There’s a dark joke going around Baghdad these days. Noof Assi, a 30-year-old Iraqi peace activist and humanitarian worker, told it to me by phone. Our conversation takes place in late May just after the Trump administration has announced that it would add 1,500 additional U.S. troops to its Middle Eastern garrisons.
“Iran wants to fight to get the United States and Saudi Arabia out of Iraq,” she began. “And the United States wants to fight to get Iran out of Iraq.” She paused dramatically. “So how about all of us Iraqis just leave Iraq so they can fight here on their own?”
Assi is among a generation of young Iraqis who lived most of their lives first under the U.S. occupation of their country and then through the disastrous violence it unleashed, including the rise of ISIS, and who are now warily eying Washington’s saber-rattling towards Tehran. They couldn’t be more aware that, should a conflict erupt, Iraqis will almost certainly find themselves once again caught in the devastating middle of it.
February, President Trump sparked ire by claiming that the United States would maintain its military presence — 5,200 troops — and the al-Asad airbase in Iraq in order to “watch Iran.” In May, the State Department then suddenly ordered all non-emergency government employees to leave Iraq, citing vague intelligence about threats of “Iranian activity.” (This so-called intelligence was promptly contradicted by the British deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS who claimed that “there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”) A few days later, a rocket landed harmlessly in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. embassy. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi then announced that he would send delegations to Washington and Tehran to try to “halt tensions,” while thousands of ordinary Iraqis rallied in Baghdad to protest against the possibility of their country once again getting dragged into a conflict.
Much of American media coverage of rising U.S.-Iranian tensions in these weeks, rife with “intel” leaked by unnamed Trump administration officials, bears a striking resemblance to the lead-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. As a recent Al Jazeera piece — headlined “Is the U.S. media beating the drums of war on Iran?” — put it bluntly: “In 2003, it was Iraq. In 2019, it’s Iran.”
Unfortunately, in the intervening 16 years, American coverage of Iraq hasn’t improved much. Certainly, the Iraqis themselves are largely missing in action. When, for example, does the American public hear about how female students in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, heavily bombed and taken back from ISIS in 2017, have organized to restock the shelves of the once-famed library at the University of Mosul, which ISIS militants set aflame during their occupation of the city; or how booksellers and publishers are reviving Baghdad’s world-renowned book market on Mutanabbi Street, destroyed by a devastating car bomb in 2007; or how, each September, tens of thousands of young people now gather across Iraq to celebrate Peace Day — a carnival that started eight years ago in Baghdad as the brainchild of Noof Assi and her colleague, Zain Mohammed, a 31-year-old peace activist who is also the owner of a restaurant and performance space?
In other words, rarely is the U.S. public allowed glimpses of Iraq that make war there seem less inevitable.
Assi and Mohammed are well accustomed not only to such skewed representation of their country in our country, but to the fact that Iraqis like them are missing in action in American consciousness. They remain amazed, in fact, that Americans could have caused such destruction and pain in a country they continue to know so little about.
“Years ago, I went to the United States on an exchange program and I discovered people didn’t know anything about us. Someone asked me if I used a camel for transportation,” Assi told me. “So I returned to Iraq and I thought: Damn it! We have to tell the world about us.”
In late May, I spoke with Assi and Mohammed separately by telephone in English about the rising threat of another U.S. war in the Middle East and their collective two decades of peace work aimed at undoing the violence wrought by the last two U.S. wars in their country. Below, I’ve edited and melded the interviews of these two friends so that Americans can hear a couple of voices from Iraq, telling the story of their lives and their commitment to peace in the years after the invasion of their country in 2003.
Laura Gottesdiener: What first inspired you to begin doing peace work?
Zain Mohammed: At the end of 2006, on December 6th, al-Qaeda-[in-Iraq, the precursor to ISIS] executed my dad. We are a small family: me and my mom and two sisters. My opportunities were limited to two options. I was 19 years old. I had just finished high school. So the decision was: I had to emigrate or I had to become part of the system of militias and take revenge. That was the lifestyle in Baghdad at that time. We emigrated to Damascus [Syria]. Then suddenly, after about six months, when our paperwork was nearly ready for us to emigrate to Canada, I told my mom, “I want to go back to Baghdad. I don’t want to run away.”
I went back to Baghdad at the end of 2007. There was a big car bombing in Karrada, the part of the city where I used to live. My friends and I decided to do something to tell our friends that we have to work together to promote peace. So, on December 21st, on International Peace Day, we held a small event in the same place as the explosion. In 2009, I received a scholarship to the American University in Sulaymaniyah for a workshop about peace and we watched a movie about Peace Day. At the end of the movie, there were flashes of many scenes from around the world and, for just one second, there was our event in Karrada. This movie was amazing for me. It was a message. I went back to Baghdad and I spoke to one of my friends whose father had been killed. I told him it’s systematic: If he’s Shiite, he’ll be recruited by a Shiite militia for revenge; if he’s Sunni, he’ll be recruited by a Sunni militia or al-Qaeda for revenge. I told him: we have to create a third option. By a third option, I meant any option except fighting or emigrating.
I spoke to Noof and she said we have to collect youth and organize a meeting. “But what’s the point?” I asked her. All we had was this idea of a third option. She said: “We have to collect youth and have a meeting to decide what to do.”
Noof Assi: When Baghdad was first built, it was called the City of Peace. When we first started talking to people, everyone laughed at us. A City of Peace celebration in Baghdad? It’ll never happen, they said. At that time, there were no events, nothing happened in the public parks.
