Iraq’s Twenty Years of Carnage



Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

A sketch of a street in Iraq by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad from A Stranger in Your Own City

In July 2017, days after the Iraqi army crushed the last ISIS holdouts in the northern city of Mosul and effectively ended the Islamist extremists’ three-year occupation of large parts of the country, I drove south from Fallujah along the Euphrates River to observe the fallout from the conflict. ISIS had controlled territory as far south as Jurf al-Sakhar, a town surrounded by date palm groves around sixty miles south of Fallujah that I passed on the way. The Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), a coalition of Shia militias, some of them financed and armed by Iran, had expelled ISIS fighters from Jurf al-Sakhar in October 2014 after a two-day battle, and later from all of Babil Governorate, but their success had come at a heavy cost: portraits of hundreds of Hashd al-Shaabi “martyrs” adorned a large mural outside police headquarters in Hillah, the capital of Babil. “It was a faster victory than we had expected,” the governorate’s police chief told me. He was deeply suspicious of the area’s Sunnis, who he claimed had allowed ISIS militants to hide among them.

Since then the Hashd al-Shaabi have become the most powerful military force in Iraq. Along the Euphrates, groups of their fighters have carved out an autonomous enclave, which includes Jurf al-Sakhar. They have kept the area off limits to government officials and the Iraqi army and chased away much of the Sunni minority. Lately, though, as the effects of the Israel–Hamas war radiate throughout the Middle East, the Hashd al-Shaabi have focused their attention on a different enemy: the United States. Since October 2023, militant Shia groups with close ties to Iran, responding to American support for Israel, have fired about 160 rockets and missiles at military installations in Iraq and Syria used by US troops to pursue a handful of remaining ISIS insurgents encamped in the desert. In November the US bombed two positions in Jurf al-Sakhar, killing eight members of Kataib Hezbollah, a part of the Hashd al-Shaabi coalition backed by the Quds Force, a branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that equips and trains Shia militias across the Middle East. One source told The New York Times last December that the enclave had become a “forward operating base for Iran.”

Then, in late January, the ongoing skirmishes between the US and Iran-backed militias took a dangerous turn. A Shia group believed to be Kataib Hezbollah launched an armed drone at a remote US outpost known as Tower 22 in Jordan, near the Syrian border, killing three American soldiers and injuring more than thirty. Reuters reported in February that Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Quds Force, rushed to Baghdad in late January, met representatives of several armed Shia groups, and urged them to refrain from further attacks, and Kataib Hezbollah announced a suspension of its operations. Around midnight on February 3, however, the Biden administration sent B1 bombers to destroy eighty-five targets in Syria and Iraq, including drone bases, weapons storage facilities, and other Hashd al-Shaabi and Quds Force military infrastructure. The attacks left dozens dead. As Iran considers how to respond to the US raid, a wider Middle East conflict, with Iraq at the center of it, remains a possibility.

The story of Iraq’s disintegration has been told repeatedly over the past two decades, from the late Washington Post and New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War (2005) to James Verini’s They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate (2019), an eyewitness account of ISIS’s last stand in the country. In A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War, an extraordinary account of the sectarian animosities, waves of violence, and foreign meddling that have convulsed his homeland since the US invasion in 2003, the Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad goes further than anyone else in documenting its bloody history. For twenty years, as a reporter for The Guardian and as a photographer, he has moved back and forth across Iraq’s sectarian divide, earning the trust of Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadists, interviewing fighters from one of the Shia militias, the Mahdi Army, locked in a civil war with the Sunnis, and living with Iraqi special forces as they battled ISIS suicide bombers and meted out summary executions in Mosul.

