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Iraqi journalists reflect on how their lives changed after the U.S.-led invasion 20 years ago

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Twenty years ago, President George W. Bush addressed the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING

GEORGE W BUSH: 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.

RASCOE: The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had begun, and explosions thundered across Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

RASCOE: Iraqi Ghaith Abdul-Ahad remembers that time like this.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: You cower in your apartment, your bedroom. You hear the airplanes. You hear the screeching of missiles, and then you hear the bombs. And you wake up next day, and you try to guess what was bombed in the city the night before.

RASCOE: It was only the start of what will become a long national nightmare, says Rasha Al Aqeedi.

RASHA AL AQEEDI: We were actually a lot safer when the bombs were dropping in 2003 than we were the few years after in the streets, which is such a dark irony.

RASCOE: Both Rasha and Ghaith would later become journalists, witnesses to the violence that tore their country apart. They joined us for a conversation to reflect, all these years later, on the war.

ABDUL-AHAD: I personally never thought that the regime would fall so quickly in two or three weeks. I thought it would be a prolonged war. I thought part of the south would be occupied. So I was really, really, you know, surprised, shocked when my neighbor knocked at my door and said, the Americans are here. And they were down in my street. I mean, imagine you grow up being told that this is the enemy, this is the enemy. And then you go down to the street, and you see these huge, amphibious armored vehicles - kind of the Marines - and this group of Marines down in your street, in your roundabout, pointing their guns. You know, you stand there with the rest of the neighborhood, watching them. You don't know what to do. I mean, what is going to happen now? Are we occupied?

RASCOE: And, Rasha, what do you remember about the reaction to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein?

AL AQEEDI: It's very, very hard to explain how that felt at the moment, how it still feels till this day, to people who have not grown up in dictatorships where there's only one man ruling for decades. When someone lives in a democracy or a country that allows elections, where faces and leaders, they change every four years, every eight years, it's hard to explain how that one figure that your entire life revolved around, someone whose name was very much synonymous with the country itself - so there was no Iraq and Saddam. Saddam was Iraq. Iraq was Saddam. And that was very ingrained in our minds and in our conscience that when the regime collapsed, there was nothing after that. What's going to happen next is something that we were not even able to imagine.

ABDUL-AHAD: Saddam, for us, was everything. I mean, like, he was on TV. He was on school notebooks. He was on the radio. His posters were in the street. When I was a child, we had the kind of a Japanese cartoon, "Grendizer," and I thought Saddam, Grendizer and God were manifestations of the same entity. I mean, seriously. I mean, I thought - you know, I mean, it was easier to...

RASCOE: He was such a part of the ethos, of the air, of everything, of life.

ABDUL-AHAD: Absolutely.

RASCOE: Yeah.

ABDUL-AHAD: And he was more dangerous than God. I mean, you can tell jokes about God in Iraq, and no one will do anything to you. Tell a joke about Saddam, and you will disappear. And I think there was an hour in which Iraq was free - really free. I mean, that happened sometime between end of 8 of April, when suddenly, all the security forces in Baghdad disappeared, and the 9 of April, when the Americans arrived. And that moment, when Baghdad hung between a dictator and occupation, I think that was the golden hour.

RASCOE: And the country did fall into sectarian violence. And obviously, the interaction with the U.S. troops, that changed. Tell me about that shift. Do you think that was inevitable?

ABDUL-AHAD: Look, I mean, people still talk today and still kind of pontificate - what if the Americans had done so and so? What if they did not disband the Army and the Ba'ath Party and whatnot? I personally think it was inevitable for the chaos to ensue. I mean, people could not believe that this America had no plan for the day after the toppling. The lack of security allowed anyone who had any grievance with the Americans to flow into Iraq. So you had the jihadis coming from as far as Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, flooding into Iraq. You had the Iranians, who had issues with the Americans, planning to defeat the American adventure in Iraq rather than waiting for the Iranians to come.