Zain: Everyone said: you’re crazy, we’re still in a war…
Noof: We didn’t have any funding, so we decided let’s light candles, stand in the street, and tell people that Baghdad is called the City of Peace. But then we grew into a group of around 50 people, so we created a small festival. We had zero budget. We were stealing stationery from our office and using the printer there.
Then we thought: Okay, we made a point, but I don’t think people will want to continue. But the youth came back to us and said, “We enjoyed it. Let’s do it again.”
How has the festival grown since then?
Noof: The first year, around 500 people came and most of them were our families or relatives. Now, 20,000 people attend the festival. But our idea isn’t only about the festival, it’s about the world that we create through the festival. We literally do everything from scratch. Even the decorations: there is a team that makes the decorations by hand.
Zain: In 2014, we felt the first results when ISIS and this shit happened again, but this time, at the societal level, lots of groups were starting to work together, collecting money and clothes for internally displaced people. Everyone was working together. It felt like a light.
Noof: Now, the festival happens in Basra, Samawah, Diwaniyah, and Baghdad. And we’re hoping to expand to Najaf and Sulaymaniyah. Over the last two years, we’ve been working to create the first youth hub in Baghdad, the IQ Peace Center, which is home to different clubs: a jazz club, a chess club, a pets club, a writing club. We had a women-and-girls club to discuss their issues within the city.
Zain: We had a lot of financial challenges because we were a youth movement. We weren’t a registered NGO [non-governmental organization] and we didn’t want to work like a regular NGO.
What about other peace efforts in the city?
Noof: In the past few years, we’ve started seeing a lot of different movements around Baghdad. After many years of seeing only armed actors, wars, and soldiers, young people wanted to build another picture of the city. So, now, we have lots of movements around education, health, entertainment, sports, marathons, book clubs. There’s a movement called “I’m Iraqi, I Can Read.” It’s the biggest festival for books. Exchanging or taking books is free for everyone and they bring in authors and writers to sign the books.
This isn’t exactly the image that I suspect many Americans have in mind when they think about Baghdad.
Noof: One day, Zain and I were bored in the office, so we started Googling different images. We said, “Let’s Google Iraq.” And it was all photos of the war. We Googled Baghdad: Same thing. Then we googled something — it’s famous around the world — the Lion of Babylon [an ancient statue], and what we found was a picture of a Russian tank that Iraq developed during Saddam [Hussein]’s regime that they named Babylon’s Lion.
I’m an Iraqi and I’m a Mesopotamian with that long history. We’ve grown up living in a city that’s old and where every place, every street you pass, has a history to it, but the international media doesn’t talk about what’s happening on those streets. They focus on what the politicians are saying and leave out the rest. They don’t show the real image of the country.
I want to ask you about the rising tensions between the United States and Iran, and how people in Iraq are responding. I know you have your own internal problems, so whatever Trump tweets on a given day might not be the biggest news for you…
Noof: Unfortunately, it is.
Especially since 2003, Iraqis have not been ones controlling our country. Even the government now, we don’t want it, but no one has ever asked us. We’re still paying with our blood while — I was reading an article about this a few months ago — Paul Bremer is now teaching skiing and living his simple life after ruining our country. [In 2003, the Bush administration appointed Bremer head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran occupied Iraq after the U.S. invasion and was responsible for the disastrous decision to disband Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s army.]
What do you think about the news that the U.S. is planning to deploy 1,500 more troops to the Middle East?
Zain: If they end up coming to Iraq, where we have a lot of pro-Iranian militias, I’m afraid there could be a collision. I don’t want a collision. In a war between the United States and Iran, maybe some soldiers will be killed, but a lot of Iraqi civilians will be, too, directly and indirectly. Honestly, everything that has happened since 2003 is strange to me. Why did the United States invade Iraq? And then they said they wanted to leave and now they want to come back? I can’t understand what the United States is doing.
Noof: Trump is a businessman, so he cares about money and how he’s going to spend it. He’s not going to do something unless he’s sure that he’s going to get something in return.
That reminds me of the way Trump used the rising tensions in the region in order to bypass Congress and push through an $8 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Noof: Exactly. I mean, he was asking Iraq to pay the United States back for the costs of the U.S. military occupation in Iraq! Can you imagine? So that’s how he thinks.
Amid these rising tensions, what’s your message to the Trump administration — and to the American public?
Zain: For the U.S. government, I’d say that, in every war, even if you win, you lose something: money, people, civilians, stories… We have to see the other side of war. And I’m sure we can do what we want without war. For the U.S. public: I think my message is to push against war, even against economic war.
Noof: For the U.S. government I would tell them: please mind your own business. Leave the rest of the world alone. For the American people I would tell them: I’m sorry, I know how you’re feeling being in a country run by Trump. I was living under Saddam’s regime. I still remember. I have a colleague, she’s American, and the day Trump won the elections she came into the office crying. And a Syrian and I were in the office with her and we told her: “We’ve been there before. You will survive.”
On September 21st, Noof Assi, Zain Mohammed, and thousands of other young Iraqis will crowd a park along the Tigris River to celebrate the eighth annual Baghdad City of Peace Carnival. In the United States, meanwhile, we will almost certainly still be living under the Trump administration’s nearly daily threats of war (if not war itself) with Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and god knows where else. A recent Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll shows that Americans increasingly see another war in the Middle East as inevitable, with more than half of those polled saying it is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that their country would go to war with Iran “within the next few years.” But as Noof and Zain know full well, it’s always possible to find another option…