Return to Ruin
Iraqi Narratives of Exile and Nostalgia
Zainab Saleh




In the summer of 2002, I left Lebanon to start my doctoral degree at Columbia University in New York City. The atmosphere was charged with war talk. Everyone was discussing the Bush administration’s preparations to invade Iraq. The antiwar camp was strong on Columbia’s campus. Students and professors demonstrated against the war, organizing sit-ins and lectures to warn of its consequences and expose the hypocrisy of the U.S. government. The pro-war camp, especially outside academia, was more powerful. It agitated about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein’s oppression of Iraqis, and the alleged links between Hussein and al-Qaeda. The camps shouted at each other, and among themselves, about freedom and democracy versus colonialism, sovereignty versus imperialism, and human rights versus oil. Iraqis, who have borne the brunt of Western governments’ support of Hussein (and their falling out with his regime), and who were going to bear the brunt of another war, were marginal and faceless in these struggles and debates.

I was surprised to find that no one around me in New York was curious about Iraq or life under Saddam Hussein. I was born and raised in Iraq and had only left the country in the fall of 1997. The prospect of another war haunted me. With the exception of one graduate student, who became a close friend, no one asked me about Iraqis’ lives during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) and the 1991 Gulf War or about the catastrophic impact of the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations in 1990 after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. People around me were reducing a place I knew intimately—the place where I came of age and where I had buried my parents and sister—to talking points. For me, Iraq was a place associated with real people and personal memories. But almost overnight it became the subject of abstract political arguments and theoretical interventions.

Seven months after I arrived in the United States, on March 19, 2003, I left the university library earlier than usual so that I could listen to President George W. Bush deliver a speech following the expiration of the forty-eight-hour ultimatum he had given Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq. Shortly after I got home, I heard Bush’s voice on the radio: “My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”1 I thought of the decades of war, dictatorship, and hardship that the Iraqi people had already endured for the sake of U.S. imperial interests in Iraq since the fall of the monarchy in 1958. Iraqis simply did not matter in these decisions, whether in the past or now as the invasion loomed. The dehumanization of Iraqis cut deeply through my heart as I listened to the speech, and I cried uncontrollably.

Over the following months, I faced daily news about the dismantlement of the Iraqi state and its social fabric. The U.S. military watched as Iraqis looted and destroyed state institutions. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hailed the destruction and looting as “creative chaos” out of which a free and democratic Iraq would be born. The Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq on behalf of the United States, dissolved the Iraqi army and waged a de-Ba‘athification campaign to minimize the role of the state and to implement neoliberal policies, which entailed drastically limiting the role of the state in providing social services and jobs, privatizing state industries and institutions, and deregulating markets. Moreover, the United States established a government in Iraq that allocated positions according to a sectarian quota system. This state structure ended up dividing Iraqis, foreclosing the possibilities of forging a unified national identity. Iraqis now had to participate in politics and access services on the basis of their ethnic and sectarian affiliation. Meanwhile, the U.S. military failed to protect the Iraqi borders, and foreign fighters—including members of al-Qaeda—began to infiltrate the country, which exacerbated sectarian violence. I watched U.S. policies throw Iraq into perpetual violence. News of suicide bombings and other attacks carried out by foreign fighters and Iraqi militias, as well as of violence perpetuated by the U.S. military, became the norm. In this new status quo, Iraqi casualties were reduced to statistics, which warranted little attention from Western audiences.

The erasure of Iraqi individuals from discussions and news about the U.S. occupation prompted me to focus my research on them. As a privileged Iraqi who now lives abroad, I owe it to Iraqis to offer a more nuanced version of their stories, their hopes, their disappointments, and their losses. Since it was almost impossible to do research in Iraq given the deteriorating situation there, I chose London, home to the largest Iraqi diasporic community in Europe at the time. The arrival of thousands of Iraqis in London in the late 1970s and early 1990s to escape Saddam Hussein’s reign speaks to the imperial encounter between Iraq and the United States, as well as to the connection between displacement and imperial formations. Moreover, the Iraqi community in London played a major role in shaping post-Hussein Iraq through their agitation for regime change with different U.S. administrations throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Members of this community, who were part of the exilic Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime, also endorsed a sectarian discourse that was eventually implemented in the country.

