Bush had said), and Iraq later descended into a sectarian civil war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more, irrevocably changing the country’s demography. The American tanks were gone, but the effects of the occupation were everywhere.
I had low expectations, but I was still disheartened by the ugliness of the city where I had grown up and horrified by how dysfunctional, difficult and dangerous daily life had become for the great majority of Iraqis. I flew from New York, where I now live, to Kuwait, where I was giving a lecture. I was going to the city of Basra, in the south of Iraq.
Basra was the only major Iraqi city I had not visited before. The city had suffered a great deal during the Iran-Iraq war, and its decline accelerated after 2003.
I was going to sign my books at the Friday book market of al-Farahidi Street, a weekly gathering for bibliophiles modeled after the famous Mutanabbi Street book market in Baghdad. I didn’t expect the beautiful Basra I’d seen on 1970s postcards. Basra was pale, dilapidated and chaotic thanks to the rampant corruption. Nonetheless, I made a pilgrimage to the famous statue of Iraq’s greatest poet, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab.
No to dictatorship.” While condemning Saddam’s reign of terror, we were against a “war that would cause more death and suffering” for innocent Iraqis and one that threatened to push the entire region into violent chaos.
Our voices were not welcomed in mainstream media in the United States, which preferred the pro-war Iraqi-American who promised cheering crowds that would welcome invaders with “sweets and flowers.” There were none. Fifteen years ago today, the invasion of Iraq began.
My short visit only confirmed my conviction and fear that the invasion would spell disaster for Iraqis.
Removing Saddam was just a byproduct of another objective: dismantling the Iraqi state and its institutions.
Moreover, having lived through two previous wars (the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988 and the Gulf War of 1991), I knew that the actual objectives of war were always camouflaged by well-designed lies that exploit collective fear and perpetuate national myths.
I was one of about 500 Iraqis in the diaspora — of various ethnic and political backgrounds, many of whom were dissidents and victims of Saddam’s regime — who signed a petition: “No to war on Iraq.