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10 years after Iraq invasion Baghdad doctor worries about what lies ahead


Julian Sher first met Dr. Haider Ali in 2007. (Courtesy of Dr. Haider Ali)


Today marks the 10th anniversary of  the Iraqi war. The Star's Julian Sher was sent to Baghdad in 2007 on assignment for the New York Times and the CBC, just as the Al Qaeda-inspired insurgency against the Americans and the civil war between Sunnis and Shias was at its worst.

He brings us this report on the anniversary's significance and what in means for Iraq's people:

When I first met Dr. Haider Ali in war-torn Baghdad in the spring of 2007, he told me he wept for his country.

“I always cry,” he said as we sat on a downtown rooftop -- the intermittent sounds of bombs and gunfire below us, the American helicopters constantly swarming above us.

“I see that all these sufferings, all this blood that has been shed, all the victims," he said.

Five years later, I caught up with Dr. Ali via Skype. And while nowadays he has a good job, a beautiful house and young family, he worries that once again his country might plummet into a spiral of religious fanaticism and violence. 

Tuesday , March 19 marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the ill-fated American invasion of Iraq to topple the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

I was sent to Baghdad in 2007 on assignment for the New York Times and the CBC, just as the Al Qaeda-inspired insurgency against the Americans and the civil war between Sunnis and Shias was at its worst.

Ali at the time told me about the “state of hopelessness” in which he lived: the targeted assassinations of doctors, the booby-trapped heads of almost-dead civilians wired to explode and the killing of anyone who came to save them. The ethnic cleansing of neighbourhoods.

A secular Shia who hated religious extremism on both sides, Ali said he wanted to flee his disintegrating homeland, perhaps to Canada. 

But then things began to change dramatically. 

Not so much because of the much-vaunted “surge” of American troops in 2007 but because of the creation of  “Awakening Councils” – in essence, the successful attempt by the U.S. military to pay young Sunni men to fight Al Qaeda instead of Americans. 

“They paid them to change sides and there was more than a 90 per cent improvement,” Ali says. “Everything ended – we didn’t hear bombings or bullets for a long time. I changed my mind about leaving the country.”

He finished his studies and got a well-paying job as a neurologist at the Neurosurgical Teaching Hospital of Baghdad. He married a fellow doctor and they started a family.

Today they live with their two young children in an upscale neighbourhood in the city.  They make enough money to buy a new car every year and Ali tours the world attending international medical conferences. 

“It was a real exciting journey for me during all this time,” he says. “I lived all the last five years in Baghdad and witnessed all the ups and downs of everyday life here.”

I ask him if he feels the American invasion and the bloody years that followed were worth it. 

“Each Iraqi has a different view of this question,” he begins slowly, acknowledging that many who lost loved ones and family might disagree with him.

“After all that happened, we have a real democracy. For myself, yes it was worth it,” he says. “I don’t want to look naïve: They came here to serve their best interests. My best interests weren’t their priority. But we both benefited from the fall of the regime.” 

Carefully, he sums up his feelings this way: “I feel grateful for the Americans that they toppled Saddam Hussein. But I also feel angry because of the bad blunders that they committed -- mistakes in ruling the country and treating the people. They could have made a much better Iraq.”

And now that much better Iraq is once again teetering on the edge.

In recent months, new signs of fighting – and fear – have returned to haunt Ali and his country. 

Sectarian struggles have escalated between Sunni and Shia political leaders. Tariq al-Hashemi, a dapper, well-spoken man who I met when he was the highest-ranking Sunni at Iraq’s vice president, has fled the country to avoid arrest and the death penalty for what he says are murder charges trumped up by the Shia-dominated government.

Amnesty International last week reported that while many Iraqis enjoy greater freedom after Saddam’s fall, the country is still trapped in a “grim cycle of human rights abuses, including attacks on civilians, torture of detainees and unfair trials.” 

 Most worryingly, in recent weeks there has been a renewed wave of bombings and attacks that have killed more than 100 people.

 Ali says there are signs Al Qaeda is returning. “They were brazen enough to make some ugly appearances,” he says.

He watched YouTube videos and Iraqi TV reports that showed demonstrations of several thousand people marching in the city of Fallujah and other towns in Anbar province, the nexus of some of the worst fighting during the Iraq war.

“They were chanting their fearful chants,” says the doctor, “threatening to cut off heads and slit throats just like they used to.”

So now, five years after we sat on that rooftop amidst the bombs and bloodshed, he once again ponders fleeing his country if this wave of violence continues to escalate.

“I am scared for my kids,” Ali explains. “I’m afraid if everything went wrong, I don’t want them to go through the same miserable conditions we went through.”

So far his neighbourhood and indeed most of Baghdad remain quiet. But the doctor recalls how one of his friends who lives in a Shia neighbourhood was told by one militant that “the Baghdad battle is coming closer.”

‘I got the goosebumps when I heard that,” says Ali. “Are we heading back to the nightmare?” 

That nightmare got closer today.


Julian Sher is a journalist with the Star’s Enterprise Reporting Team and has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He can reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @juliansher.


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