sdf civilians syria
© REUTERS/Rodi Said
A large influx of civilians released from Baghouz through a corridor opened by
SDF February 20, 2019.
In 2003, when the US declared its occupation of Iraq, journalists used to reach the country embedded with the occupation forces through their air transport or via Kuwait. I did not have this luxury. I took a taxi from Beirut to Damascus and from the Syrian capital to Baghdad. It was a long drive, and I had no information on how to travel alone in a new country I had never visited before, but that in itself was not a new experience for me.

It was my first time in Iraq but I never imagined I was about to spend the next nine years in the country. I reached the al-Tanf border crossing, and waved goodbye to the final Syrian checkpoint behind me. Al-Tanf became my favourite destination for years to come until, years later, Baghdad (and Mosul) airport started civilian flights from and to Iraq. I was oblivious to the fact that this desert signpost, over 100 km from the nearest gasoline station, would someday become known worldwide due to US occupation of this crossing in 2017.

The borders on the Iraqi side were empty: unusually, no visa was required nor was anyone present to ask for it. No border guards were there on the Iraqi side. The first few kilometres in Iraq were punctuated by craters a couple of meters deep caused by the US bombing; this made driving quite acrobatic but possible for skillful drivers. The high fares taxi drivers asked for the ride seemed quite understandable.

Life in Baghdad in 2003 was not very difficult for a war zone journalist with experience in besieged cities like Beirut in 1982 or Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, under tight siege in 1993-1994 (it became less difficult in following years). Seasonal vegetables and fruits were not lacking, although nothing was exported except for bananas. Talking to people was easy but communication systems and internet contact with the outside world were absent and only possible via Thuraya satellite phone or similar means. The language was a barrier at first, but with time I learned to understand and then speak the local Arabic dialect, which is different from the Levantine dialect familiar to me from the many years I spent covering other wars.

baghdad us troops
© PETER NICHOLLS-THE TIMES-09/04/03
A Baghdad man greets an occupying US Marine in East Baghdad as they arrived to liberate the city from Saddam and his regime.
At the beginning of the occupation, US soldiers patrolled the streets of Baghdad on foot. I used to jog around the city - it was my usual way to discover a new place - and meet US soldiers relaxed, smiling, with no finger on the trigger and befriending people and children in the street. Everything looked calm until the first signs of an insurgency became apparent. The first inhabitants identified as "trouble makers" were in al-A'zamiyeh (Baghdad), in Fallujah and Ramadi. Every single Iraqi I spoke to rejected sectarianism: the Iraqi society was mixed and no attention was given to the rhetoric of struggle between Shia and Sunni, repeatedly evoked by the west.

I was curious to understand the motivations behind this development since almost everybody in Iraq I spoke to talked about the torture conducted by Saddam's Mukhabarat (intelligence service) and the indiscriminate jailing of random people without any charges. Of course, it is sometimes the Iraqi way to exaggerate stories and claim access to first-hand information or eye-witness knowledge of events that sometimes is nothing more than story telling. Nevertheless, the brutality of Saddam's rule is undeniable.

I talked to Abu Leith, an ex-Iraqi officer who lived at the outskirts of Fallujah until 2004. It was just after the de-baathification decree of Paul Bremer - the skiing instructor who became viceroy of Iraq. This decree made hundreds of thousands of army servicemen jobless without rights, benefits or retirement. It is true that the Iraqi army was on the run due to the US invasion, but it could have been reunited in no time and their commanders could have been scrutinised to separate known criminals from soldiers following orders.
bremer

Bremer signs over limited sovereignty to Iraq’s interim government
Army members went home, waiting for the future government to take over. There were nasty Baathists in Iraq but many others who joined the party to secure a job or in order to prove faithfulness to the ruling system. The majority understood little of the ideology of the Baath party and its goals.

The removal of Saddam Hussein was a blessing to most Iraqis. Nevertheless, the US occupation forces were not saviours but the biggest contributors to the destruction of Iraq and the rise and recruitment of terrorist groups for generations to come. The Zarqawi Ansar al-Islam group was active in Kurdistan before 2003 and then spread all over Iraqi territory (and later expanded to metamorphose into the "Islamic State in Iraq" (ISI) and then in Iraq and Syria, ISIS) due to the US occupation and mismanagement by the provisional leadership set up by the US establishment in Iraq and in Washington. Indeed, thousands of ex-military personnel kicked out by Bremer found their way into "al-Qaeda in Iraq" and its leadership.

There are hundreds of stories like the one Abu Leith told me, a story I was able to independently verify:
I walked every single day in front of the house of my neighbour whose daughter was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her parents' house was on the outskirts and, to me, she was the only flower in that part of the desert. She had the most beautiful smile on her face; I told my parents I wanted to marry her. My father gave me a small piece of land to build a few rooms and that was our palace and my source of joy and happiness.
iraqi child
My life changed with the US embargo (in the 1990s): our first child died a few months after his birth for lack of nutrition. We didn't really know the reason for his death. Children around us were falling like flies in many homes. My young wife went into total nervous breakdown and collapsed after the death of our second child. The flower was fading away and every day, she spent hours talking to our children, kneeling on their grave. Tears were starting to mark her face until one day she didn't come back home. I went looking for her until I found her, for the first time since the death of our children, with a smile on her face. She joined them and was on her knees where she wanted to be (she died in 2003).

We were very poor because Bremer stopped my salary and my only work was pushing an arabana, a primitive small wooden carriage on wheels transporting elderly people or heavy luggage for a short distance from one point to another. I lost my children and my wife and now my job. I had a lot of anger in me until the day when one of the people I knew in the neighbourhood whispered in my ear: Do you want to avenge your family? How, I answered! Come and join us, he said. We are Iraqi and we are aiming to push away the invaders. The US is the cause of our miseries and the death of our children. I myself lost a child during the US embargo. It is a gift from God who gave us his blessing by bringing to us those who caused our sufferings and bitterness, here in Iraq, rather than making us go to America for revenge. It all made sense to me and I decided to join in.
This is one of many stories Iraqis can tell about what they have been through since the US embargo in the 90s, a decade before the invasion. Sanctions against states always hit first and most of all the general population and never those in the leadership who always find ways to eat, get medical care and support their loved ones.

In fact, even before the invasion in 2003, the US laid fertile ground for the insurgency and for groups like "al-Qaeda in Iraq" (AQI) to gather strength and supporters among the people who were most affected and fragile.

For Mesopotamia, the suffering of the general population began with the US-imposed "humanitarian" embargo on Iraq, causing mass starvation and the death of hundreds of thousands of children. To the US, as Secretary of State Albright said, it was "worth it" because those who died from lack of medicine and malnutrition were Iraqi not American children. The choice to dispose of the life of hundreds of thousands of human beings was never a real issue to the leaders of the "free world". US democracy and human rights ideology are certainly not meant to apply to the Middle East and Middle Eastern people.

The US occupation of Iraq in 2003 was a turning point in the history of the Middle East. The US intervention under the deceitful pretext that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) or was somehow linked to al-Qaeda was a way for the US establishment to have its war, intervene in the Middle East and wreak havoc not only among Iraq's population but also in the rest of the Middle East and Europe. The consequences continue to afflict tens of thousands of families in Iraq and Syria but have also hit hard in Paris and Brussels, to name just two European cities.

To be fair, the US establishment had few clear objectives at the start. More goals were added in accordance with opportunities and developments in the Iraqi theatre. US goals were never directed towards the welfare of the Middle East and the nearby European continent.

It is essential to always return to the beginnings of US sponsorship of takfiri terrorism: to the Russia-Afghan war where the US establishment - with the aim of draining Soviet resources and demonstrating the bankruptcy of the USSR - financed a Vietnam War style quagmire for Russia. The result was full support to the Mujahedeen, in particular Usama Bin laden, throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates: all resources of the US and its allies were put at Bin Laden's disposal to force a Russian withdrawal. The "warrior of Freedom" (Bin Laden) would only later became US public enemy number one.

Bin Laden established military and guerrilla training camps which produced the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian thug turned active radical extremist. Zarqawi overcame his inspirer Bin Laden and his teacher and mentor (Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi), espousing even more violent terrorism. Although terrorism is terrorism, Zarqawi's killing was more indiscriminate and went beyond al-Qaeda's guidance to limit attacks against US forces and not to target instead Shia and other minorities.

