Monday, July 9, 2012

An Iraqi Perspective On The Iraq War, Interview With Mark Kukis And His Voices Of Iraq Book

(Columbia Univ. Press)

Mark Kukis worked as a journalist for Time magazine in Iraq from 2006-2009. That covered the peak of the civil war. During those years it was hard to get around the country, and even harder to talk to any Iraqis out of fear that they might be killed for being seen with an America. In January 2009, when the sectarian conflict had faded, Kukis got the idea to put together an oral history of Iraq, inspired by The Good War by Studs Terkel. Unlike the vast majority of books on the subject, this would not be a story told by the Americans, but rather one by the Iraqis themselves, something that has largely been missing from most of the reporting on the country. Using the Iraqi staff at Time, he was able to interview dozens and dozens of Iraqis from all parts of Iraq except for Kurdistan, because it largely escaped the civil war. These were put together in his 2011 book Voices From Iraq, A People’s History,2003-2009. Below is an interview with Kukis about his motivation, and some of the amazing stories he heard. This adds an important chapter to the Iraq War, because it includes the Iraqi perspective of the struggles that they went through during the U.S. invasion, the insurgency, and the subsequent civil conflict.

Background To Voices From Iraq

1. What was your motivation behind writing your book?

I wanted to write a book that was entirely from the Iraqi perspective. Very little of the volumes of material written about the Iraq war examined what it was like to live through conflict as an Iraqi. 

2. What made you decide to do an oral history, rather than a regular account of Iraq?

I wanted to present as many different Iraqi experiences as possible and do so in a way that allowed readers to share them directly, without the filter of a traditional narrator. I felt that Iraqis should speak for themselves in a book written from their perspective. 

3. How many people did you end up interviewing, and what process did they go through?

Roughly 100 Iraqis sat for interviews. Most people came to the Time magazine Baghdad bureau and discussed their experiences over the course of several hours. I put questions to people through an interpreter, who translated responses into English. I recorded all of these conversations and took careful notes. I found the interview subjects initially by just asking the Iraqi staff of Time’s Baghdad bureau if they knew anyone who had interesting stories about their years during the conflict. Many did. People who sat for interviews suggested others, and so on. The first fifty or so interviews went like this. Later we began exercising a little more selectivity in order to ensure we had a voices representing every cross section of Iraqi society we felt was needed to tell the story.

Stories From The 2003 U.S. Invasion

4. Your book starts off talking to people just as the U.S. invasion was about to occur. One surprising thing was that many didn’t seem to believe that an actual invasion was going to happen. Why do you think that was so?

The United States fought a war with Iraq without invading [the 1991 Gulf War], and then for years afterward used punitive airstrikes in confrontations, not ground troops. Many Iraqis mistakenly thought the Bush administration’s efforts to confront Saddam Hussein in 2003 would be more of the same. Living in Iraq amid regime propaganda, they had no way of understanding how serious about invasion the White House then was. Also, remember that many in the United States, and the world generally were surprised at the invasion. We’ve lived with the reality of the invasion and occupation now for so long that perhaps we forget how shocking it was then even to those who had reason to expect it. 

5. The first several interviews covered soldiers from throughout southern Iraq and Baghdad. Were they willing to fight, and how did things fall apart so quickly for them?

Yes, many fought earnestly, in part because Saddam Hussein’s Baath party henchmen roamed freely early on, and threatened to execute deserters. The party enforcers began disappearing once Hussein’s grip on Baghdad loosened. The threat of murder by the regime was one of the main motivators for many in the Iraqi army. The threat faded as U.S. forces moved so quickly on Baghdad, and the will to fight left many.

6. What did people say about the fall of Saddam, and how were they feeling afterward?

There is no easy way to characterize the range of emotions thousands of people felt in this moment. For many, elation mingled with anger. Even those who hated Saddam Hussein loathed the sight of their country defeated at the hands of a foreign power. Shock and sorrow overwhelmed any sense of hope some might have felt. The invasion was incredibly destructive and bloody for Iraqis, particularly in Baghdad. Americans did not see very many images revealing the carnage and destruction, but Iraqis had those experiences fresh in their minds in the early days of the occupation. 

My neighborhood was a disaster scene when I got there. The wreckage of destroyed tanks and artillery pieces was strewn everywhere. Bombed-out building were still on fire. Bodies were rotting in the road. The only signs of life to be seen were the warplanes in the skies and the U.S. soldiers roaming the streets. I felt so helpless when I looked at them, these occupiers.
- Mohammed Khalil Hamed, a Republican Guard Colonel in 2003

Post-Invasion Chaos

7. One thing that your interviewees talked about was the lack of law and order after the invasion. The U.S. came in and overthrew the regime, but then didn’t have anything to replace it with. Could you explain some of the things Iraqis experienced during that time?