I arrived in London in the summer of 2006 to begin fieldwork. This turned out to be a pivotal moment for the city’s Iraqi community. Iraqis had come to the United Kingdom in large numbers in the late 1970s after Saddam Hussein rose to power, and the vast majority believed that they would return to Iraq once Hussein was gone. To them, the removal of Hussein would herald a return to a utopian past: the Iraq they remembered before Hussein’s violent reign. And they hoped that the U.S. invasion would bring social reforms and political stability. However, by the summer of 2006, widespread sectarian violence, which reached its peak between 2006 and 2008, dimmed these hopes that the country might return to the imagined glories of the pre-Hussein era. The scale of destruction the U.S. military inflicted on Iraq left most of the exiles I came to know in a state of shock. Images of violence circulated daily on television, as did stories of killed, kidnapped, and displaced relatives and friends. Their hope and anticipation gave way to disbelief and disappointment.

During my initial phase of fieldwork, from 2006 to 2008, I listened to Iraqis reminisce about anticolonial struggles in the 1940s and 1950s, vibrant political and social spaces defined by demands for equality and women’s liberation, radical social reforms, and dreams for a prosperous future for everyone. I also heard stories about death and horror during the CIA-backed first Ba‘th coup, in 1963, and radical political transformations with the rise of the one-party regime in Iraq following the second Ba‘th coup, in 1968. These narratives of nostalgia and anguish were accompanied by stories about flight and expulsion from Iraq, deaths of family members and close friends, life in exile, yearnings to see Iraq again, and efforts to build homes in diaspora and define Iraqi subjectivities. There were also stories of excitement at visiting Iraq for the first time in decades and bewilderment at seeing how the U.S. occupation, sectarian violence, and decades of war and neglect had left the country, especially Baghdad, unrecognizable.

As I listened to Iraqis, I realized that their narratives of displacement, as well as their general life trajectories, were deeply enmeshed in imperial interventions in Iraq that have taken place since the early twentieth century and continue to the present. Iraqis in London, like those in Iraq, are “imperial subjects,” whose lives are inseparable from the histories of Britain and the United States in the region, particularly the latter’s efforts to safeguard U.S. oil companies’ access to Iraqi oil, to deter Iraq from embracing communism during the Cold War, and to support regimes that would guarantee what the United States perceived as regional stability. These imperial trajectories also became dynamic terrains in which political, gendered, religious, and class differences were inscribed, invoked, and reconfigured in diaspora. This book focuses on how Iraqi political subjectivity—that is, the processes of defining and constructing notions of selfhood and inner lives—in diaspora has been shaped by British colonial rule, U.S. imperial intervention, resource extraction, histories of exile, local and international struggles, and other structures of power. It also explores how Iraqis have responded to these events in culturally specific ways. Moreover, it examines the impact of the U.S. occupation on the diasporic experiences of the Iraqi community in London, as well as the transnational connections it opened and the possibilities it foreclosed.

The story of Iraqi exile and dispossession is closely enmeshed in a genealogy of imperialism. Through its support of authoritarian regimes since the 1960s and fueling of ongoing wars for the past four decades in Iraq, the United States has inscribed itself on the lives of Iraqis. This imperial violence led to the exile of thousands of Iraqis and to the formation of diasporic communities abroad.2 The effects of the U.S. interventions in Iraq were not contained within the borders of Iraq, but touched Iraqis in diaspora as well. It prolonged their exile, prevented them from enjoying a safe Iraq when they visited after 2003, and caused them anxiety over the fates of relatives and friends and over the possible disintegration of the country. In other words, Iraqis have inhabited an imperial past and present. Scholars have described empire as a “way of life” as far as the United States’ foreign policy is concerned, inscribed in its very institutions and practices.3 But this is also true for Iraqis, who have lived and experienced empire for decades.