The US was the main contributor in offering fertile ground to al-Qaeda in Iraq on multiple levels:
  • It is the US who planned to occupy seven countries in five years, beginning with the invasion of Iraq, according to US general Wesley Clark
  • It is the US who threatened to invade Syria next during US Secretary of State Collin Powell's visit to Damascus in March 2003, paving the road to support for the insurgency in Iraq by Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia (for different reasons) against the US occupation forces.
  • It is the US which refused to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when the opportunity presented itself and rather boosted his image to justify the war on Iraq, its presence, its military apparatus and the need to use disproportionate fire power.
  • The US was responsible for the disgraceful and humiliating methods of torture used at Abu Ghreib.
  • It is the US who created the "Jihadist University" at Camp Buca, gathering criminals, innocent suspects and guru jihadists (including ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), only to release them later more organised and determined than ever.
  • It is the US who caused the massacre of Fallujah and used uranium depleted bombs in Iraq.
  • It is the US who watched ISIS grow and, according to the head of the Direction of Intelligence Agency (DIA) the US General Mike Flynn, knew it was expanding to Syria in 2011 at a time when the US and its allies were fomenting local unrest.
  • It is the US who watched ISIS occupy much of Iraq, including Mosul, in June 2014, with no response until mid- September, in the hope the country would be divided into three countries: Sunnistan, Shiistan and Kurdistan.
The plan to divide Iraq is not "off the table," as the US establishment likes to say. ISIS is defeated in the sense that the group no longer controls territory. But the US has transported thousands of ISIS fighters from Raqqa and Deir-ezzour to safe havens in other locations, close to its operational platform.
us troops
Syria is determined to see the US out of the country at any coast. An insurgency in opposition to US occupation will inevitably arise, unless US forces are prepared to barricade themselves in a confined perimeter base isolated from the rest of Hasaka province. In Iraq, US forces are even more vulnerable. If the Iraqis dare to ask the US to withdraw from Mesopotamia, ISIS can still serve a purpose and Saudi Arabian money is ready to be invested. After all, Trump can ask anything from Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman because only Trump maintains him in power, especially since the Khashoggi affair. All Saudi resources are and will be at Trump's service now to finance anything he wants to do either in Iraq or in Venezuela.

One and a half million Iraqis have been killed by US leaders and their fantasies about world domination. Invading, attacking, killing, selling arms to the Middle East, all these decisions are made on paper without any concern for the destruction and trauma caused and the accumulating misery foreign intervention is causing to third world countries. With cruel irony the slogan of "democracy" is used to justify these acts (Venezuela is another example). Some US leaders even express pedestrian regret after having caused the death of hundreds of thousands of innocents, as though a clear conscience were possible for those who brought catastrophe to entire populations. After killing and wounding over hundreds of SAA soldiers fighting against ISIS in the Tharda mountains in Deir Ezzour, John Kerry issued a banal apology and promised to compensate the families of those killed, he claimed, by mistake.

US president after president has made promises of peace during electoral campaigns and played with words of peace like "Assalamou Alaikoum" to confuse the minds of naïve Middle Easterners with susceptible hearts but narrow vision who easily forget what the US is doing in the rest of the world and in their region in particular.

Once the US takes over, all taboos on violence against civilians disappear. Drones can be used to kill members of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan along with 1,700 civilians, who are not even described as victims but as "collateral damage". US servicemen are shooting at us and at everybody in the region because these 1,700 civilians (and the million and a half killed in Iraq) have family members, many of whom become violent extremists seeking revenge, a boomerang effect just waiting to find the right recruiter. And their revenge is slow and sweet when it is cold, as we saw in Paris and Brussels. Even we Europeans became afraid for our families when ISIS started to hit European targets. Welcome to the daily reality and feelings of every single family in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as these countries have been subjected to the US war for dominance and control.

The US does not seem to mind as long as the consequences of US policies are confined to the Middle East and Europe. Does anyone still wonder how to answer George Bush's question: why do they hate us?
About the Author

Veteran War Zone Correspondent and Senior Political Risk Analyst with over 35 years' experience covering the Middle East and acquiring in-depth experience, robust contacts and political knowledge in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan and Syria. Specialised in terrorism and counter-terrorism, intelligence, political assessments, strategic planning and thorough insight in political networks in the region. Covered on the ground the Israeli invasion to Lebanon (1st war 1982), the Iraq-Iran war, the Lebanese civil war, the Gulf war (1991), the war in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1996), the US invasion to Iraq (2003 to date), the second war in Lebanon (2006), the war in Libya and Syria (2011 to date). Lived for many years in Lebanon, Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria.