BBC radio reporter James Shaw witnessed first hand the invasion of Iraq. Now, ten years on, he has returned to the war-torn country where he found expressions of both hope and despair on the streets of Baghdad and Basra
Baghdad is no longer a city at war, but it is still a place where the threat of violence is always present. Every major route is dotted with check points manned by at least one of Iraq’s new security forces. Most of the time vehicles are waved through. The strict checks which applied when the Americans were here have gone. Perhaps that is one reason why insurgents were able to carry out a co-ordinated series of bombings across Baghdad on Tuesday this week, the very day that the anniversary of the start of the war was being marked.
On Firdos Square, where the infamous statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down by an American armoured vehicle, we saw a dark smudge of black smoke over to the north-east in the direction of the Shia slums of Sadr City. Minutes later we heard an ominous boom closer to our location. This was a blast at a check point on the edge of the highly-protected government zone.
All over the city, mobile phones were beeping and vibrating as people called family and friends to check they were still alive. The violence in Iraq is not over. It is just that two of the main combatants have pulled out – the British in 2009, the Americans two years later.
Whoever carried out these attacks, most likely members of a group linked to al Qaeda, picked easy targets in Shia areas, like roadside cafes and street corners where day labourers tout for work.
A few days earlier we’d met Naji Rensenserhan, a man in his 50s with a family of six children. He told us he’d only had one day’s work in the last month. So he had to stand on the street waiting for employment and at the same time putting his life at risk. Then he pulled up his trouser legs and showed us the bumps and scars caused by badly mended bones and shrapnel.
It was hardly surprising that his face carried an unchanging expression of barely suppressed fury. Someone else refused to speak to us because, he said, Britain and the United States had inflamed the sectarian divide between Shia and Sunni which emerged after the invasion.
As we edged out of the crowd of unemployed workers who had gathered round us, another man muttered in my ear, “Saddam good” – a twisted echo of the joyful shouts I heard in 2003, “Saddam bad, George Bush good”. Perhaps this was one measure of the desperation in Iraq ten years on.
Dr Waneed Nadhmi, a highly-respected political scientist in Baghdad, points out that by the government’s own reckoning, the number of security personnel has tripled since the time of Saddam Hussein. And yet, he says, levels of violence are worse than they were under Saddam.
Dr Nadhmi believes the Americans over-emphasised the importance of sectarian differences in their management of the competing interest groups in Iraq. And it was this which created the circumstances for the continuing stand-off between Sunni and Shia politicians, which in turn creates space for sectarian violence.
Dr Nadhmi says only a secular settlement will bring long-term stability, but he’s no more able than many others to offer a formula to achieve that.
Not far from the street corner where daily workers seek jobs is a brand new General Motors showroom. The manager, Hamid Sami al-Baghdadi, has different ideas about the future. He shows us a Cadillac Cue saloon, his top model, on sale here for $48,000. His customers, he says, are entrepreneurs and business leaders. And he rejects the popular notion that the only people who can afford these ultimate objects of desire are a new class of corrupt politicians creaming off the oil wealth and leaving little for everyone else.
Transparency International says Iraq is the third most corrupt country in the world. But even if that can’t be reduced, Mr al-Baghdadi says the government’s budget will double over the next five years because of growing oil revenues, creating enough wealth to make everyone comfortable. That, he believes, is the best hope for stability and security.
Two days later, crawling through Baghdad’s endless traffic, we take the road south to Basra. Once we are out of the city, it cuts a straight fast route between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a ribbon of tarmac loaded with heavy trucks travelling between Iraq’s two biggest cities across a flat landscape of grey sand and scrub.
We pass relatively easily through more than a dozen police check points. By the side of the road a convoy of Iraqi army armoured cars is parked up – another reminder that security is still problematic, even in the calmer south, which British forces left nearly four years ago.
The last time I was here I met Sergeant Mike Robertson, a veteran of three tours of Iraq, who described to me the storming of a Baath Party building in Basra in the early stages of the invasion. Another member of his unit threw a grenade into a room to clear it and he was pulled away from the entrance, only just in time to save his life.
But the hardest tour of all was in 2006, when one of the main British bases in the city was under almost constant attack. In May of that year, a British helicopter was shot down by Shia militiamen.
Sgt Robertson and his unit were given the job of guarding the wreck of the aircraft and the remains of the five people who had died. He described to me the terrifying experience of being hunkered down protecting the crash site until it could be cleared, while more and more militia fighters with ever more powerful weapons converged on the scene.
When I interviewed Sgt Robertson in Basra in March 2009, he was confident and relaxed. He talked about how his wife supported him and kept him grounded. They were expecting their first child later that year and he could not wait to get home.
I wanted to catch up with him before returning to Iraq for the tenth anniversary of the start of the war and I found him at his father’s house in Telford, Shorpshire. Robertson has left the army now. It happened after he was demoted for striking a soldier under his command. He’s also divorced.
He told me that over the years he’d had problems controlling his anger. He had drunk too much to try to blot out his problems and was deeply ashamed of how he had mistreated his ex-wife. He told me he hoped that their daughter might one day forgive him for what he’d done. Robertson preferred to take responsibility himself for his mistakes and bad behaviour, but he did concede that a small part of it might be due to the trauma of what he’d experienced in Iraq.
Now he is planning to marry his new girlfriend and move to Canada. He’s also thinking about a return to Iraq, to work as a team leader for a private security firm. In the meantime, to tide himself over and so he can give some money to his dad, he’s applied for a job as a supermarket van driver.
Aside from the tens of thousands who died, combatants and civilians in Iraq and the coalition countries have all been scarred by the conflict. Perhaps only those who continue to endure its consequences are truly entitled to answer the question: was it worth it?
• James Shaw’s documentary, Iraq: Ten Years On, is on 5 live at 9pm on Sunday
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