Abdul-Ahad was one of the first reporters to cover Hashd al-Shaabi, which rose to prominence months after ISIS fighters invaded Iraq from Syria in late 2013. Following the collapse of the 250,000-man Iraqi army, ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second- largest city, and advanced almost to Baghdad. Abdul-Ahad describes a meeting at Kataib Hezbollah’s compound in July 2014, where he encountered a disciplined and enthusiastic corps of fighters commanded by “a turbaned cleric in a flowing black robe” whose office was adorned with a portrait of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and who saw himself as a holy warrior engaged in a religious conflict unfolding across the Middle East. The cleric, Abdul-Ahad observed, was the apotheosis of a new reality in Iraq set in motion by the US invasion:

A decade after the collapse of the [Iraqi] state, and the continuing civil wars, the “sect” was no longer simply a set of religious beliefs and cultural practices, it came to substitute for the national identity. The sect was their country, and serving it was a patriotic duty for those men. A new sectarian nationalism had emerged.

Born in 1975 to a middle-class family in Baghdad, Abdul-Ahad grew up under the repressive and stultifying rule of Saddam Hussein, who squandered the country’s oil wealth in an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s that left hundreds of thousands of soldiers dead on both sides. “On TV…they showed footage of trenches piled with the mangled and burned corpses,” he writes about his earliest memories. “We were told that these were the bodies of Iranian soldiers; mowed down, electrocuted or gassed.” After each battle

we watched the Leader…on TV, gathering his generals in the gilded hall of one of his many opulent palaces. He took the “Medals of Courage”…. As he pinned them to the generals’ chests, you could see them suck in the well-fed bellies that bulged through crisp military uniforms.

A succession of disasters followed: Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the Iraqi army’s defeat by US-led forces, the imposition of crippling sanctions, and the country’s economic collapse.

Abdul-Ahad was living in a dreary one-room apartment in Baghdad, struggling to survive as an architect on a few dollars a month, when the US launched its “shock and awe” bombing campaign on March 17, 2003. Days later he watched a contingent of US marines roll into Firdos Square and, with a handful of Iraqi civilians, tear down the statue of Saddam Hussein. While welcoming the downfall of a dictator he despised, he was apprehensive about what would come next. Self-taught in English, mostly from watching the BBC, he began working as a translator for one of the many Western reporters who had flocked to Iraq to witness the country’s “liberation.” (I was one of them.) Soon he began selling his photographs to news agencies and then reporting for The Guardian as the US occupation devolved into chaos and the country began to split along religious lines. Large numbers of Shia exiles were returning, driven by a sense of madhloumiya—historical injustice—and determined to grab power from the Sunnis, who despite being a minority had dominated Iraq under Saddam’s rule and who turned increasingly to armed resistance to preserve their privileges. “A belligerent ‘Sunni’ identity emerged, based on opposition and resistance to the new order,” Abdul-Ahad writes. “Tragically, their reaction to the Shia communal politics only bred further sectarianism.”

Abdul-Ahad went to places that almost no Western reporters dared to go, including Fallujah, the insurgent stronghold in the so-called Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad. There he came to know both local Sunni fighters motivated by humiliation and anger over the US occupation and Islamist jihadists under the command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In a back alley of the city he met a young Saudi fighter from al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, a precursor to al-Qaeda in Iraq, who sought guidance from both the Quran and a thick volume entitled The Management of Savagery, which laid out what would become al-Zarqawi’s strategy: the use of extreme violence, including suicide bombings and the “liquidation” of hostages in a “terrifying manner,” to tear apart Iraqi civil society and establish a caliphate.

Abdul-Ahad also struck up an acquaintanceship with a senior rebel commander named Hameed, a former military officer in Saddam’s army who had once served with distinction in the General Security Apparatus in Basra. Hameed didn’t support the slaughter of Shia civilians being carried out by al-Zarqawi and his Islamists, but like many former Ba’athists and Iraqi soldiers, he had joined forces with them in a marriage of convenience.

A series of US blunders—including the overnight disbanding of Iraq’s army by George W. Bush’s viceroy, Paul Bremer—fueled the insurgency. But Abdul-Ahad contends that a functioning civil society could never have emerged through the violent removal of the dictator and the imposition of a puppet government dominated by aggrieved Shia returnees and controlled by the American occupiers. “A nation can’t be bombed, humiliated and sanctioned, then bombed again, and then told to become a democracy,” he writes. “No amount of planning could have turned an illegal occupation into a liberation.” As US troops were dragged deeper into the guerrilla war, Iraq was transformed into a hellscape in which civilians became the main victims. “There were many ways to die in Baghdad,” Abdul-Ahad writes of the bloody first few years after the US invasion:

killed by car bombs, taken out by militias working in tandem with security forces to target Sunnis; targeted by Sunni insurgents killing Shia and those deemed to be US collaborators. Translators and contractors and government employees were under fire. Journalists and even cleaning women working for the Americans were kidnapped. American retaliation meant the fairly indiscriminate killing of civilians; civilians also died at the hands of militias and insurgents when they found themselves in the midst of the fighting—always the collateral damage of war.

The devil’s bargain that the Sunnis made with the Islamists backfired when, in February 2006, al-Qaeda blew up the al-Askari Shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. Shia militants responded by murdering imams in Baghdad and then kidnapping and killing hundreds of Sunni civilians. Sunnis retaliated, and as al-Zarqawi (who was killed in an American drone strike in June 2006) had hoped, the country fell into civil war. After the Samarra bombing, most Western news organizations retreated to the Green Zone, the fortified government compound along the Tigris River in Baghdad.

While reporters cowered behind blast walls, forced to rely on secondhand information provided by their Iraqi drivers and translators, Abdul-Ahad moved back and forth between Sunni and Shia neighborhoods barricaded from each other by “tree trunks, barrels and concrete blocks,” and later concrete slabs and coiled barbed wire. He visited mortuaries and interviewed both killers and terrified families. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did nothing to stop the violence, and some officials even sought to profit from it. As random street violence gave way to government-implemented jailings and torture, Abdul-Ahad met Rafiq, a well-connected Shia who sold his services to helpless Sunnis desperate to free their loved ones from the regime’s horrific prisons or reduce their abuse while inside:

Rafiq was their savior, their tormentor and the symbol of the new Iraq: confident, brutal and corrupt. When I met him in the last week of December 2011, he was just closing a $5,000 deal with the family of a detainee. He promised them that he would send their son some blankets and food and assured them that the beating and torture would stop. The money was a down payment, the first of many. Further negotiations for a bribe to release him would follow…. The threat of kidnappers, militias and insurgents was replaced by that of “official” arrest, yet the outcome is the same: pay money, keep fingers crossed, get released.

Abdul-Ahad was in Syria during the 2011–2012 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and watched the nascent ISIS take advantage of the power vacuum left behind by Assad’s retreating army. Crossing the border from Turkey into ISIS-controlled territory, he confronted foreign fighters whose robotic hostility was unlike anything he had encountered, even in Fallujah. “I was…trembling with fear,” he writes of a meeting with an ISIS commander, after which he encountered a twelve-year-old militant who stared into his car as he prepared to leave:

I remember his eyes very vividly; they were filled with anger, ferocious anger, and his small fingers were wrapped tight around his Kalashnikov. I thought that the only thing stopping him from shooting us was his unwavering obedience to his commander; should the order come, he wouldn’t hesitate a second.

A Stranger in Your Own City reaches an apocalyptic climax with the Iraqi army’s assault on Mosul, which began on October 16, 2016. The last ISIS militants had hunkered down in the Old City, engaged in a fight to the death. As usual, Abdul-Ahad was in the heart of the battle. He captures both the courage of the Iraqi troops and their descent into take-no-prisoners barbarism. They had become so desensitized by the violence that they allowed Abdul-Ahad to watch them interrogate, torture, and execute suspected ISIS fighters, such as one ragged figure who insisted that he’d been forced to serve as a medic in an ISIS hospital:

“I have nothing to say,” hissed the medic. Blood was pouring from the darkness of his mouth. Taha nodded to the soldier, who dropped the pipe and picked up a short M-4 rifle…. He pulled the man to his feet, his legs wobbling, and leaned him against one of the large arched windows. In one quick move, the burly soldier flipped him out of the window, but kept a grip on his feet…. “Are you going to confess now?” the soldier asked…. “What else is left for you?”… In the dark room, the soldiers and officers looked at the two feet, dirty and cracked, for a few seconds. Then the soldier let go, and they vanished from the window. The medic fell to the yard below with a muffled thud. The soldier leaned out of the window with his rifle and fired five bullets into the body that quivered on the uneven ground.

The damage inflicted on Iraq over the past two decades is almost immeasurable: at least 210,000 people, mostly civilians, killed; the destruction of Mosul; a flood of refugees desperate to escape from the country by any means possible; and millions of traumatized survivors. Even the democracy that was supposed to have emerged from Iraq’s defeat of ISIS proved a mirage: one of the last scenes of this riveting book describes the bloody crackdown by Iraqi security forces against thousands of protesters who had gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in 2019 to demand an end to governmental corruption and incompetence. Taking stock, Abdul-Ahad offers a somber epitaph to the carnage and chaos:

The dead are forgotten, unknown, and their bodies are swallowed by the fertile earth, but the ruins remain: the destroyed refinery that is now a playground of mangled steel chimneys and rusting tankers; the crippled and desolate villages; the municipal buildings and schools with their flattened roofs like concrete wafers—all stand witness to the horrors. The killers—bandits, insurgents, militias, soldiers—would keep traveling, deploying new tactics, implementing new horrors under different names, but they all remain the same people—Iraqis.

In Wounded Tigris: A River Journey Through the Cradle of Civilization, the Irish writer Leon McCarron recounts his travels through much the same territory from which Abdul-Ahad has reported over the years. He embarked on his journey in 2021, four years after the defeat of ISIS, and his book serves as a kind of coda to the chaos and bloodshed that Abdul-Ahad documented. Conversant in Arabic after a monthslong immersion in the language in Erbil, McCarron begins at the river’s source in the Taurus Mountains of Turkey and reaches its mouth near Basra on the Persian Gulf seventy-one days later. Joining him are a British photojournalist, a Swiss filmmaker, and assorted local fixers, hydrologists, and environmental activists.

McCarron was inspired in part by Austen Henry Layard, the amateur archaeologist who excavated the ruins of the Assyrian Empire and who in April 1840 floated down the Tigris from Mosul to Baghdad on a kelek, a raft made from inflated goatskins. But his hopes for a pure river adventure are immediately dashed by twenty-first-century realities, including low water levels and heightened security along the way. So he and his team improvise a trip by minivan, fishing boat, and other vessels. His jaunty, highly informative, and ultimately sobering book abounds in pristine landscapes, war-ravaged towns, and evidence of environmental degradation.

The travelers set off in eastern Anatolia, where Kurdish political activists live in fear of arrest by the autocratic government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and some of Turkey’s archaeological treasures have been inundated by the regime’s hydroelectric projects. They then pass through a sliver of Syria controlled by Kurdish forces, who drove out ISIS in fierce fighting and now maintain a fragile hold on the territory.

But it’s in Iraq where McCarron’s journey becomes most interesting and most fraught. Four years after ISIS was chased out of Mosul, the country remains on high alert for attacks by insurgents camped in the semidesert. Hashd al-Shaabi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga troops, and units of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, an elite nonsectarian force that had an important part in the recapture of Mosul, maintain tight control over the Tigris, often forcing McCarron and his team to find alternate routes. In some stretches, McCarron learns, people spotted on the river would be shot on sight.

Community after community bears the trauma inflicted by the Islamist militia. In Mosul McCarron meets “the owner of a falafel shop [who] lost all his children in an airstrike. A man smoking a cigarette by a blackened wall said it used to be a public hammam where 130 civilians were executed in a day by ISIS.” In Hamam al-Alil, a once-pleasant town of sulfur springs that had been occupied by ISIS for two and a half years, he encounters a man whose entire family fell victim to the extremists: ISIS executed one brother and dumped him in the Tigris; killed his cousin with hundreds of others in a mass execution at an agricultural college; and captured his friend’s father, an unsung hero who had helped hundreds of Iraqi soldiers escape to safety across the river, tore out his eyes, cut off his fingers, and hung his body in the town square.