The spiraling violence in Iraq brought about by the U.S. occupation and the sectarian conflict raised questions among Iraqis in London about their notion of the self, imagination of the past, and relationship to Iraq. These questions fueled heated discussion among Iraqis about citizenship and the past and intensified their efforts to provide accounts that critiqued the status quo. Iraqis I met in London were avid storytellers who were keen on providing testimonies about their experiences and lives. For them, life stories became a means to bear witness and to write themselves back into a history and a country that was erased constantly by imperial violence. Their narratives provide an alternative account of Iraq and unearth the patterns of systemic violence they endured for decades. Occupying a space of imperial debris became productive of discourses of the self and of nostalgic reminiscences about the past. These practices of re/membering reconnected Iraqis to their national community, produced nostalgic and revisionist accounts of the past to make sense of the present, and highlighted the historical conditions that led to their exile and dispossession.4 To Iraqis in London, re/membering has become a way to suture together a personal narrative with historical conditions to make sense of their history of displacement. These narratives were also situated in debates about modernity and secularism, piety and religion, visions of the past and future, gender and class, and home and diaspora.

The following chapters focus on the life stories of five Iraqis who grappled with defining Iraqi selfhood amid the ongoing destruction of their homeland and the increasing polarization of the Iraqi community in London along sectarian and ethnic lines. Their reminiscences were rooted in the political structures they inhabited, as well as social sensibilities and generational differences. The older generation (chapters 1 and 2), whose members came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, played an important role in the anticolonial struggle in Iraq and shaped Iraqi memory of that time as an era defined by progressive and revolutionary ideals in which Iraqi subjects were revolutionary agents who were involved in a struggle to bring about social equality, women’s rights, and national independence. These prevailing narratives of selfhood and reminiscences of the past were marked by shifts in the understanding of Iraqiness among the younger generation (chapters 3 and 4), whose members came of age in exile and were haunted by their parents’ stories about Iraq. While the efforts of the younger generation to carve out an Iraqi subjectivity were informed by attempts to define notions of home and belonging around a place they barely remembered, they also reflected changes in the Iraqi political landscape, which had come to be defined by rising piety and aversion to political activism. Iraqi subjectivity became associated with a religious discourse that perceived Iraq as a place of holy religious sites and religious experiences that dated back to the seventh century. Yet another narrative and notion of subjectivity then began to challenge the prevailing discourse about the past and the religious counter-discourses. This narrative revolved around the endurance and suffering of the Iraqis who had remained in Iraq (chapter 5). The community in London came to perceive those who had lived through Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime, the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the sanction years, and the U.S. occupation as Iraqis who had lived the quintessential Iraqi experience.

Imperial Entanglements

This book sheds light on how Britain’s and the United States’ interventions in Iraq have shaped Iraqis’ life trajectories and experiences of exile. While British colonial rule in Iraq has received wide scholarly attention, the role the United States has played in the country since the early 1960s has been mainly limited to studies of the occupation in 2003. Therefore, the book aims to write Iraqis back into the imperial history of particularly the United States. The histories of Iraq and the United States are deeply intertwined. On the one hand, the United States has had a direct impact on political developments in Iraq and the lives of Iraqis through its policies supporting regime changes and the perpetuation of war. On the other hand, Iraq has been essential to U.S. economic interests. Iraqi arms purchases bolstered the military-industrial complex in the United States, and stable access to Middle East oil secured U.S. dominance in the global economy. I employ the concept of imperial encounter to shed light on how the United States and Iraq, countries usually seen to occupy different worlds, are entangled.5 This concept of the encounter decenters the nation-state and emphasizes global connections. A mere focus on the nation-state to understand histories of violence and displacement conceals the role of Western imperial powers in shaping affairs in Third World countries. The framework of the encounter demonstrates that Iraq and the United States are no longer separate entities, but are entangled in an unequal power relation that has reconfigured the lives of Iraqis. Scholars have advised against approaching the United States as an entity confined to its territorial boundaries; rather, we must examine the relationship between U.S. imperialism and other countries and U.S. efforts to produce subjects beyond its national boundaries through neoliberal policies.6

Rather than merely neoliberal policies, however, Iraqis have experienced the U.S. empire through political and military interventions. As a military empire, the United States has asserted its right to threaten and employ violence in order to protect its interests and allies, promote its values, and safeguard the world from what it regards as evil forces.7 In this framework, U.S. militarism is presented as a gift to other nations, taking the forms of military aid, sales of weapons, training of troops, and the establishment of bases.8 In Iraq, U.S. military involvement entailed military interventions in three wars and an occupation, the sale of arms to allies, economic aid to Hussein’s regime in the 1980s, training of the Iraqi army and police after the invasion, and the establishment of bases in the Gulf. But it also involved the backing of coups, the support of authoritarian regimes, and the imposition of economic sanctions. The United States framed its support of Hussein’s regime in the 1980s as protecting its national interests in the region, its imposition of the sanctions in the 1990s as aiming to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and protect allies in the region, and its invasion of Iraq in 2003 as delivering U.S. values—namely, freedom and democracy—to the Iraqi people.

In terms of U.S. imperial interventions in the world, Iraq is not an exceptional case. Scholars have begun to historicize the debate on U.S. imperialism and to situate the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan within the imperial legacy of the Unites States.9 Thus, the War on Terror after 9/11 can be seen as part and parcel of a long history of U.S. expansion and global domination.10 Wars and military occupation were foundational to the United States in that genocidal violence was central to the establishment of the United States as a settler-colonial state, as well as to its political and economic hegemony. A permanent state of war, as far as the United States is concerned, thus represents a historical continuum of conquest, cleansing of new frontiers, and control of territories abroad.11 In this narrative, U.S. interventions in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, as well as its establishment of military bases around the world and imposition of neoliberal reforms, are part of this foundational imperial violence.12

This approach to empire emphasizes connections between settler colonialism, racism, economic hegemony, and political interventions. Thus, the decades-long intervention of the United States in Iraq can be seen as part of a continuum of different imperial formations throughout the world. U.S. empire can no longer be seen as a singular event or a relic of the past. Rather, it has persisted throughout the centuries, brought various peoples into its orbit, and left individual lives in ruins.13 This effort to see connections and assemblages in events that appear to be separate and disconnected raises some questions: How can we write the history of Iraq as part of U.S. imperial history? And how can we relate imperial formations in Iraq to those in other parts of the world, such as the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Guatemala, Honduras, and Samoa, and to marginalized groups within the United States?

Ann Stoler sheds light on a “U.S. imperial script: that Samoa is not related to the Philippines is not related to Nicaragua is not related to Iraq.”14 She introduces the term disassemblage to “identify how things get cut off from one another in our conceptualizations. What prevents people, relations, and things from being seen as proximate, implicated, and dependent?”15 Neutral terms have been used to camouflage and disconnect imperialist ambitions: the occupation of Native American land has been seen as an expansion, not colonization; the undermining of Latin American independence movements is presented as wars against European colonial powers, rather than the thwarting of slaves’ and creole pioneers’ struggles for freedom; and military intervention abroad is cast as efforts to bring democracy and freedom to the rest of the world.16

The U.S. rhetoric of national security and protection of world peace, moreover, has been embedded in the desire to secure access to natural resources. Toby Jones asserts that American militarism in the Middle East, often justified as a way to combat terrorism, rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, and geopolitical insecurity, is also about control over the region’s energy resources, particularly oil.17 Jones proposes that scholars of U.S. empire focus on this intertwining of energy and security in U.S. foreign policy to understand how their infrastructures have been built into each other, and to what effect.18 The efforts of the United States to secure access to oil have thrust Iraq and the region into an endless cycle of violence, which has led to the death and displacement of millions of Iraqis.

Iraq’s oil reserves and geopolitical location have shaped colonial and imperial interests in the country since the early twentieth century. Britain’s invasion of Iraq during World War I was partly motivated by its efforts to have access to the oilfields in Mosul.19 Iraq officially gained its independence in 1932, but it remained under de facto British control. This status quo changed with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. The 1958 Revolution was a pivotal moment for Iraq’s relations with imperial powers. While the fall of the monarchy led to the departure of the British, it also brought Iraq into the orbit of the United States more directly. The establishment of Iraq as a republic and the efforts of different Iraqi politicians to control the country’s oil heralded the beginning of U.S. interventions in Iraq. After the first Iraqi president, Abdul Karim Qasim, nationalized the oilfields that the Iraq Petroleum Company—a British company—had not developed, the Kennedy administration came to see Qasim as a threat to U.S. interests and began to look for opposition groups that would overthrow him.20 U.S. intelligence agencies saw an ally in the Ba‘th Party, an anti-imperialist, socialist, and Arab nationalist party established in Iraq in 1947.21 On February 8, 1963, backed by the CIA, the Ba‘th Party staged a coup d’état that toppled Qasim. The coup began with a slaughter of Iraqi communists (the police and National Guard relying on lists provided by U.S. intelligence sources to hunt them down).22 Between seven thousand and ten thousand communists were imprisoned and tortured.23 Thousands were killed.24

The question of the nationalization of Iraqi oil fields remained a contentious issue for different U.S. administrations in the 1960s and early 1970s, with the latter offering or withholding military support to different Iraqi governments in their operations against the Kurds, depending on their oil policies.25 In the late 1970s, Saddam Hussein’s emergence as the undisputed leader of Iraq and the revolution in Iran together brought a major shift in U.S.-Iraq relations. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution in Iran overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a close ally of the United States, and the ensuing U.S. embassy crisis in Tehran prompted the United States to look for other allies in the region. Iraq was seen as a countervailing force to the new regime in Iran. At the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, stated in a television interview that “we see no fundamental incompatibility of interests between the United States and Iraq,” and added that “we do not feel that American-Iraqi relations need to be frozen in antagonism.”26 Shortly after the Islamic Revolution, Iraq invaded Iran, starting the Iran-Iraq War. The documents on the role of the Carter administration in giving Iraq the green light to invade Iran remain classified.27 However, in the early 1980s, the United States began to support Iraq in its war effort. A major breakthrough in U.S.-Iraqi relations occurred in 1983 when Donald Rumsfeld, a special envoy for the Reagan administration at the time, met with Saddam Hussein to offer military and economic aid to Iraq. As a result of this meeting, the United States took Iraq off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, restored diplomatic relations, and provided Iraq with dual-use (military and civilian) goods.28 The United States granted Iraq millions of dollars in trade credits, and U.S. farmers found a new market in Iraq. Moreover, the United States sold weapons to Iraq through Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. It also encouraged European countries—in particular, Italy and France—to sell weapons to Hussein. Western governments, especially West Germany, even provided Iraq with chemical weapons.29 In the meantime, the Ronald Reagan administration dismissed Hussein’s brutality as a “stereotype” and pointed out signs of moderation that the regime was showing.30

During the “Tanker War,” from 1984 to 1985, the United States began to engage actively on the side of Iraq. This phase of the war began when Iraq attacked Iran’s oil installations and Iran retaliated by attacking ships in the Gulf that were doing business with Iraq. Western governments—namely, the United States, Britain, and France—increased their presence in the Gulf. U.S. forces clashed with Iranian naval units, destroyed Iran’s naval capacity in 1988, and shot down a civilian Iranian plane.31 In addition to military support, the United States defended Iraq at the United Nations against Iran’s accusation that Iraq had used chemical weapons on its soldiers, and it provided Iraq with satellite intelligence of Iranian troops’ locations.32 Realizing it was involved in a war not only with Iraq but also with Western powers, particularly the United States, Iran accepted a UN-brokered cease-fire.