What Iraqis remember the most during the immediate aftermath of the invasion was the looting and lack of services. Many Iraqis struggled to get food, water and electricity. Trash piled up, and looters ran wild. You can imagine the difficulty of providing the basics for yourself and your family amid a total breakdown of services and the onset of lawlessness. 

When I got back to Baghdad, it was not the city I had left just a week before. … You saw people walking everywhere carrying looted goods. … Nowhere could you see any sign of law and order. No police. No military, No government. Nothing. Everything had collapsed.
- Mohammad Abbas Abdul al-Hur, Baghdad shopkeeper in 2003

Scene from inside a Baghdad museum after the looting, 2003 (AFP)
8. You talked with a man named Abu Mustafa who worked at the Agriculture Ministry. What did he witness when the ministry was put back together after the 2003 invasion?

He witnessed what many government workers saw, the steady takeover of ministries by ascendant Shiites political factions. There was a purge, essentially, throughout the government. In general, Sunnis who had served the former regime were pushed out by Shiites who held favor with the new leadership. This was one of the earliest forms of sectarian animosity to surface.

I started going back to the [Agriculture] Ministry, where I found … things were strange. … All of the senior officials had simply vanished, … [and] soon we began to see a new sectarian order. … People claiming to be doing the bidding of the Shiite religious authorities began to fill the posts left open by the vanished Baathists. … They began verbally abusing and firing Sunnis or anyone they distrusted. … The remaining Sunnis all put their offices in certain halls, and Shiites did the same in others.
- Abu Mustafa, procurement official in Agriculture Ministry 2003

New Iraq Politicians

9. You were able to interview former parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi of the Iraqi Nation Party. He was known for his independence when he was in office. What did he go through as a new lawmaker in Iraq?

Mithal al-Alusi sought to be an independent political figure. He tried sincerely to hold himself above sectarian politics while seeking to play a positive role as a public servant in the new Iraq. His approach to politics left him few friends and many enemies. He survived multiple assassination attempts, including one in which his two sons died.

The Insurgency

10. One interesting person you talked to was Omar Yousef Hussein, an alias, because he was an early insurgent. What happened to him under Saddam?

He was jailed for many years as a political prisoner. I don’t know the details. We did not discuss his experiences in the old regime at any length. I kept all interviews focused on people’s experiences from 2003 onward. Anything about their life before that mentioned in the interview was discussed in passing, generally.

11. Why then did he decide to fight the Americans? What was his main motivation?

His reason was simple. Like many Iraqis, he did not want a foreign army in his country. He hated Saddam Hussein deeply, but that did not mean he welcomed a U.S. invasion. I got the sense he hated the occupation and the former regime with much the same force.

I had grown up under Saddam Hussein. I had spent nearly a decade of my youth in his jails. I had seen my country invaded by a foreign army. All my life I felt beaten down by one hand or another. And now, finally, for the first time I was hitting back.
- Omar Yousef Hussein, alias for an early insurgent 2003

12. He’s also interesting, because very early on he got in contact with an actual Al Qaeda member from Afghanistan. Can you explain their relationship?

Osama bin Laden and his followers in Pakistan and Afghanistan dispatched operatives to Iraq. I don’t know how many. I would guess dozens. Their mission was to train would-be insurgents how to fight a guerilla war against American occupation forces. Omar Yousef Hussein connected with one of these operatives and was taught how to make roadside bombs. 

13. Another interesting story was relayed by Ahmed Ibrahi Abdul Wahab who was from Baghdad’s Amiriya district. How did he witness the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq in his neighborhood?

When we talk about al-Qaeda, we need to clarify what we are saying, because there is a lot of confusion about exactly what al-Qaeda in Iraq was. There was al-Qaeda, the group lead by bin Laden based Pakistan. The bona fide members of this group active in Iraq during the U.S. occupation were few. Probably less then fifty actual al-Qaeda members were operating in Iraq at any given time during the entire occupation. Most of the insurgent activity came from Iraqis. Some Sunni insurgents adopted a peculiarly sectarian form of al-Qaeda ideology. They called themselves al-Qaeda in Iraq. Their ranks included a number of gangs and criminals. Ahmed Ibrahi Abdul Wahab saw his neighborhood first taken over by gangs during the lawlessness after the invasion. Gradually these gangs, or elements of them, morphed into an insurgent network for al-Qaeda in Iraq. He witnessed this process and saw how it turned his neighborhood into a killing ground.

