After 20 Years – Is It Time to Forgive? By Steve Clemens
March 20, 2003 marked the beginning of (another) US invasion of Iraq. It was based on lies and anti-Muslim fears and resentments, but average Americans often believed their national leaders and the corporate media which basically silenced those who opposed military intervention.
Having traveled to Baghdad in December 2002 as part of an ad-hoc “Peace Team”, with the intent to be present with the Iraqi people in the face of a threatened “Shock and Awe” bombardment, I returned back to Minnesota 3 months before the war actually began. I used those 3 months to speak to more than 60 groups at schools, colleges, community centers, and churches about what I saw and learned about Iraq – hoping to galvanize the vocal opposition to the war. I concentrated my pictures with the faces of children, noting that these are often the primary victims of the brutal sanctions regime placed on the country by the US and Britain since 1991, and photos of power plants and water treatment facilities in complete disrepair.
After the war and occupation dragged on -much beyond the “cakewalk” promised by Rumsfeld and others, and well beyond the “Mission Accomplished” photo op of our President decked out in a flight suit on the deck of a carrier off the coast of San Diego, the mood in our nation began to gradually turn as more US military, mercenary contractors, and even embedded journalists failed to return or returned with missing limbs, head traumas, and/or PTSD. Notions of “the long war” arose as the occupation past the length of the Vietnam fiasco. And Afghanistan continued to demand more military sacrifices as well.
A local restauranteur I hadn’t met yet, Sami Rasouli, decided to return to his native Iraq city of Najaf to see for himself. Some local friends approached me to ask if I would join their efforts to find ways to financially support him and to help “broaden” his voice by sharing some of the Iraqi art he brought back with him to dispel the myths about the land and culture we were destroying. Those efforts eventually coalesced into what became The Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project, an NGO based in Minneapolis which worked to educate and encourage and heal the toxic divides in our country over the war and between Americans and Iraqis.
At Sami’s behest, we worked to have Minneapolis become a Sister City with his home city of Najaf, and Sami brought numerous delegations of Iraqi professionals to the US when visas could be secured. Finally, after President Obama removed US troops out of the country (and before returning them to attack a rising ISIS a little more than a year or two later), IARP accepted an invitation by the governor of Najaf to visit our Sister City in November 2012. The governor had us stay in a “guest house” overlooking the Euphrates River – a former gaudy palace built by Saddam Hussein during his brutal reign. Despite the destruction wrought in their nation and homeland by US and British militaries and mercenary contractors, the Iraqi people we met welcomed us with smiles, tears, and embraces. It seemed to me that they were willing to forgive -if not forget- those of us who traveled a great distance to be with them.
But the governing system foisted on the Iraqi people by the Occupiers, and, at the encouragement of former exiled “elites” like Chalabi, emphasized sectarian divides and power and privileges given disproportionally to sectarian militia or tribal leaders mostly at the expense of the ordinary Iraqi citizens. Corruption was rampant – both by US
contractors who skimmed off much of the money allocated to rebuild schools, hospitals, power grids, water treatment plants, … - as well as sectarian “leaders” who saw their opportunity to regain what they claim Saddam “stole” from them. Tragically this continues today.
On the 20th anniversary much of the US media used the term “mistake” when describing the invasion, war, and occupation. There were few voices that really identified it as a “crime” even though that same media used that term to describe Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The irony of forgetting Abu Ghraib, “black sites” run by the CIA, Guantanamo prisoners, as well as the destruction of civilian infrastructure is not lost on other nations or Iraqis as we, as a nation, pivot to a Cold War with China as well as a proxy war with Russia.
We can’t ask the Iraqis to forgive us if we work diligently to forget what we did and fail to learn that military might cannot install either democracy or civility. Iraq continues be seen as still “unstable”. The US State Department lists Iraq as “Level 4: Do Not Travel” as of January 3 of 2023, adding, “Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, civil unrest, and Mission Iraq’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens.”
So, short of traveling back to Iraq – and, is there a government official there who would even invite us? – how can we work for healing and reconciliation today? At least one way is to get to know and welcome the Iraqis who have come here as immigrants, asylees, refugees, and visitors. Listen to their stories. Hear and learn from their experiences. Pay attention to the poets and artists, the playwrights and storytellers. Visit their mosques and attend iftar gatherings during the holy month of Ramadan. Ask questions. Have empathy. Open your arms. Welcome them to your homes. Say, “I’m sorry” without any expectations of hearing a word of forgiveness. How are individuals able to forgive what nations do to others? And read – start with A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad.