Yifat Susskind is executive director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization based in New York. Jillian Schwedler spoke with her on October 28, 2015, the week after Yanar Mohammed, head of MADRE’s partner group the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), testified before the UN Security Council about women’s vital role in sustainable peacebuilding and about the task of sheltering women fleeing sexual violence, including from areas controlled by ISIS.
What are the basic challenges for your work in Iraq, where the state does not fully function?
Regional responses to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have varied depending on regime perceptions of threat, not only from ISIS itself, but also from other potential rivals, challengers or enemies. Despite the jihadi group’s extensive use of violence in Syria and Iraq and its claims of responsibility for bombings and attacks in Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen—as well as France in mid-November—it was not necessarily the top security priority for any of these states.
In 2006, 30,000 Iraqis arrived in Syria every month, seeking and receiving safe haven from US occupation and sectarian warfare as kidnappings, death threats, and bombings by air and land engulfed Baghdad and the southern governorates of Iraq. By 2011, an estimated 1-2 million Iraqis had fled to neighboring countries.
At first glance, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) seems to have come out ahead from the takeover of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the flight of the Iraqi security forces from Mosul and its environs, the autonomous Kurdish authority has sent its peshmerga fighters into large swathes of northern Iraq, most notably Kirkuk and its oilfields. These gains have given the KRG new forms of leverage with Baghdad in negotiating Kurdish nationalist demands. They also have triggered expectations of Kurdish statehood among the Kurdish population of Iraq, a long-sought goal that could be bankrolled by large-scale, independent Kurdish oil exports.
What is happening in Iraq is a catastrophe, but not a sudden one. The violence in Iraq has been worsening steadily over the last few years. And more to the point, today’s crisis is the consequence of failed policies and failed politics — national, regional and international — years and even decades in the making.
No understanding of today’s Iraq is complete without the background of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and ensuing Gulf war, and the 13 years of UN economic sanctions, all of which set the stage for the additional disasters that would befall Iraq with the US-led invasion of 2003.
On the sidelines of the catastrophic failure of the Iraqi army to hold back the militias of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (or ISIS, as it is usually known), and the fall of Mosul to that group, a debate is taking place in the United States about whether this turn of events is yet another black mark in the massive ledger of retired Gen. David Petraeus. As Anne Barnard of the New York Times tweeted, “Remember the ‘Mosul miracle’ under Petraeus?”
In the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China began to host a small community of Arab scholars and journalists, recruited mostly through “revolutionary” channels like the FLN, the PLO, and the Iraqi and Sudanese Communist Parties. These experts were brought to China with the explicit purpose of editing and translating texts, as well as providing Arabic-language instruction at Chinese media, propaganda and educational institutions. This select group included a number of writers and intellectuals, such as Kadhim al-Samawi, Hanna Mina, Sheikh Jalal al-Hanafi and Hadi al-‘Alawi, the last of whom left the deepest mark on twentieth-century Arab intellectual life.
A few years ago, I began work on a crime novel set in Iraq. I borrowed the name of a real-life person, Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, as a writing prompt. Taking this man’s name seemed like nothing since my character was entirely fictitious and all resemblances purely coincidental.
Sinan Antoon, Ya Maryam (Beirut/Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2012).
Media coverage in the West can overstate the degree to which Christians are “disappearing” from the Middle East. But one place where such characterizations have merit is Iraq. In the years since the 2003 invasion led by the United States, at least half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country to escape the violence of war, occupation and insurgency, as well as a campaign of intimidation, forced expulsion and sectarian cleansing carried out by militias and criminal gangs. Numerous others have been internally displaced.
Jamal is not yet a teenager. His school closed in 2011, soon after the Syrian revolution turned into an armed conflict, and his father found him a factory job. One day in 2012 as he returned from work there was a battle going on in the main street near his home. Jamal immediately started carrying wounded children smaller than he is to shelter in a mosque. Then Syrian army reinforcements arrived, clearing the streets with gunfire and hitting Jamal in the spine. The youngsters who took him to the hospital advised him to say that “terrorists” had caused his injury. But Jamal did not want to lie — he told the doctors that a soldier had fired the bullet. The doctors told him to shut up and say it was the terrorists. But they treated him anyway.
Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the difficulties of writing about the exercise of power inside authoritarian Arab regimes have been well known. The regimes’ inner workings existed, and to some extent continue to exist, in a black box, with few clues as to what records they kept, if indeed they kept very many at all. Hence we are doubly fortunate in Joseph Sassoon’s new volume — first, in the treasure trove of Baath Party documents “liberated” from Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and second, in Sassoon’s careful and judicious review.
Ten years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Iraqi women suffer from pervasive hardships — the overall lack of security, gender-based violence, the feminization of poverty and poor access to basic services. Women working at universities face all these challenges, as well as others particular to higher education.
Two clouds kissed silently in the Baghdad sky. I watched them flee westward, perhaps out of shyness, leaving me alone on the bench beneath the French palm tree (so called because it stood in the courtyard in front of the French department) to wait for Areej. I looked for something worth reading in that morning’s al-Jumhuriyya, and found a good translation of a Neruda poem in the culture section, besieged on all sides by doggerel barking praises of the Party and the Revolution. The breeze nudged the palm fronds above my head to applaud. It was April, “the month of fecundity, the birth of the Baath and the Leader,” as one of the posters on the college walls announced.
“We do not know our destiny. The Jordanian government might ask us to leave at any moment,” said Hana, a widow in her fifties. “There is no rest for a guest.”
The Coalition Provisional Authority, the US-British body that briefly ruled in Baghdad from May 2003 to June 2004, had grand ambitions for Iraq. The idea was to transform the country completely from what was basically a command economy (notwithstanding liberalization measures in the 1990s) into an open market and from a dictatorship into a liberal democracy. The radical nature of these plans and orders, coupled with the CPA’s swift dissolution, has led many to dismiss the body as a hasty and ill-conceived imperial experiment. Indeed it was — and a destructive one as well. But the CPA period still deserves serious examination. It was the only time when the US, in its capacity as occupier, was in charge of Iraq administratively and legally.
From 1990 to 2003, Iraq languished under comprehensive UN sanctions that prohibited foreign trade. When sanctions were finally lifted, many economists and pundits, as well as Iraqis themselves, hoped for a rapidly expanding economy, brisk reconstruction and a return to prosperity. They have been sorely disappointed.
American soldiers are gone from Iraq, along with much of Washington’s influence. The Obama administration, which came to office opposed to the entire enterprise but then tried, and failed, to extend the troop presence, professes still to play a leading part in what goes on. In reality, it looks more like a bemused bystander who hopes that, somehow, things will not abruptly fall to pieces.