This month sees the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, with its promise to end the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and bring about democracy in the country. Today most Iraqis still suffer and there is no democracy in sight. Instead, the war unleashed brutal cycles of violence and changed life for millions, including Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. He trained as an architect in Baghdad (his pencil and watercolour sketches illustrate the book), but as the bombing began destroying his home city, curiosity and an ability to speak English found him working for the foreign journalists who had come to cover the conflict. He would become an award-winning reporter and in Stranger in Your Own City he reflects on his encounters with others whose lives were also transformed.
Life before the invasion had been challenging for many. Years of conflict and sanctions led to a humanitarian crisis, with people denied access to basic goods and services. This made Iraqis initially supportive of the invasion and its promise to bring about change. But as Abdul-Ahad writes, emotions quickly went from “euphoria to frustration to fury”.
While many books have been written on the Iraq war and its legacies, this one matters because it shatters some of the assumptions held in western capitals about the country. Many foreign correspondents who wrote about Iraq at the time argued, for example, that the country was historically deeply sectarian, with divisions springing from a history of Shia-Sunni hatred. Removing Saddam simply unleashed ancient societal hatreds, they said. What A Stranger in Your Own City reminds us is that sectarianism was imposed on many Iraqis post-invasion by new rulers who came back to the country after decades in exile. They needed a political system based on sectarianism because it helped them build constituencies in a place where they had become strangers.
Before the war, religions and sects coexisted peacefully in neighbourhoods. But in the new Iraq, as the book’s title suggests, many locals began to feel like strangers on their own streets. Abdul-Ahad recalls learning, for the first time, whether his childhood friends were Sunni or Shia. The new sectarianism also rebuilt the physical map, as Iraq’s new leaders set up checkpoints, closed routes, and segregated areas – disorienting many as they drove around Baghdad: “the usual gatherings… in gardens and on street corners had become toxic, and a source of friction, with arguments like ‘Shia are collaborating with the Americans… Sunnis are killing innocent Shia.’”
The occupation also militarised ordinary lives. It turned a “quiet former school clerk” into the commander of a militia unit. Or a doctor into a jihadist fighter. Guns were everywhere and people had to protect themselves.
As the book documents, men with arms became the statesmen of the new Iraq. In June 2014, on its way to capturing one-third of the country, Isis took over Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and announced the establishment of an Islamic state. In the same month in Baghdad, Abdul-Ahad writes that Shia paramilitary Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis declared: “I am the state now.” Militias turned into government entities.
But the people of war were not only the men with guns. Iraq’s new political system post-invasion was underpinned by corruption. Unlike the Saddam years, this corruption was decentralised, as the new parties competed for access to wealthy state coffers. Bureaucrats became powerful state brokers. In the book we meet a “big-bellied officer” in the directorate of nationality and passports who was no longer a mundane civil servant. He was now responsible for who does and who does not get a passport – decisions often based on bribes. “I only take $500,” he boasts. Another profiteer saw a business opportunity in human smuggling. Paying him tens of thousands could help ensure safe passage to Europe. He makes a pitch to Abdul-Ahad, who poses as a potential customer: “Would you prefer a guaranteed way to get a Swedish passport inside two years?”
But at the top of the chain sat Iraq’s new political leaders who became billionaires. They diverted massive annual budgets to their private accounts. The author notes that his homeland became “a wealthy, oil-exporting country, whose citizens live in poverty without employment, an adequate healthcare system, electricity or drinking water”. Fury led to nostalgia for the days of Saddam.
Some refused to play by the new rules. We meet a high-school English teacher who reminded his students that Iraq was not a sectarian country, even as their militia-appointed headmaster preached the opposite. The tall and lanky schoolmaster with a cheerful face was menaced for doing so. Gunmen waited for him outside the school and shot him three times, giving him a permanent limp. He knew that many of his failed students had joined the militias. Their role was to uphold the new Iraq against any dissenters, including their teachers.
We also meet a senior intelligence officer who could not stand to see how his commander-in-chief, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, was personalising power around a small inner circle. His act of rebellion was to share secrets with journalists, including Abdul-Ahad. He said: “We compile reports on their activities, the generals … but we don’t know what to do with all these reports, because we don’t trust the government.”
Perhaps the biggest mass dissent came in October 2019, when thousands of young Iraqis occupied public squares in Baghdad and the south. These movements, known as Tishreen, demanded an end to the post-2003 political system. A woman too young to remember anything before the invasion says: “I felt like a revolution was erupting inside me and I thought I must have a voice.” This isn’t just a book about war. The epilogue shows it’s also about the generation who saw the folly in the invasion’s design and rose up. Abdul-Ahad writes: “Tishreen showed the power of the people when not cowed by sectarian fears and indicates that the post-2003 state can no longer satisfy its own people.”
The protests shook the system. But it quickly rebounded. Iraq’s many armed groups – which had now become the state – killed hundreds and injured tens of thousands more. Abdul-Ahad reflects on the dozen or so “Shrines of the Martyrs, where pictures of the dead, mostly young men in their late teens or early 20s, were placed on the ground, surrounded by plastic flowers, copies of the Qur’an and incense sticks”. The country is a dangerous place for those who demand democracy – a far cry from the promise given 20 years ago. But, the author concludes, this new generation is not going anywhere any time soon. Iraq has one of the highest population growth rates in the region. At some point, he argues, change is inevitable.
Dr Renad Mansour is a senior research fellow at Chatham House and co-author of Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC Books)
A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is published by Cornerstone (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply