Iraqi revisits troubled home

You might think Iraqi-Canadian Riadh Muslih should be a poster boy for the American occupation of Iraq. The founder and, until recently, editor-publisher of Lower Mainland Arabic community newspaper Al Shorouq, Muslih left his native country in 1965 to study in the U.S. Three years later, his father, a former minister in the government overthrown in a Baathist coup brokered by Saddam Hussein, was arrested and charged with spying for Israel and the CIA. After being paraded on TV by Saddam loyalist Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf (who during the 2003 invasion would have his 15 minutes of western fame as the information minister known as Comical Ali), Muslih's father was imprisoned for two years and then executed in January 1970. His family had their property confiscated, and for the next decade they received regular visits from Saddam's secret police.

This March, just prior to the spate of bad publicity that climaxed with the American media's recognition that U.S. forces were abusing and torturing prisoners, Muslih returned to Baghdad for his first visit in 38 years. "It dawned on me that members of my family were dying," the real-estate agent says in a 26th-floor Yaletown apartment that belongs to one of his clients. "Literally. Though many of them are not very old, people do not live long in these circumstances. I needed to see them."

Since returning to Vancouver in mid-April, Muslih has been making the rounds of community halls like the Unitarian Church at Oak and 49th, where he recently spoke to a standing-room-only crowd. He's telling local audiences something that only seems to have entered western consciousness relatively recently: most Iraqis, whatever their political or religious stripe, oppose the occupation and have done so for some time.

An outspoken critic of the war from the beginning, Muslih is quick to acknowledge that at first, Iraqis inside the country were more ambivalent. "Many people were not against the invasion," he says. "American soldiers moved into a house in my family's neighbourhood that belonged to the Baath party. My family made them tea and the soldiers bought bread at the baker. Though they still thought of this as an occupation, they could interact with them as human beings. There was a rapport." Now, Muslih says, that has changed. "I saw Americans everywhere, but only in their tanks, helicopters, and Humvees, and from the watchtowers of Saddam's palaces. Now there is total separation. Their presence is very intimidating and drives home the message: we are in power; you are occupied."

Muslih finds this division much more significant than the ethnic and religious differences between Iraqis so widely reported in the western media. Although Shiites' support of Sunni resistance in Fallujah garnered a lot of attention here (and seemed to take the White House by surprise), Muslih, a pan-Arab nationalist, argues that the separation between these two Islamic branches has been greatly exaggerated in North America and Europe.

"In Lebanon it is true, but not in Iraq. I am a Sunni," he says. "Two of my sisters are married to Shiites. Most Iraqis don't look at themselves as Sunni or Shiite. The difference is not even as pronounced as between Catholics and Protestants." Ironically, he worries that the credence given to the issue in western news coverage might itself contribute to an increase in tension. "All we have heard on western television is Sunni versus Shiite, Sunni versus Shiite. It filters back to Iraq on the so-called free press, and I am concerned that Iraqis themselves will start to believe in it."

Far more than sectarian rivalries, it is employment and everyday security that Muslih identifies as mattering most to Iraqis in Baghdad; according to him, both have declined precipitously since the invasion. The picture Muslih paints is of a free-market Wild West: in a country with 50-percent unemployment, still reeling from three major wars and 12 years of punishing trade sanctions, foreigners can own 100 percent of any domestic industry and are free to transfer as much profit as they wish out of the country. "There is simply no way for Iraqi industrialists to compete. It is a vicious circle. Unemployment makes for insecurity, and insecurity makes it impossible for people to find work."

While Muslih was in Baghdad, he says, four local police officers pulled his brother over to the side of the road and demanded that he give them his car. When he refused, they beat him on the head and shot him in the leg. That the police would behave this way is not surprising to Muslih, who visited his brother in hospital following the incident. "All archives and security files were burned in the looting after the regime fell. So the provisional government has no records to make background checks for new officers. Any criminal can become one."

Besides recent headline-grabbing descriptions of the Fallujah uprising and incontrovertible evidence of torture by U.S. troops in Abu Ghraib prison, Muslih points to the longer-term effects of events like the looting, all but forgotten by the mainstream media, as fuel for Iraqis' bitterness toward their occupiers.

The National Library and Archives of Iraq were burned to the ground in April 2003, shortly after the invasion. "I was with people as we passed by [the remains of] these buildings," Muslih says. "You can see the sadness in their faces." Although he admits that Iraqis have any number of conflicting theories about who perpetrated the destruction of almost every state institution besides the Ministry of Oil, he is adamant that they all agree about why the Americans failed to prevent it. "The U.S. could easily have stopped the looting. They did not do so because it served their agenda: to destroy Iraqi institutions and break its [the country's] link with its own past."

The construction of what could be permanent U.S. military bases, plus the presence of evangelical missionaries and more than 50 Christian aid groups in the country--not to mention the torture in prisons and, according to the Associated Press, more than 1,300 civilian deaths this April alone--make Iraqis feel they are a nation under siege. "It will be many years before people in Iraq will negotiate with us in the West and feel any trust," Muslih says. "Any dialogue we have with them will be doubted. They say, 'Now we may be free from the oppression of Saddam Hussein. Thank you. But your killing machine is no kinder. You have outstayed your welcome.'"