replied: “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.” No one denied the death tolls and the most positive theory at the time was that maybe the Iraqis would rise up to this injustice someday. To people like Ahmed, who understood the political divisions of Iraq in contrast to the totalitarian rule of a tyrant, the situation was utterly hopeless. Thus, I learnt how the American invasion was a hopeful event for some Iraqis like Ahmed.

Of course, politicians exploited that hope and magnified it for their own gains. Michael Ignatieff, who expected to win the leadership of the liberal party while supporting the Iraqi war, has spoken of his Kurdish friend's hope in the war. In his letter of apology he used his friend's hope as part of his excuse for initially supporting the war. And still other politicians, such as Dick Cheney and Ahmad Chalabi went even further using fantastical poetics such as, the now laughable lines on how the Iraqis will welcome the American troops as “liberators” and be greeted in Baghdad with “flowers” and “candy.” Some may have actually believed in it, but these words were no different than the prose of the British poets right before the commencement of the British empire. I’m reminded of Alexander Pope's superficial praise of the peace Britannia will bring after colonialism. “Till Conquest cease, and Slv'ry be no more/ Till the freed Indians in their native Groves/ Reap their own Fruits...” In comparison, Ahmad's hope seemed more realistic in that he understood there'd be casualties as there were in the first Gulph war with Iraq but this time he wanted the Americans to stay there for a long enough time to set up a government.

So now that five years have past since I last spoke to Ahmed I wondered if he still had the same sentiments as he had expressed before. Would he, along with Tony Blair, Michael Ignatieff, and Hillary Clinton retract his statements of support? Or would he hold onto his hope like Bayan Jabr Solagh or Jalal Talabani.

Ahmed’s position

It was the first serious question I asked him upon getting in touch again. I even reiterated his statement about his grandma's prayers for Bush. He stood strongly by his answer. The five years of wartime seemed to have withered his hope only slightly if at all. His main response was that the reconstruction of a city is a time consuming process. Of course, this time he wasn't physically in Iraq during the war but his immediate family and best friends still were. This time he was exposed to the Western perspective of the war and a witness to the endless student rallies and leftist student media that denounced it.

“My position still stands and my family is ever grateful to the United States. Unfortunately, when a group of people decide to drive a car bomb into a crowded street, or when they kidnap men and chop their heads off, or when they rape women, it is easy to point fingers towards the United States. It is simple, those people are the same people who ran Saddam’s regime and put us in mass graves and used chemical weapons. They would rather kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people because they know the weakness of the West: That easily holds the US responsible instead of those criminals, which is what’s happening right now. These people promoted sectarian divide, hoping that it would lead the country into a civil war and force the US to pull out. But their plans failed.”

His last point was actually one of the concerns raised in our initial conversation five years ago. We were concerned over whether the US would invade, topple Saddam, and then exit too quickly without building a government to replace the previous one. This is what happened during the first Gulf war, critics of which argued that the US should have stayed in Iraq to free the people from Saddam and rebuild a democratic government. Ahmed furthered his optimism: “My relatives live in the southern region which is relatively stable. However, there are some promising sign of security improvement since the surge with the death toll decreasing to 70%.” His position felt far from the prevailing liberal thinking in Canadian schools and, at certain points, quite close to the position of the Conservative party.

He also criticized sectarian movement in Iran and the other countries that bordered it: “ want the US to fail in Iraq because they feel threatened by the presence of a pro US government in the region. So these countries are enrolled in a 'war of attrition,' as you might say, with the US in Iraq and only the Iraqi civilians paying the price.”

He was unclear about when the US might withdraw. “I am still optimistic with the future and think the US will pull out in the next couple of years, leaving big military outposts like in Japan, South Korea, Qatar, Kuwait...etc. now we have no choice but to continue with the political process and reconciliation and hope for the best.”

Ethnic divisions on political lines

It should be noted that Ahmed is a Shiite, one of the ethnicities that were harshly oppressed by Saddam. On the other side of the issue are the Sunni-Iraqis who Saddam had favoured. Ibrahim Salih is a Sunni Iraqi who lived in Iraq after the Gulf war until right before this current war occurred, from 1997 to 2003. Like Ahmed, he's a Canadian student who hasn't been back to Iraq since but keeps contact with his family there. However, he does get first hand reports on the situation since his father visits the country almost every year. While Ahmed lives in the South of Iraq, Ibrahim lives more towards the North.