Having diminished the power of Iran, Saddam Hussein turned his attention to Kurdistan, where an insurgency against his regime had erupted. The military operation culminated in the regime’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, which led to the destruction of 80 percent of all the Kurdish villages and the death of somewhere between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand people.33 The U.S. Senate passed a bill calling for economic sanctions against Iraq in response to its use of chemical weapons. The Reagan administration, however, opposed the bill. Secretary of State George Shultz said that the attacks on the Kurds “were abhorrent and unjustifiable,” but one of his deputies thought that the use of sanctions was “premature,” while another official claimed that the United States needed “solid, businesslike relations, with Iraq.”34 By 1988, Iraq had become “the twelfth largest overall market for American agricultural exports,” while the United States had become a major importer of Iraqi oil.35 In addition, the United States kept providing Iraq with dual-use technologies. Any sanctions on Iraq would mean that U.S. companies would lose billions of dollars in contracts. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman to “set aside the emotions of the moment,” and “ponder the economic costs of sanctions against Iraq.”36 The U.S. Iraq Business Forum—made up of major oil companies like Amoco, Mobil, and Exxon; defense contractors like Lockheed Martin; and other Fortune 500 companies, including AT&T and General Motors—led the anti-sanctions lobbying.37

Iraq had borrowed heavily to fund its war with Iran, and by the war’s end, it was $40 billion in debt to Kuwait. Meanwhile, Kuwait had increased its oil production, which brought down prices and therefore Iraq’s revenues. Iraq objected and refused to pay its debt. Instead, in the summer of 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, marking another shift in U.S.-Iraq relations, this time toward a policy of “dual containment” of both Iran and Iraq.”38 Following the invasion of Kuwait, the United States formed an international alliance to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. The military operations that followed, known as Operation Desert Storm, had a devastating impact on Iraq. A massive bombing campaign, which took place over forty-three days in 1991, caused an estimated $232 billion in damage.39 The heavy bombardment targeted military installments but also led to a massive breakdown of infrastructure, including water and sewage treatment, agricultural production and food distribution, health care, communications, and power generation.40 Four months after the war, Iraq had managed to restore electricity to only about a quarter of its prewar level.

The defeat of the Iraqi army was followed by uprisings in the north and south against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Motivated by President George H. W. Bush’s call upon the Iraqi people to overthrow the regime, people in Basra, Amara, Nasiriyya, Najaf, and Karbala rose up and managed to control large areas by the end of February 1991. At the same time, the Kurds rose against the regime in the north, and Peshmerga forces—Kurdish military groups—were in control of most of Kurdistan by the end of March. However, the United States and its allies did not provide the rebels with any support, fearing the fragmentation of Iraq and the formation of a Shi‘i state beholden to Iran.41 At the time, General Colin Powell, then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that “for the previous ten years, Iran not Iraq had been our Persian Gulf nemesis. We wanted Iraq to continue as a threat and a counterweight to Iran.”42

Soon afterward, the regime turned its attention to the uprising in the north. The Republican Guard was deployed and “hit back, capturing Kirkuk, driving into the rebel-held areas and inflicting heavy casualties on the Kurds.”43 The campaign against the Kurds raised fears of chemical attacks, and thousands of people fled to Iran and Turkey. As many as two million people “were on the move within the space of a few days, leading to the disintegration of the rebel forces.”44

The fates of the Kurds and the Shi‘is diverged after the failure of the uprisings. The United Nations, backed by the United States and Britain, set up a “safe haven” in Kurdistan, which granted the Kurds de facto autonomy from Baghdad. However, the south remained under the control of Hussein. A month after the failed uprisings, a former French foreign minister, Claude Cheysson, reflected, “Though it is horrible to say so, fortunately Saddam Hussein was there to crush the [Shi‘i] uprising in the south. Otherwise it would have triggered a new tide of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran and across the Gulf.”45 Reeling from a devastating military campaign and failed uprisings, Iraqis had to contend with a degraded environment, a ruthless regime, and the continuation of harsh sanctions. Though Iraq withdrew from Kuwait in 1991, the United Nations would not lift the sanctions until Iraq disarmed, which Hussein refused to do, and this had a devastating impact on the Iraqi people. Families struggling to make ends meet had to sell their possessions, including furniture, cars, jewelry, clothing, electronic goods, and part of their houses, such as doors and windows.46 In addition, the sanctions led to an increase in crime, theft, and prostitution. The basic monthly rations distributed by the Iraqi government prevented mass starvation in the country, but they did not limit malnutrition. It is estimated that at least five hundred thousand children died between 1990 and 2003 due to malnutrition and lack of basic services.47 When asked by a journalist about the price of half a million Iraqi children for the sanctions, Madeleine Albright, the secretary of the state in the Bill Clinton administration, famously replied that “the price is worth it.”48 This catastrophe was brought about by policies adopted by the United States and Britain, in particular, which included restricting imports of food and goods into a country that was heavily dependent on foreign products, the undermining of the sale of oil in exchange for food, and the destruction of public infrastructure during the war.49 Joy Gordon called the sanction years, from 1990 to 2003, an invisible war waged mainly by the United States and Britain through their efforts to stifle any attempts to lift the sanctions by members in the United Nations.

The election of President George W. Bush in 2001 and the appointment of neoconservatives in his administration brought about another shift in U.S. policy.50 Since the late 1990s, neoconservatives had agitated for regime change in Iraq. September 11 provided an opportunity to sell the war to the U.S. public and internationally under the pretext of alleged links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, of saving Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s brutality, and of disarming Iraq. On March 19, 2003, the United States began its “shock and awe” military operation against Iraq, which ended on May 1, 2003. The military operation quickly achieved its purpose of overthrowing the Hussein regime.

Following the invasion, however, the situation in Iraq deteriorated immediately. Looting and destruction of state institutions ensued, while the U.S. military protected only the Ministry of Oil. The U.S. occupation of Iraq and the measures taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority—such as the institutionalization of a sectarian quota system, the alienation of Sunnis, the disbanding of the army, the de-Ba‘athification order, and the failure to protect Iraqi borders—fueled an insurgency in the country and led to rampant sectarian violence. Suicide bombings, car bombs, and explosions became daily occurrences. In addition, the U.S. military employed brute force to deal with the violence and the attacks on its troops. The leaked pictures of abused and brutalized prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison epitomized the U.S. military’s use of extreme violence against Iraqis.51 The estimated number of Iraqis killed due to the civil war and the U.S. occupation through 2018 is around 182,000.52 Three and a half to five million Iraqis were either internally displaced or arrived as refugees in Jordan and Syria.53 The devastation caused by the violence and the occupation were accompanied by a total collapse of basic services, such as water and electricity. The U.S. occupation of Iraq and the sectarian politics of successive Iraqi governments eventually led to the rise of the Islamic State, which controlled large swaths of Iraq in 2014 until its defeat in 2017.54



2. Nadine Naber (2012: 27) advances the concept of “diasporas of empire” to examine the impact of contemporary U.S. neocolonialism and imperialism on communities that were displaced as a result of imperial interventions.

3. Williams (2006).

4. Coutin (2016: 6–7).

5. Lieba Faier and Lisa Rofel (2014: 363) use the concept of “ethnographies of encounter” to explore “how culture making occurs through unequal relationships involving two or more groups of people and things that appear to exist in culturally distinct worlds.”

6. Grewal (2005: 2–3) and Thomas (2011: 5).

7. Gutmann and Lutz (2018: 292).

8. Ibid., 292–93.

9. Maira (2018: 393).

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Viet Thanh Nguyen furthers the discussion by linking the Vietnam War to the history of racism in the United States. He reminds readers of Martin Luther King Jr.’s argument that “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together” (2016: 2). The interrelation between U.S. empire and the history of racism in the United States “has been written as a national tragedy or as part of an international history of slavery, but not necessarily as part of the history of U.S. empire. It is somebody else’s empire.” See Stoler (2018: 484).

13. McGranahan and Collins (2018: 10).

14. Stoler (2018: 478).

15. Ibid., 478–79.

16. McGranahan and Collins (2018: 1).

17. Jones (2017: 417).

18. Ibid., 418. See also Appel, Mason, and Watts (2015) and Mitchell (2011).

19. Wolfe-Hunnicutt (2018: 3).

20. U.S. officials were particularly concerned with the alliance between Qasim and the communists. After Qasim withdrew Iraq from the Baghdad Pact—an alliance between Turkey, Britain, Iran, and Pakistan, which Iraq joined in 1955—in 1959 and accepted military and economic aid from the Soviet Union, “the [U.S.] National Security Council formed a special working group on Iraq to monitor the situation and consider the options for bringing about a change in the government” (Wolfe-Hunnicutt (2018: 10). The turning point in U.S. foreign policy toward Qasim was Iraq’s nationalization of 99.5 percent of its oil resources in December 1961. The nationalization decree did not impact the Iraq Petroleum Company’s operation in existing fields. It only transferred ownership of oil fields that were not yet in production. While the U.S. State Department recognized Iraq’s right to nationalize its oil, it feared the action would set a precedent in the region.

21. Wolfe-Hunnicutt (2018: 3).

22. Khalidi (2004: 41). See also Khalidi (2009: 151).

23. Batatu (1987: 988).

24. The number of communists killed is unsettled. Batatu quotes different sources that put the number between 340 and 5,000. Wolfe-Hunnicutt puts the number of executed communists at 5,000 (2018: 11).

25. For a detailed account of this history, see Wolfe-Hunnicutt (2017 and 2018).

26. Quoted in Jentleson (1994: 34).

27. Ibid., 35. See also, Wolfe-Hunnicutt (2017).

28. Jentleson (1994: 15).

29. Ibid. 42–49.

30. Ibid., 48.

31. Tripp (2007: 230).

32. Wolfe-Hunnicutt (2018: 15).

33. Tripp (2007: 236). Ali Allawi puts the number of Kurds who died during al-Anfal at two hundred thousand. See Allawi (2007: 38).

34. Quoted in Jentleson (1994: 69).

35. Ibid., 81–82.

36. Ibid., 84.

37. Ibid., 84.

38. Wolfe-Hunnicutt (2018: 16).

39. Gordon (2010: 89).

40. Ibid., 34.

41. Tripp (2007: 248).

42. Quoted in Haddad (2011: 74). The Hussein regime’s response was swift and brutal. It sent the Republican Guard to put down the uprising in the south, where they “carried out indiscriminate mass executions of the population. Many tanks were painted with the slogan ‘No Shi‘is [will survive] after today’ and there was widespread destruction of Shi‘i shrines and other mosques in the Holy Cities [of Najaf and Karbala]. As many as 300,000 may have been killed in these operations” (Farouk-Sluglett and Sluglett 2001: 289). Around fifty thousand refugees fled to Saudi Arabia, and thousands sought refuge in Iran (Tripp 2007: 247).

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Quoted in Haddad (2011: 76)

46. Gordon (2010: 37).

47. Ibid.


49. Gordon (2010: 87).

50. For a detailed account of the neoconservatives’ objectives, see Harvey (2013: 190–208).

51. For a detailed account of torture at Abu Ghraib, see Hersh (2004).

52. Watson Institute, “Costs of War,”

53. “Iraq: The Human Cost,”

54. For a history of the rise of the Islamic States, see Saleh (2015).