14. Luay Ali Hussein was a Shiite living in Fallujah who initially supported the U.S. invasion, but then turned against it, which led him to work with the insurgency. He ended up getting out, because of all the foreign fighters that came to his city. Can you explain how those foreigners changed things in Fallujah, and some of the ideas they tried to impose on the locals?

Many Iraqis blame foreigners for bringing draconian religious rule to areas in the grip of insurgents, like Fallujah circa 2004. In one example Iraqis often mentioned, insurgent enforcers would ban smoking in places they ruled and threaten to cut off the fingers of anyone caught with a cigarette. I’m not convinced, frankly, that such behavior was driven just by foreigners, who appeared only in small numbers among Iraqi insurgents. Suffice it to say that truly bizarre notions about religion and social order prevailed among the men who called themselves al-Qaeda in Iraq, and they violently imposed their will in areas where they managed to gain control, places like Fallujah, Ramadi, certain areas of Baghdad and some villages in Diyala province. 

The foreigners … had weird ideas about religion, like they had been brainwashed by fanatics. … They would not allow vegetable sellers to display cucumbers and tomatoes next to each other, because they considered that too erotic. The cucumbers looked to them like male parts and the tomatoes were somehow female in their mind. And believe it or not, they would put underwear on sheep. They apparently thought it was against Islam to allow a female animal to expose her genitals.
- Luay Ali Hussein, former insurgent from Fallujah

15. Abdul Wahab Fuad Abdul Wahab was a victim of the insurgency. What did he witness?

A wave of bombings swept his neighborhood.  He saw friends and neighbors torn apart by repeated explosions, and ultimately he was left badly disfigured by one as well.

I was just taking the first puff [of a cigarette] when a huge explosion hit the street. … The tea guy I had just spoken to was alive but on the ground burning. Both of his legs were on fire. A little way down the falafel stand was completely destroyed. We learned later that someone had placed a bomb just inside the door of the place and walked away.
- Abdul Wahab Fuad Abdul Wahab, Baghdad resident who survived three separate bombings

16. You had a couple stories of kidnappings by militants, could you explain a few of them?

Kidnapping was so widespread for a time that they became almost formulaic. Someone would disappear. Kidnappers would soon call the family of the missing demanding a ransom. The family would scramble to get together what money they could and deliver to the kidnappers. Sometimes their loved one was returned alive, sometimes not. Thousands of families endured this horror. It was a years-long crime wave that left few untouched. 

I made it to a nearby intersection, where suddenly a black BMW shot in front of me and blocked my way. The back door opened, and a guy in the backseat brandished a machine gun at me. … The guy in the BMW motioned for me to get in the car, and I walked over calmly and climbed in. As soon as I was in they put a cloth bag over my head, tied my hands in front of me, and made me lay with my head in the lap of the man with the gun so I could not be seen. … Everything about me stopped, and I just waited for what would happen next.
- Zaid Allwan Jafar, survived a kidnapping by insurgents in 2005

17. One of the most harrowing stories you retold was that of Moustafa Ahmed Al-Taee. What happened to him when he tried to get out of Iraq?

Moustafa Ahmed Al-Taee was on a bus stopped by killers looking for Shiites to murder. He was nearly executed, because the killers initially thought he was a Shiite. He’s a Sunni and managed to convince them, but barely. He’s lucky to be alive.

Shiite Militias
Sadrist militiamen at a rally (NeoRepublica)
18. Adel Rasheed Majeed joined the Mahdi Army during the August 2004 battle of Najaf. Why did he join the militia, and what did he go through?

He joined the Mahdi Army militia because, like many Iraqis, he hated the idea of a foreign army in his country. He was one of many Shiites who volunteered to fight with the Mahdi Army if there was ever cause. In 2004, the Mahdi Army confronted U.S. forces in Najaf, and he answered the call to aid the fight. He traveled from Baghdad to Najaf with a weapon of his own and joined a line of militiamen firing on U.S. positions. 

19. Ali Jawad Kadhem of Baghdad’s Kadhimiya became involved with the Mahdi Army for a short period of time. Why did he change his mind and stop his association with the militia?

The Mahdi Army developed many enemies, including the Shiite led government of Iraq. Men like Ali Jawad Kadhem balked at the idea of killing fellow Shiites just for political purposes, which is what the Mahdi Army wound up doing in addition to fighting Sunni radicals and U.S. occupation forces. He broke away from the Mahdi Army because its purpose, it seemed to him, had become subsumed by politics.

