“I had to leave Iraq, my country, and my family because otherwise I wouldn’t have survived,” Yahya Algarib recalls, reflecting on a painful anniversary in the history of his country.
No, he’s not talking about the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which began 13 years ago this week.
It’s also the 25th anniversary of 1991 Iraqi uprising, and event that is often forgotten in the U.S., but is etched deep in the collective memory of the Iraqi people.
For many Iraqis, it’s an even more troubling example than the 2003 invasion of a hypocritical and even deceptive U.S. foreign policy in Iraq.
Algarib recalls the 1991 “intifada” or uprising that followed the first Gulf War, when the Iraqi people, mainly the Shiites, protested against Saddam Hussein. Iraqis were totally exhausted following the bloody years of the Iran-Iraqi war and then the invasion of Kuwait, and were eager to end decades of repression.
After Saddam’s forces had retreated from Kuwait in the part of the war most American’s will recall playing out live on CNN, the U.S. air force dropped millions of leaflets around the country encouraging the people of Iraq to revolt against the dictatorship. Within the first two weeks, the power was with the Iraqi people, and 14 cities fell to rebel forces.
But to the Americans’ dismay, instead of a neat military coup, they got a full-on uprising. Intimidated by the turmoil and the threat of potential alternatives, the U.S. reversed its position and began helping Saddam Hussein suppress the rebellion they had encouraged.
In his 2007 book “Web of Deceit: the History of Western Complicity in Iraq from Churchill to Kennedy to George W Bush” Barry M. Lando gives a behind-the-scenes view of American policymaking during the uprising: “Indeed, some in the Bush I administration were recommending that he do just that: support the revolt he had called for. They were overruled.”
He quotes testimony from Rocky Gonzalez, who was a Special Forces warrant officer serving with southern Iraq and witnessed the uprising first hand:
“The rebels wanted aid, they wanted medical treatment, and some of the individuals wanted us to give them weapons and ammunition so they could go and fight… They weren’t asking us to fight. They felt they could do that themselves. Basically they were just saying ‘we rose up like you asked us, now give us some weapons and arms to fight.'”
Algarib lost his family and his homeland in 1991, when he had to flee under threat of being executed for his involvement in the uprising. Bitterly, he recalls the U.S. enticing Iraqis to rise up, only to aid the suppression of the uprising by Saddam.
He waited in the purgatory of a Bedouin settlement camp in the desert outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for years. After countless interviews, he was finally approved by American authorities for refugee resettlement to the U.S.
Twelve years later, in March of 2003 the U.S began an ill-fated invasion of Iraq, under the pretenses that they wanted to help Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country and rid the world of the threat of Saddam Hussein’s government.
According to Algarib, when the 2003 invasion came around, the collective trust between the Iraqi people and the U.S. government had been so broken from the 1991 debacle that Iraqis like him were skeptical.
But ultimately, many made the decision to compromise that broken trust for the hope of safety and security in their country if Saddam was ousted.
Mushtak Jabbar agrees. He left Iraq to work and study in China in 1998, and came to the Seattle area as a refugee two years ago. He’s now an Associate Professor of Geoscience at Highline College in Des Moines.
When he learned of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he says he was happy, hopeful, but cautious. He still had doubts about the integrity and transparency of the U.S.’s involvement in his country.
With a heavy heart, he says the Iraqi people seem to be destined to choose between two evils.
“I would go as far as to ally with the devil, to get rid of the hellish nightmare we were living in under Saddam’s rule,” Jabbar says.
Hanging on to some faith that the U.S. would honor their promise of supporting his people seemed to be the better of the two evils. He was better off supporting an aggressive military invasion than a dictatorship that had spread like cancer through his country, he reasoned.
But according to Jabbar, the U.S. government betrayed Iraqis with fatal strategic errors not once, but twice. Once in 1991 when they helped Saddam suppress the uprising, and again in 2003 when they disbanded the Iraqi army, creating a vacuum, or what he calls a “black hole” for terrorist organizations fester in.
“We lost security,” he said. “The army is the fundamental base of safety and security, it was then the break-up of the Iraqi state.”
Algarib and Jabbar seemed heartbroken with the 1991 betrayal, but they also had welcomed the U.S. involvement as a last hope to overthrow the tyrant Saddam Hussein.
For Algarib, 2003 was bittersweet. After spending 12 years in exile, just three months after the American invasion he was finally able to get into Mosel in Southern Iraq to meet with his family members who he thought he would never be able to see again. He later married an Iraqi woman, and now lives with her and their three children in Burien.
He also runs the Iraqi Community Center of Seattle, providing social services and other assistance for the new refugees from Iraq who are resettled in our region.
Surprisingly, those refugees continue arriving in Washington state in steady numbers, as more Iraqis leave the county in their pursuit of safety and a better future for their families (and as those that fled long ago finally make it through the refugee resettlement process).
One of the recently arrived is Mohammad, who requested his last name not be used to protect family members who are still in Iraq. He says he fully supported the U.S. invasion in 2003 and even worked with the American army from 2003 till 2010, before he decided to flee the violence and threats to his life and seek resettlement.
He now lives in Burien with his wife and four children, but says he feels frustrated with the difficulty of finding a job that provides the salary and lifestyle he had in Iraq. He says he would go back to serve with the U.S. army in Iraq again at the drop of a hat if they needed him.
Even so, Mohammad can’t hide his longing for the relative safety and security that existed back under Saddam’s rule. And Algarib and Jabbar agree.
Jabbar insists he wouldn’t wish dictatorship upon anyone, but says the lawlessness in Iraq has caused the violence and deaths to increase exponentially .
He and his countrymen are finally free from dictatorship, but they’ve traded it for chaos.