'Cheated and used'
Five years on, Iraqis who went along with the US-led war now look back in anger as their nation is sucked into a quagmire, writes Saif Nasrawi
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A suspected Muqtada Al-Sadr follower at a US army base outside Najaf, Iraq. In 2003, he was apprehended by US troops on patrol near the city of Najaf and brought in for interrogation
For some Iraqis, the fall of Saddam Hussein's larger than life statue in Baghdad's Al-Firdous Square on 9 April 2003 was a happy occasion. The celebrations of the little joyful crowd that dared to defy confusion and chaos was clear evidence that those Iraqis were sick and tired of Saddam and wouldn't have shied away of their upbeat selves to see Saddam overthrown even by a foreign power.
In one sense, the joy was understandable, as these Iraqis were not supporting the war in the first place. Even with the bright future of freedom and justice the Bush administration had promised them, they did not welcome their "liberators" with flowers and sweets, but rather stormed out spontaneously to celebrate the end of a dark era of their history under Saddam's despotic rule.
However, five years have passed and Iraqis still strive for survival rather than enjoying a free and just life as they had expected by the US-led war. Now they see nothing but daily killings, bombings and abductions. In the eyes of those Iraqis, the whole war episode has turned into a nightmare instead of the rosy dream of a free and democratic Iraq that they once had.
In interview with Iraqis who cheered the collapse of Saddam's regime in the 2003 war, the ugly reality of occupation has replaced the high expectations they had after the fall of Saddam. Many lament what they now see as naïvety in believing that the United States could help in freeing them from Saddam.
For instance, hopes Faisal Al-Fekri, an Iraqi exile in Egypt for 40 years, once entertained have given way to despair and frustration. He had expected that the fall of the regime would finally allow him to return home and probably also to his old job as an army officer. Instead, the erstwhile opponent of Saddam still lives in Cairo as his beloved hometown of Basra sinks ever deeper into sectarian violence.
"It all seemed as if it was a mirage," said Al-Fekri. "What I thought would be a window of opportunity quickly turned into a fiasco, a lie," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Al-Fekri recalls watching the dramatic coverage of an American Abrams tank pulling the statue of Saddam to the ground on Al-Jazeera on 9 April 2003 with his Egyptian wife and two sons. "At that moment, I thought it was the end of my long exile and I could now go back home safely and help rebuild Iraq," he said.
A staunch supporter of pan-Arabism and its strong anti-Americanism, Al-Fekri said he thought at the time the US-led invasion was probably the only available means to topple Saddam's regime. "Saddam's brutal rule wiped Iraq clean of any political opposition," he said. "It wasn't conceivable for anybody to think of a realistic scheme to overthrow the regime by Iraqis alone," he said.
He said opposition groups outside Iraq were weak, highly fragmented and deprived of any grassroots bases inside the country. "Even the 13-year economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations didn't trigger any public mobilisation because the Iraqis were extremely tired," he said. "The Americans were coming anyway, so we thought if they were overthrowing Saddam, so be it," said Al-Fekri.
Thousands of Iraqis who fled to Egypt in recent years express similar disappointment with the consequences of the war that they say has made a misery of their lives.
"Before Saddam there were only tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees abroad, now there are four million. That tells a lot about the difference the war has made," said Saad Hamdan, an Iraqi refugee who now lives in Cairo's 6th of October City district.
Even prominent Iraqis who had supported the war publicly later had second thoughts. Kanan Makiya, the leading Iraqi advocate of the war, now blames the Bush administration for inadequately planning for the post- Saddam government and quashing the democratic hopes of Iraqis.
Makiya, who wrote in the New Republic in the spring of 2003 that the bomb-bursts in Baghdad rang like "church bells" in his ecstatic ears, now attribute Iraqi misery to "the Iraqis picked by the Americans ahead of the 2003 war to sit on the Iraqi Governing Council, many of them exiles who tried to create popular bases for themselves by emphasising sectarian and ethnic differences". "Sectarianism began there," he declared recently.
In their way of thinking these Iraqis were maybe right. They knew that the overthrow of Saddam would be at a cost, but they hoped that the occupation would end soon and they would be able to rebuild their devastated country anew. The risk was that if they had opposed the war they would appear to be allowing Saddam to remain in power forever.
But it didn't take long for these Iraqis to realise that they were cheated and that the war was not launched to help them get rid of Saddam, but rather probably to achieve US political and strategic goals. Soon they saw their country blown to shards that no longer could be sugar coated by the false rhetoric of building a new and democratic Iraq.
Some analysts agree that it was a wrong bet and attribute the failure of the Iraqi venture to mistakes and wrong calculations by the American "would-be liberators".
"The American planning for nation-building in Iraq has been utterly irresponsible and profoundly unprofessional," said Mohamed Al-Sayed Said of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He says that the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US-led transitional government of Iraq headed by Paul Bremer, completely and irrationally ignored traditional pre- requisites of maintaining integrity and function in an occupied country.
Said mentions the dismantling of the Iraqi army as one key mistake the Americans committed and which later proved to be disastrous.
"I couldn't understand how the Americans failed to comprehend the simple fact that in Third World countries in general, and in the Arab region in particular, the army is the single most crucial unifying institution that melts all kinds of sectarian, religious and ethnic backgrounds," said Said.
As Iraqis marked the fifth anniversary of the US invasion this month, many lamented their acquiescence to the false promises of their would-be liberators. "We were not only cheated, but we were also used," said Al-Fekri.