Sometimes they [the Mahdi Army] would attack checkpoints manned by Iraqi security forces and ask some of us volunteers to help some. … When I heard about this, I had words with these men. I did not think this was right. The men at the checkpoints were there to protect us. There was no reason to attack them.
- Ali Jawad Kadhem, former Mahdi Army militiaman

20. What happened to Rasim Hassan Haikel’s northern Baghdad neighborhood when the Mahdi Army took it over?

A sectarian purge, basically. Through violence and threats, the Mahdi Army forced the neighborhood’s Sunnis to flee. He saw friends and neighbors he had known for years forced to abandon their homes, and join the throngs of the internally displaced people that overwhelmed parts of Baghdad.

21. Saddam Hatif Hatim al-Jabouri was a college student in Qadisiyah province. What was his experience with the Sadrists?

He attended a small university south of Baghdad in a town called Diwaniyah. There he saw how the Sadrists sought to impose their draconian religious code on the student body and the wider community. He and others resisted and risked their lives doing so.

People involved with the Mahdi Army tended to believe that having females in school was against Islam. … A lot of the women who insisted on going to class came under threat. There were beatings and kidnappings targeting women just because they wanted to go to school. I didn’t believe in this kind of thinking, and neither did many of my friends.
- Saddam Hatif Hatim al-Jabouri

22. Sami Hilali saw some of the good sides of the Sadr movement. What did he talk about?

He saw how the Sadr movement provided legitimate social services when no one else would, like trash collection and emergency assistance to families struggling to survive amid the war.

They organized trash pickups when no one else would. … They did traffic control, and posted night guards around the streets since police almost never entered. … They would find homes for Shiites who’d been forced out of other areas of Baghdad and fled to Hurriya. They distributed gasoline and kerosene when both were scarce. These were the kinds of things they did to give themselves a good reputation in the neighborhood.
- Sami Hilali, Hurriya, Baghdad

23. Could you explain the story of Mohammed Raad Ahmed and how he got involved with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force?

He was recruited, basically. Iranian operatives worked to create insurgent networks in Iraq and found many willing men, especially as resentment against the occupation rose.

Instructors gave us lessons in detonating charges, magnetic circuits, and laser circuits, which were being used in Iraq for these new explosives against occupation forces. … All the instructors spoke Arabic with a heavy Lebanese accent. You’d think they were Lebanese hearing them, but we found out by talking to them that they were either Qods Force or Iranian intelligence.
- Mohammed Raad Ahmed, Special Groups fighter trained in Iran

Civil War

24. Most people point to the 2006 bombing of the Samarra shrine in Salahaddin as the start of the civil war. Didn’t the conflict start far before that though?

The bombing of the Shrine was the moment when the Mahdi Army lost all restraint in responding to the sectarian murder campaign waged by militant Sunnis. The sectarian conflict had been escalating since shortly after the American invasion, but reached a frightening new level of bloodshed after that.

25. Sheikh Jamal Jassim Sudani was a witness to the violence that the civil war unleashed. What did he do during that time?

He collected unidentified bodies, gave them a proper burial, and kept records so that families seeking lost loved ones might one day be able to find where they were buried.

26. Saman Dlawer Hussein saw the ethnic cleansing that struck Baghdad during the sectarian war. What happened in his neighborhood of Mansour and Washash, which was next door?

Death squads widely understood to be part of the Mahdi Army regularly stalked those neighborhoods, killing hundreds of people. They would often leave the bodies of their victims in the streets, a move meant to intimidate the people of the area. 

After a while the Mahdi Army started coming into Mansour looking for Sunni families who had fled Washash to kill them. … Murders, usually shootings, began happening all over our neighborhood almost daily. I remember once not far from my house I personally saw gunmen pull a man from his car and shoot him to death. In front of my house, probably twenty people were killed.
- Saman Dlawer Hussein describing the ethnic cleansing of his Baghdad neighborhood in 2006

27. Could you explain the story of Hayfa Kareem Sabia, and what her family went through during the civil war years?

Hayfa and her family joined the throng of internally displaced people as they moved about trying to avoid sectarian violence. Many families faced a grim choice between enduring a tide of violence rising around their longtime homes or falling into desperate poverty in fleeing.

28. Khail Ibrahim al-Nasir ended up fleeing to Syria. What was his story?

He ran afoul of a local thug turned warlord who came to control his neighborhood during the sectarian violence. Like many people he understandably tried to remain in his home despite the dangers of a neighborhood that turned into a war zone. But one misstep forced him to become a refugee.

29. What happened to Ibrahim Ishmael Khalil, and how did his story show the deep distrust that developed during the civil war period?

A Sunni, Ibrahim sought care for his sick son at a hospital controlled by the Mahdi Army. For a time, Shiite death squads roamed hospitals looking for Sunni victims to murder. The incident in my mind illustrated how no place was safe during the sectarian violence, not even a hospital.

