In the last month, media coverage of Iraq has ranged from the impending collapse of a dam that could kill millions to clerics appointing “committee members” to select a cabinet and a crumbling economy. This is on top of the long-standing woes caused by ISIL, Iranian-backed militias, unrest in Kurdistan, incursions from Turkey, ineffectual politicians and increasing sectarian polarisation.
Western politicians – including presidential candidates – now extol their opposition to the US invasion. As one commentator in Britain’s The Independent put it, many observers openly question whether the removal of Saddam Hussein “was all it was cracked up to be”. Many believe it was not.
In an interview last January with Asharq Al Awsat, Ayad Allawi said Iraqis were nostalgic for Saddam because of the mediocre performance of the recent governments, which have burnt Iraqis with the flames of sectarianism. Comments by Shia or Kurdish observers are often meant to address the level of disappointment and frustration with the new Iraq. A Shia Iraqi by the name of Jawad Khalaf Al Asadi, once jailed by the Baath regime, was quoted in Al Quds Al Arabi saying: “I wish Saddam were to be resurrected … to take this wrecked ship into safe shores.”
Kurdish journalist Shirzad Shikani wrote that Kurds missed Saddam due to the failing leaderships of the Kurdish Parties. Al Monitor quoted from the piece before it was removed.
If social media platforms, where much of Iraq’s public political discussion takes place, reflect any public sentiments, the claims of Mr Allawi bear some truth. One event, however, showcased how far online opinion, particular among Sunni Iraqis, has to go to understand the implications of their “nostalgia”: the death last November of Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial Shia politician who served as deputy prime minister of Iraq after the fall of Saddam.
The vile commentary and gloating was hard to stomach. Instead of anger being directed at the late politician’s failure to construct a promising future for Iraq, it was on the “traitor” who helped the US to occupy the country and overthrow the regime. The reaction was perceived by many as nostalgia for the previous Sunni hegemony which according to Iraq’s Shia and Kurds is a sign that Sunnis are discontented with their lack of a leadership role in Iraq.
This perception is not necessarily true. Yearning for Saddam’s Iraq, in many cases, has little to do with Saddam or his style of ruling.
As Nada, a Twitter personality with a significant following among frustrated Sunnis, put it: “Many love Iraq and are heart-broken to witness its deterioration, which they feel happened after the invasion and the emergence of failing leaders.”
Dina Al Azawi, a writer now living in the United States but who has a large Facebook following in Iraq, lost her brother and cousin in the violence that engulfed the country in 2004.
“Under Saddam, our foreign policy was balanced, and the world respected us,” she wrote. “Iraq was not a proxy for a foreign agenda. Yes, we were independent and sovereign. It was a tyranny, but it was a state. Iraq does not even resemble a state today. It is not about who rules, it is about how we were ruled.”
She is one of many Iraqi Sunnis who compare life before and after the 2003 fall of Saddam, often concluding that tyrannical rule is better than the chaos of today’s Iraq.
More than two million Sunnis in Iraq are displaced. The government has accomplished little in the way of reconciliation and thousands of Sunnis remain in prisons without trial. Meanwhile, no charges have been laid over the horrific massacre of Hawija in 2013 when government security forces fired at peaceful unarmed protesters, killing 54 and injuring hundreds. More recently, news of Shia militias’ continuing torture of Sunnis has been confirmed. Nostalgia for better days is predictable.
Ihsan Nouri, a political writer, said he understood what was driving this: “They had the best posts in the governments and military. They lived in the posh areas of Baghdad and they were respected wherever they went; just their last name is enough to get them out of any fix. Most of those people were Sunnis.”
But why is this nostalgia a pitfall for Sunnis in particular? The comparison between life during and after Saddam has the unintentional effect of putting justified grievances and frustration on a par with idolising tyrants. While Sunnis face hardships today compared to their privileged position in the past, life under Saddam was hardly a utopia for them.
From the start of Saddam’s regime in 1979, he shocked the population with brisk executions – including many Sunnis. Nor did all of Iraq’s Sunni community agree with or benefit from the Saddam-centric rule of the Baath party. However complaining – even discreetly – was not an option and from a young age, we all learnt the need for caution. Sunni households were shattered by preventable wars – just like their Kurdish and Shia compatriots. The economic sanctions imposed after the reckless invasion of Kuwait in 1990 spared no sect or ethnicity.
While it’s true that under Saddam Iraq was not challenged by car bombs, suicide attacks, armed terrorists or militias, the truth is the state itself carried out many heinous crimes.
Disregarding the thousands of lives in mass graves from chemical weapon attacks will only alienate the rest of Iraq at a time when ISIL controls vast areas of Sunni provinces. Moreover, it’s a misassumption that Iraq would have coped with the changes caused by technology and disaffected populations if Saddam was still in charge. His response to grass roots uprisings would have almost certainly been identical to that of Syria’s Bashar Al Assad.
The comparison also alienates moderate Shia who are willing to negotiate a new start. Many lost family members to the Saddam regime’s systemic oppression, so yearning for that era is a non-starter. The only ones who gain if the bulk of moderate Shia are alienated are radical Shia. Some Shia have used social media to equate Sunni grievances with Sunni supremacy. They have called for Sunni subjugation, or even annihilation. Instead of yearning for a dictatorship to replace a failing government, Iraqis must strive for a better reality that encompasses compromise and understanding.
Moving on from Saddam, recognising the past grievances of others and investing in the country’s political process are steps Sunnis must be willing to take. Fears of Islamist militants and the return of the Baath rule can be defused by engaging with moderates to sideline radical voices in both camps. Iraq’s Sunnis must evaluate their options wisely, and being caught between ISIL and right-wing Shia should make the right choice easier.
Nouri Al Maliki’s party won Iraq’s 2014 paralimentary elections by exploiting the panic that followed ISIL capturing Fallujah. His narrative of equating Sunnis to extremists or Baathists is gradually becoming a mainstream view and moderates in this debate will fail to persuade their Shia constituents of their security if Sunnis continue looking to the past. Sunnis should interpret the Shia politicking that prevented Mr Al Maliki from gaining a third term as a goodwill gesture – and they should reciprocate.
Rasha Al Aqeedi is a Fellow at Al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre in Dubai, and a feature writer for Inside Iraqi Politics