Like Ahmed, Ibrahim insists his view, while very different from Ahmed’s, isn't influenced by being Sunni or by living in the North. The Sunnis, though not as oppressed under Saddam as the Shiites, still were by relative standards. Both Ahmed and Ibrahim stress that the sectarian divide between Sunnis’ and Shiites’ is a superficial one. Outside of Iraq both of them have friends from both sects, and throughout both interviews neither of them condemned the opposing sect. In a way, I'm reminded very much of the way Canadian Iranians and Iraqis seem to get along quite well despite the past Iraq-Iran war. It's a phenomenon I've observed in other ethnicities as well. Opposing sides often get along well once they are in a neutral territory where they no longer have to worry about which borders, physical or abstract, must be defended. In much the same way that Ahmed assured me that the Iraq-Iran war was just an issue between the governments, Ahmed and Ibrahim both said the Sunni-Shiite wars were just the governments’ politics and not actually a reflection of the people's beliefs.

Ibrahim's view sides with the Liberal party's general view of the situation in Iraq – that it's a quagmire America and its allies need to withdraw from. “The war on Iraq is an act of terrorism. Thousands of people died on a monthly basis, mainly innocent ones. I lived in Baghdad for 5 years and we lived with the Shiites with no conflict. Life in Baghdad was getting better by the day and it was becoming more modern and more construction was being done.” His perspective on Iraq prior to the current war is much more nostalgic than Ahmed's. For him Saddam may have been a tyrant but he was a tolerable one.

According to Ibrahim, the US invasion was received with hostility. “My family only saw negatives from the war. I lost many family members and a lot were forced to leave their homes, for security reasons. The people of Iraq wish they had Saddam ruling the country at this point. If any one knew how to control that country it was Saddam Hussein, although he might have not been the best leader but he’s definitely better than a lot of other leaders out there.”

As for the role Iraq's neighbouring countries played, Ibrahim seems to agree with Ahmed, “The war allowed many outsiders to enter and corrupt the country, triggering civil wars between the Sunnis and Shiites who probably didn't harm each other but were blamed for bombing each others mosques, etc.”

Although Ahmed and Ibrahim's opinions seem to be from polar opposites, both believe that their separate views are popular with many other Iraqis and have claimed that it's the common sentiment shared by their family members and friends who still live in Iraq. While Ibrahim believes people were better off under Saddam's rule, Ahmed acknowledges the new corruption but still believes people are better off than they were under Saddam.

So which view is the most prevalent in Iraq? Noam Chomsky has referred to a wide Iraqi poll that does provide some insight on how many Iraqis prefer a US withdrawal, “ poll found that two-thirds of the people in Baghdad wanted the U.S. troops out immediately; the rest of the country -- a large majority -- wanted a firm timetable for withdrawal, most of them within a year or less.” So far the US has failed in meeting the simple demand of a timetable. Furthermore, Dick Cheney has also used the Iraqi poll, citing the same results as Chomsky, as an argument for his pro-war stance since he's interpreted the result as meaning that the Iraqis want the US to stay for at least another year. Keeping in mind that Ahmed is from the South of Iraq and Ibrahim is from the North, the poll Chomsky and Cheney refer to seems to reflect accurately with the views each of my interviewees expressed respectively.


I wasn't sure how to end this article because I knew that I wasn't going to get any satisfying answers other than exemplifying the divide in ideology. I did know that I wanted to write about whether Ahmed's optimism in the Iraq war had changed with the five years of war. I also wanted to make his case more public because I knew it was one that rarely gets heard. So I asked him at the end of my interview if he had any final thoughts: “It is sad that it had to come to a foreign invasion to help us get rid of Saddam, and the Arab 'jihadists' and the remnants of the Bathist party did not make things any better by almost succeeding in starting a civil war. Had Bush not decided to go in, Iraq would have been ruled by Saddam and his sons for hundreds of years to come. To answer those critics who say things under Saddam were better off than now, I simply say you cannot compare 35 yrs of ruling to a government that is 1 year old. Also the people who are causing the chaos and death right now are not the Americans because we all know that they want to leave today before tomorrow. It's Saddam's loyalists and Bathists and Arab terrorists who want to show the world that Iraq was better off under Saddam by indiscriminate killing of women and children, blowing up electricity plants, bridges, pipe lines, sending suicide bombers to kill children only fault was collecting candy from American soldiers. Iraqis face many challenges today. It's the birth of a new country, new police, new army, new foundation and that takes time, money and patience and we all would be very happy to see the day where the last American soldier leaves our land thanking them in the mean time for their sacrifices.”

To date, the death toll from the five years of the Iraq war varies but is estimated to be greater than the thirty-five years under Saddam's rule. However, these numbers don't include the number of innocent people who have died from the US lead sanctions nor the number of people dying indirectly due to the current war fare.

Yet, Ahmed still holds onto this hope like Marlow did in Heart of Darkness: “What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea--something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .” He even went so far to thank the Americans for their efforts.



Have you seen _Iraq in Fragments_? I think it's pretty good at offering the human side of the war.

For the longest time, I got really frustrated by shows like _The Daily Show_ that huffawed about the awfulness of the war and the Bush administration.

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