A very bad fever came over my son … [and] I had to take him to the hospital. … At the hospital, I saw three guys with guns roaming the halls. This was during the time when Shiite militiamen would kidnap visiting Sunnis from the hospital and murder them. The doctor treating Mohammed even told me that the men roaming the halls were asking about me. I had to run, right then.
- Ibrahim Ishmael Khalil

30. Probably the bloodiest story you were told was the tragedy that beset Zahra Echdaf Sangur and Fackria Zugaier Khata. Could you go into that a bit?

Their story is truly one of the most disturbing in the book. Both women’s families wound up becoming the targets of killers who had been cordial neighbors in years past. Their story showed how the sectarian violence became horrifyingly demented.

There stood a party of what appeared to be about twenty heavily armed men. I recognized Tahar among them, as well one of al-Sali’s brothers. ... All their guns suddenly went up at us, into our faces. They ordered my husband and our boys outside. … One of the gunmen turned on a video camera, and some of the others start shouting, Allah is Great! Allah is Great! And then they opened fire.
- Zahra Echdaf Sangur describing the murder of her family by insurgents in Jihad, Baghdad

31. A painful experience a lot of families had to go through was to travel to the morgue to try to identify their missing family members. What stories did you hear about that?

Virtually every Iraqi in Baghdad has a story about searching for a loved one in the city’s overflowing morgues. I think the families who perhaps suffered the most were the ones who went months or even years without finding a sign of their missing loved ones. Thousands of Iraqis simply vanished. Most of the missing are likely dead, but you can understand how a family has to hold out hope and keep searching.

Bodies at the Yarmouk Hospital morgue, Baghdad (BanglaPraxis)
The 2007 Surge

32. In the U.S., the Surge is touted as the event, which ended the Iraqi civil war. You talked with a man, Raad Jamal Habib who went through the dark side of that strategy. What was his experience with the American forces?

He wound up in a U.S. military prison in southern Iraq. The Surge involved detaining tens of thousands of Iraqis who sat in jail for roughly two years. There was virtually no legal recourse for such detainees. Most were simply swept up in mass arrests made by Surge troops and Iraqi forces, placed in U.S. prison sites in Iraq and released at a time chosen by U.S. military officials. There were some efforts on the part of American and Iraqi officials to bring a measure of legality to this detention system, but Iraqis then and now understood it for what it was, mass military detention by a foreign power. 


33. One thing that struck me was how small a role the Americans played in all the stories you collected. The Americans had tens of thousands of soldiers in Iraq, but except in specific situations like checkpoints or convoys they really seemed to not have much impact on daily life. That also challenges 99% of the books on Iraq that don’t seem to include Iraqis at all, but instead are just about the U.S. role. Did you notice that when you were putting the book together?

No, that contrast did not strike me in my conversations, but it’s perceptive of you to notice it. It’s true that few Iraqis had much direct, meaningful contact with the U.S. occupation. Yet the U.S. presence weighed on every one every day. Roads snarled with traffic caused by U.S. military vehicles. Helicopters roared overhead in daylight hours crisscrossing the country and swarming Baghdad. At night warplanes streaked through the darkness dropping bombs. The occupation was everywhere all the time. You saw it, you heard it, and you felt it constantly when in Iraq during that time. It’s a flaw that the book does not convey this. I suppose all of us who talked together in the making of the book just took it for granted, and thus did not discuss that aspect of the experience. It was sadly too familiar to us then.

34. The Iraqi government seemed largely absent as well, except for the security forces here and there, and they were usually a negative. What was going on with the Iraqi police in some of the stories?

The Iraqi police were virtually nonexistent until quite late in the U.S. occupation, at least by my observations as a correspondent who saw much of the country. Police stations had a way of just closing up in areas where things got bad. This changed in the 2007-2008 timeframe. For years what police there were failed to make their presence felt. In some ways you cannot blame them. What’s a precinct of patrolmen supposed to do against a militia like the Mahdi Army when they appear in force? I think in many cases Iraqi police just wound up outgunned as more and more armed groups took to the streets in the rise of general chaos. 

35. Overall, what did you take away from hearing all these stories, and putting your book together?

The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq scarred the people of that country in ways Americans scarcely understand. Most Americans don’t even know a U.S. soldier, much less an Iraqi. The trauma of the U.S. war years in Iraq hangs each day in the lives and minds of millions of Iraqis, while millions of American barely touched by the experience go forgetting unless they take the time to hear stories like these. 


Kukis, Mark, Voices From Iraq, A People’s History, 2003-2009, Columbia University Press: New York, 2011

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