The prospect of a resurgent ISIS goes hand in hand with other threats. At the Mosul Dam, formerly known as the Saddam Dam, opened by the dictator in 1986 to compete with similar grandiose hydroelectric projects in Syria and Turkey, four hundred billion cubic feet of water are being held back by a wall built on a foundation of porous gypsum that is slowly disintegrating. Engineers have kept the dam from collapsing by “grouting” the foundations—injecting holes with liquid cement—but the solution is not sustainable:

In a worst-case scenario, a tsunami wave eighty-five feet high would crash over the earth-fill embankment, reaching the city of Mosul in an hour and forty minutes. Anyone within a three and a half mile radius of the river would be washed away. Further south, the majority of Iraq’s wheat fields would be flooded as the wave engulfed Shirqat, Tikrit and Samarra, before arriving sixteen-feet high in Baghdad within four days. Between half a million and a million and a half people could die.

McCarron lingers in the marshes of southern Iraq, which epitomize both the glories and the fragility of life along the river. Formed by the merging of the Tigris and the Euphrates east of Nasiriyah, the marshes historically benefited from abundant winter rainfall in the Taurus Mountains that caused floods in the south. The wetlands “absorb[ed] this excess like a sponge, swelling outwards with seasonal growth and then shrinking in the lean summers by draining to the Persian Gulf,” McCarron writes. “The inundations deposited silt from the mountains that fertilized the land, creating a diverse, lush ecosystem in an otherwise arid environment.”

Saddam drained the marshes to root out Shia militants after the 1990–1991 Gulf War, and despite American and Iraqi efforts to refill them after the 2003 invasion, they have never recovered. Dam projects in Turkey have blocked the winter floods from reaching southern Iraq, and droughts likely caused by climate change have further reduced the flow to a trickle. Iraqi governments periodically promise ambitious projects to restore the rivers, but the lack of action has bred a sense of fatalism. “When we asked about the future of the Tigris,” McCarron writes,

and what the solution was, or who could help, one of the most common refrains we heard was “Bas Allah.” Only God. The river today is facing an existential threat, and those who rely on it are looking to the heavens for help, just as their predecessors did for millennia…. But it had also become clear to me that the villain…was the avarice and carelessness of mankind, and if that didn’t change, from source to the sea, then it was certain this river would dry up, until all of Mesopotamia and Iraq became a lifeless desert.

For most Iraqis, buffeted by the carnage and chaos of the last two decades, the prospect of a dead river, even one as vital as the Tigris, can seem a remote concern. During the past few months, the reverberations from the Israel–Hamas war have undermined any sense that the country was gaining political stability. Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, who owes his position largely to the support of the armed Shia groups that have been firing on American troops, announced in January that he was taking Iran’s line: he wanted the Americans gone as quickly as possible. “The justifications for [their] existence have ended,” he said, referring to the threat from ISIS. Al-Sudani reiterated his demand a month later, after a US drone strike on a vehicle in eastern Baghdad on February 7 killed Abu Baqr al-Saadi, a leader of Kataib Hezbollah, and two other people.

Despite Al-Sudani’s attempts to downplay the danger posed by ISIS, the Sunni militants remain a destabilizing force in the region. Two bomb blasts on January 3 near the burial site in southern Iran of Qasem Soleimani—the commander of the Quds Force who was assassinated in Baghdad by a US drone in January 2020—killed at least eighty-four people in the country’s worst terrorist attack since the revolution of 1979. ISIS, which considers both Shia Muslims and the US its mortal enemies, claimed responsibility. But it’s Iran and its Shia proxies that appear to present the biggest threat to lasting peace in Iraq. The lethal drone attack on the US base in late January, apparently carried out without Iran’s prior knowledge, suggests that it has a worrisome lack of control over Kataib Hezbollah and other heavily armed Iraqi militias. And Iran’s hard-line factions may not be content with sitting idly following the US retaliation. The conflagration in Gaza seems to have opened a new chapter in Iraq’s turbulent and bloody recent history.

February 21, 2024

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Joshua Hammer