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Something Iraq Will Never Lose

by Felicity Arbuthno - 5 May 2005

It's been two years since the illegal invasion, the destruction of humanity's history, the subsequent slaughters, and the attempt to dehumanize Iraqis, the people of Mesopotamia who brought the world all that we call civilized. A people whose deaths, in the words of the inimitable Major General Mark Kimmitt, are not productive to count. When asked about media coverage of US carnage in the cradle of civilization, General Kimmitt's response was "change the channel."

For those of us unable to "change the channel," the horrors of Iraq's suffering under embargo and occupation and the literal and cultural rape of a nation from Mosul to Basra in the name of the lie of "liberation" will forever haunt. "History will judge," said Britain's Prime Minister Blair, President Bush's bag carrier in his "crusade." History will indeed judge. The words of Denis Halliday—the former UN Assistant Secretary General and UN Coordinator in Iraq who resigned in disgust at the "genocide" of the embargo—come to mind: "History will slaughter those responsible," he said of the sanctions. Such a "slaughter" equally, eloquently, applies to America's temporary coup, which is the abduction of a sovereign government whose status was guaranteed by the UN, in the "land between two rivers."

It is two years since Iraq's Year Zero.

The lies, misleading, and ignorance in high places which led to this historic cultural and human holocaust are outside the scope of an article, but many books will bear witness at the grave where truth lies. As Alexander and Patrick Cockburn point out in their revealing book, "Saddam Hussein, an American Obsession," in 1991, not a single US official involved in policy making or consultation over Iraq had ever set foot in the country. Exactly the same applied in 2003. Neither Britain nor the United States had had an embassy in Iraq since August 1990; rather, they relied on duplicitous defectors, all with their own agendas, and middle aged Iraqis who had left the country as children.

Little has changed. British and American policy makers squat in Iraq's great state buildings—an illegal takeover under the Geneva Convention. They are helicoptered in and out, and they have no clue as to what conditions Iraqis live in, or how they think. Ignorance is so total that it was only little over a month ago that a policy was broadly adopted to employ Iraqi interpreters, rather than American-born Arabs, since "Iraqis recognize dialects from the region and can tell if someone is of a different nationality or region in Iraq." This astonishing bit of finally-acquired knowledge is presumably accompanied by another total ignorance: The assumption that if someone comes from somewhere else, he is automatically a "terrorist."

The tragic folly of Iraq, though, is a litany of ignorance of a "far away place" of which Washington knows nothing. Days before the invasion, newspapers were awash with Ahmed Chalabi's assurances that the "crusaders" would be greeted with flowers and sweets. These certainties from a man who should be serving a lengthy jail term in Jordan for embezzlement would be taken by inhabitants of planet earth with a hefty pinch of salt; not apparently in Washington or Whitehall.

The thought that perhaps the representatives of the governments responsible for thirteen years of grinding sanctions, misery and humiliation might not receive a hero's welcome appears to have escaped policy makers.

On the day of the invasion, a respected politician with a deep love for and knowledge of the Middle East telephoned me, appalled. "Are you aware," he asked, "that the British tanks and vehicles have entered Iraq flying the St George's flag—the Crusaders flag?" I drew breath in double horror; the invasion had begun and it WAS a crusade. I thought of the Iraqi refrain over the thirteen years of sanctions that I heard again and again in Iraq: "Nothing so terrible has happened to us since the Crusades..."

The British, as we are told endlessly, are more subtle than the Americans; they gained "experience in Belfast"—the running sore on Britain caused by Winston Churchill's division of Ireland. The line on the granite was drawn almost at the same time that Britain's Sir Percy Cox drew "the line in the sand" in southern Iraq, changing the region's geography before further colonial meddling. What this "experience in Belfast," approaching four decades of grief and mayhem, has to do with Basra—a cultural world away—is perhaps just unfolding.

I wonder if the British and American soldiers in Basra—torturers and non torturers alike—are aware of that battered, beautiful city's suffering. "If there was a war between France and Germany, Basra would be bombed" is a wry saying in Basra.

Until it was looted at the time of the invasion, there was a museum in Basra, commemorating the dead of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. On the walls, you were hundreds upon hundreds of identity cards with names, photos, addresses, and ages—the lost loves, lives, and dreams of another Western-fuelled conflict. A ten-year-old civil defense volunteer (almost all the men had been sent to fight), killed trying to rescue the injured. A young doctor with great, warm eyes, looks out from a fading photograph, with his bloodied shirt laid in the glass case below.

Have any of the modern-day barbarians who have destroyed Iraq's wonders— Babylon, Kufa, Najav, Karbala, Samarra and the 1,155-year-old golden Malwiya minaret that survived the Mongols, but not this illegal onslaught—pondered at all? Did they gaze, even momentarily, in awed wonder, at the great ziggurat of Ur, believed to be Abraham's birth place, before spraying it with graffiti? Before erecting a base over unexcavated archeological sites which were incalculably ancient before Christ and the Prophet Mohammed, peace and blessings be upon them, walked in this region?

Did they examine in wonder the hundred mosques, their great golden and turquoise domes glinting in the sun, before they went on their rampage in Fallujah with equal disregard for humanity and history? Does the great mosque in Mosul, where the Prophet Jonah is believed to be buried, still stand unsullied? Does the monastery where Saint Matthew is believed to lie still stand on the mountaintop?

We are told many soldiers pray before operations. As they read their bibles, did any of them reflect on the verse from the Book of Revelations that describes Babylon before it was laid to waste for a second time: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down ... We hanged out harps upon the willows in the midst thereof..."?

The answer to the above is almost certainly that these world's wonders, as the manuscripts, the museums, were wasted on the world's most powerful army and its unwilling "coalition." Recently, a colleague who has lived for many years in the Middle East spent an "embedded" period with the US Army in Iraq. On a Friday morning, the unit he was with decided to raid a home on a tip off regarding an "insurgent." As they set off, the call to prayer rang across the area. The senior officer remarked he hated the sound which brings peace to the heart of believers and non- believers who travel the Middle East. Determined not to be drawn, my friend said mildly "Well, remember, it is the Sabbath." "What do you mean it is the Sabbath," was the reply, "it's Friday." "How long have you been her?" "Two years," said the officer. Oh, and the home which was virtually destroyed? "Wrong house, wrong information."

On April 9th, 2003, I went to see a friend, a former Professor at the University of Mosul. Usually a cool, clear-headed thinker, always on the move, she was sitting frantically flipping through the television channels, watching the destruction of her land. Suddenly Mosul was shown, the looting of the museum, the university, the carnage, the chaos. "No, oh no, my town, my home, my university..." She was inconsolable in her helplessness and grief. As the American flag was draped over the face of Saddam Hussein's statue before it was torn down, she was physically sick—not because she was pro the regime, but because it represented the beginning of the destruction by Iraq's very sovereignty by invaders, the stripping of modern and ancient history, and the lack of any cultural sensitivity or understanding.

I thought of standing on my hotel balcony a short time before, shooting roll after roll of film as the reflection of Baghdad's azure and peach dawn shimmered in the Tigris, knowing I would never see Baghdad like this again - then being consoled in the lobby by the proprietor as the tears ran down my face on the eve of war. "Don't worry, Madam Felicity, don't be upset, we will be alright, we will be alright..."

In Amman, Sattar, the engineer-turned-driver during the embargo years, looked at me, for once speechless. We knew, and there were no words. In the years coming into Iraq from Amman, we would slap palms together when we hit the signs which read Fallujah, Damascus, and "Baghdad Central," after 1,200 grinding kilometers. So far, Damascus still stands.

But for all the horrors, illegality, and destruction, and the shame on the invaders, shared collectively by so many, there is something Iraq will never lose, as expressed hauntingly by Paul William Rogers, who writes that in Baghdad, he sees -

"The old people with resignation stamped across their foreheads, who can't go on yet will go on; the young married couples who still hope for a better life yet don't hope too hard lest it break their hearts, the countless unremembered acts of kindness and of love that fill desolate days, and I realize I would far prefer to be here than in any house where this war is justified. For it cannot be justified.

But this region has always led to somewhere worth going. Baghdad is just as glorious in its ruin as it was in its glory, for something noble crawls from the rubble to spread golden wings in the light of dawn. The Gate of God opens wider."

Felicity Arbuthno is a journalist and activist who has visited Iraq on numerous occasions since the 1991Gulf War. She has written and broadcast widely on Iraq, her coverage of which was nominated for several awards. She was also Senior Researcher for John Pilger’s award-winning documentary Paying the Price – Killing the Children of Iraq.

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revised 18 November 2005