Iraq Dispatch

by Hayder al-Mohammad
published in MER283

“He’s a murderer, a criminal ... So many people were killed because of him!” Umm Ahmed asserts. “OK. Forget about Obama, he’s gone. What about Trump? What do you think of him?” I ask. “... I’m ...we’re ... he’s crazy, no?” [1]

I have been conducting research in Iraq—in Basra and the outskirts of Tikrit—for roughly the last six months. Since Donald Trump’s election as US president in November 2016, when someone discovers that I live and work in the US, I am usually asked, “That friend of yours [Trump], what’s wrong with him?” Regardless of a person’s politics and where one falls (or not) on the spectrum of confessional and sectarian identities in Iraq, the general consensus currently seems to be that President Trump is, at the very least, a bit odd as a person and, more importantly, as president.

Among those I have been working with, from senior figures in Iraqi Shi‘i political parties, to the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) fighters, mention of President Trump is oddly omitted in their accounts. Rather, much of their focus is on the experience of American involvement in Iraq and Syria under Barack Obama’s presidency, which is reported in highly negative terms. For example, the Obama administration and western media outlets were circumspect, if not outright silent, about the emergence of ISIS in Iraq—particularly from 2012 until 2016. This silence included almost no mention of the more than 1,500 Iraqi trainee policemen who were massacred by ISIS at Camp Speicher in Tikrit within a 48-hour period in 2014. The administration and the media were at the time focused on the regional roles of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Iran. The reluctance during the Obama years to talk much about ISIS—while the United States was attacking the Asad regime and Syrian citizens—created a clear narrative that the violence and murder in Syria was almost exclusively perpetrated by the state itself.

This US framing of the situation in Syria would reach its preposterous nadir with the so-called “Khorasan Group”—allegedly an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria—which the United States bombed in 2014 and 2015 despite a lack of evidence that Khorasan was plotting anything against the US, or anyone else for that matter. The threat posed by the Khorasan Group, if it ever existed at all, was exaggerated to generate support for sustained American attacks in Syria.

Hashd fighters, and those working indirectly in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, faced American bombing campaigns during the Obama years that killed thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians and anti-ISIS fighters, many more than the United States admitted at the time.2 According to more than 100 interviews I have conducted since 2014, these fighters assert that the United States constrained the Russian campaign against ISIS—a campaign that was much more targeted in its attacks and killed fewer civilians and Hashd fighters. This constraining of Russia’s military role under Obama was loosened under President Trump. As a result, many Hashd fighters assert, the tide began to turn quickly in their favor in their fight against ISIS in 2017. Ultimately, however, because President Trump is an American, they believe he will also be indifferent to the plight of Iraq and Iraqis. Most likely, they explain, he will one day turn his back on Iraq entirely.

In Tikrit, President Trump is a regular topic of conversation and mirth. While watching the local television station in a tea shop, news broke of Sebastian Gorka’s firing from the Trump administration on August 25, 2017. Those of us in the shop could not help but break out into laughter. “Farce,” several said, while shaking their heads with incredulity. Yet another firing! In conversations with people around the city, people describe President Trump as weak and likely to further exacerbate problems in the region. But they also see him as amusing and clown-like, in the same vein as Libya’s late ruler Muammar Qaddafi. Many Iraqis remember Qaddafi’s long and rambling addresses as experiences akin to an onslaught difficult to sit through.

Yet, both Trump and Qaddafi seemed unable to stop the odd nuggets of actual insight and inadvertent truths from tumbling out of their mouths in their rambles—their own internal censors and sense of propriety clearly not fit for the typically guarded and reticent presidential style. President Trump’s announcement of US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and intention to relocate the American embassy has brought tremendous outrage and anger from much of the Iraqi population. Yet, in moments of more quiet reflection and discussion, Trump’s actions are seen as being more honest about US priorities and commitments than previous administrations. As many Iraqis have said to me, and as people say in discussions on Iraqi political shows and websites: why should we pretend that the Americans and Israelis cannot do what they want? President Trump’s presentation of himself contains kernels of truth about the ambitions and practices of the United States government, at home and abroad, in pursuit of its interests. This candor can help a country such as Iraq make the decision, as much as it is able to, about whether it wants—or can even afford—to have the US, its main tormentor of the last three decades, as an “ally.”

The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations all inflicted tremendous violence on Iraq during their combined 24 years in power, yet it seems that it is the rhetoric of President Trump that raises the ire of much of the Global North, even though militarily his first year was relatively quiet compared to recent American presidents. Though many Iraqis believe that Hillary Clinton as president would have meant even more violence in the region, the fear remains that simply because he is an American president, Trump will likely also attack and bomb Iraq. Iraqis have experienced this fear and violence under five consecutive US presidents, and they know that there is unlikely to be any pushback from American citizens, liberal or otherwise.

Thus, it is not so much President Trump himself that keeps Iraqis awake at night. Instead, his actions and words expose what is more frightening—the American empire behind him. Trump reveals the moral corruption that comes with any imperialist, expansionist force. Armed with warships, destroyers, aircraft carriers and tens of military bases in and surrounding Iraq, high levels of violence against Iraq can be sustained for decades, as were sanctions, from 1990–2006, and wars. Iraqis know that there is little they can do to stop it. It is this long experience of the United States waging war in and against Iraq, with little hope of change, which continues to limit the dreams and hopes of many Iraqis.


[1] Interview by author, conducted in Baghdad, November 2, 2017.
[2] Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, “The Uncounted,” The New York Times Magazine, November 16, 2017.

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