The invasion of Iraq is an unfinished story

Having spent time in the country of my birth after Saddam fell, it seems to me the world hasn't fully reckoned with its consequences

An injured Iraqi woman flees the site of two car bombs that exploded in quick succession near two Baghdad churches in August 2004. AFP
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It will soon be the 20th anniversary of the “Mission Accomplished” speech made by then US president George W Bush.

On May 1, 2003, on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Mr Bush declared “Operation Iraqi Freedom” a success – as the US-led invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime was code named. “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” Mr Bush said. “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

However, it took his successor, Barack Obama, to actually officially end the conflict in 2011. The protracted conclusion was evidence both of American cynicism and incompetence with regard to Iraq. They would need to return to repel ISIS in 2014. Current US President Joe Biden formally drew a line under the latest US combat mission in Iraq at the end of 2021.

Overall, the intervention in Iraq has never been a comfortable line for the US to walk. We can see this clearly, for example, from the desire of Congress to now repeal the powers that allowed Mr Bush to go to war. America wants to finally move on from that controversial period.

It is important, first, that we are sure they have learned something too. This is because two decades on from when American troops, heading a coalition also including the UK, were sent to the country, Iraq is still grappling with the legacy of the invasion. These actions, once started, cannot be controlled.

After the invasion, with the post-war power brokers in full swing, it was harder for Iraqis to shine

The “shock and awe” of the first attack on March 19, when US forces bombed the capital, Baghdad, would come to symbolise the tone of the war. "At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger," Mr Bush said at the time, selling the idea that it was foremost an ideological mission.

Less than four months after hostilities began, I went to Iraq to reconnect with the country of my birth as well as to report on post-war developments. Personally, I was very conflicted about the invasion. It was – and still is – unclear to me if it was the right thing to do. At the time, it did afford me my first chance to return as an adult. Up until then, there had been many versions of Iraq during my lifetime. There was the idyllic world of Baghdad in the 1960s relayed to me through my mother’s nostalgia-tinted stories.

After the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq morphed into a shameful actor on the global stage, a thorn in the side of the West and its leader Saddam represented the worst aspects of our culture.

When I finally arrived to discover my own sense of the place, it was a total mess of contradictions. So, I felt immediately at home.

Iraqi people are so full of life. They like to enjoy themselves. They like to laugh, play and listen to music, to debate history and politics and art. Iraqis love to eat too. They are also often quick to anger, thin skinned and see conspiracy theories everywhere.

After the invasion, with the post-war power brokers in full swing, it was harder for Iraqis to shine when much of the city was in ruin or disrepair, American tanks and humvees owned the streets and its administrative centre became a fortress to keep the very people it was meant to be liberating away. A curfew meant Baghdad’s incredible nightlife was always curtailed.

Day by day, the presence of a foreign power was chipping away at the dignity of its people. Instead of freedom after Saddam’s regime was swept away, there was a new fear.

Baghdad is steeped in history. It may not have the scale of Cairo or the gravity of Damascus or the magnetism of Beirut, but it combines all of these characteristics with its own stubborn streak. Its people have endured the US invasion and aftermath and shown resilience in the face of an action that has altered the dynamics of the Middle East.

Not only did Iran fill much of the vacuum of power in the country after Saddam fell, but the poorly managed post-war period was a breeding ground for extremist elements. The roots of the carnage wrought by ISIS across Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, can be found in what occurred after 2003.

When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, it also changed the course of history. It ended a golden period.

My novel, Muchafraid, is set in the Round City of 13th-century Baghdad. Creating a backdrop against such a tragedy was important to me because of what I saw 20 years ago when I was in Iraq. I wanted to tell a story that drew on the country’s turbulent history, and I was even working on an early draft of Muchafraid in 2003.

Many books in the fantasy genre are set in Middle Eastern or Arabian worlds such as SA Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy Series or Chelsea Abdullah’s The Stardust Thief. They draw on the much-loved 1001 Arabian Nights tradition, including jinn and magic lamps. These fables and tales offer universal themes that have travelled the world.

Audiences are looking, too, for stories that relate to more modern events in the Middle East. These moments have already inspired a generation’s worth of new art, culture and literature.

There is room for more, especially as we still haven’t fully reckoned with the consequences of the Iraq invasion.

Published: April 06, 2023, 2:00 PM