And then the ultimate failure of this adventure was sectarianism. You know, the American armies, the American invaders, the American politicians were fed this sectarian narrative on Iraq, which - you know, which kind of developed in the West by these exile politicians. And they kind of portrayed Iraq as this - on a binary issue, on a Sunni versus Shia. Yes, Saddam was Sunni, but the regime was not a Sunni regime. The regime was not sectarian. The regime was Saddam clan-based. And by pushing all the Sunnis into a corner by association - because Saddam was a Sunni, then you're all guilty by association - that was the spark of, you know, the civil war that came later.

RASCOE: Rasha, I gather - or I understand that, like many Iraqis, you received a death threat during this time. What happened? Can you tell me about that?

AL AQEEDI: At the time, I had just graduated from college, and I was working on a contract at the city hall. And I got a phone call, and it was someone who referred to themselves as a member of the Dawla. Dawla means state. But when they say al-Dawla, we know exactly they mean the Islamic State. Now, this was 2007. We only heard - the rest of the world heard of the Islamic State in 2014. And my accusation was that I was working with the government, and that if I did not stop, if I did not cease to work for them, they would capture me. I would be beheaded, and they would record the beheading and make sure that everyone in the city saw it.

I went to my supervisor, and I told him what had happened. And there were two opinions. My supervisor said, OK, then you should quit because we have no way to protect you. Whereas the governor, when he heard, he said, no, you have to be brave, and you have to fight back. You cannot let these terrorists defeat you. And at the time, this man, several members of his own family had been killed by these groups. He just didn't seem to care anymore. So I did. I had to quit.

And in the place that I worked, in the city hall, there were at least 10 people I know that were killed, that received death threats and were killed by these groups. Several of them were also women. So it was not, like, a prank call. It wasn't someone who was just making this vague threat for whatever reason. It was definitely very serious. And had I not taken those steps to remove myself from that place and from that work environment, I do believe I would not be here today.

RASCOE: A decade after the U.S. invasion, Iraq saw the rise of the Islamic State militant group. And, Ghaith, you reported on this. As an Iraqi, there must have been times when you thought, like, will this nightmare never end? And I know this is - violence has been a part of the life, but that has to do something to people, to - you survive, but you - it manifests itself in some way, that trauma, right?

ABDUL-AHAD: You know, I was in Mosul in 2017 during the liberation of the city from the Islamic State, the ultimate manifestation of this kind of - the whole jihad ideology. And I saw Iraqi security forces, soldiers and whatnot, and they were conducting the most horrible torture, conducting it on people who were kind of denounced by the locals as members of the Islamic State. And I asked one officers, like, why are you torturing him like this? I mean, don't you want to interrogate him? Do you want to get some information? Anything? He says, I don't care. I don't want anything from him. It just became violence for the sake of violence. So of course, trauma does not disappear from a society. Half - maybe not half, but a number of our parliamentarians were, you know, were gangsters, were, you know, members of militias who committed violence. They are sitting in the Parliament.

AL AQEEDI: And if I can just add something quickly to that - they toppled Saddam, but in some way, they admired him. They wanted to be him. Maybe on a lower scale, on a smaller scale, but they were all mini Saddams. And that was a joke we would say. We used to have one crazy mass murderer. Now we have countless crazy mass murderers leading the country.

RASCOE: But is that the legacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the idea that Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, but there's still - that idea of how to get power was not?

ABDUL-AHAD: If we look at Iraq now, it's this kind of mutant state. It's a mixture of all these things. So we have, in theory, democracy, and we have a constitution that guarantees personal freedom - I don't know, freedom of thought. And yet our penal code is the penal code from 1969, established by the Ba'athist regime. I call it a regime. I mean, I don't know. The government in Iraq now is working hard to erode whatever personal freedoms - that's the only thing that we got out of this whole American invasion, and that is being eroded. So what is the legacy of Iraq? It's a country of contradiction. It's a very wealthy country, yet a lot of its people, the majority of its people, live in poverty. It is a democracy, yet it's not. It is equipped by the Americans, yet its generals are aligned with Iran. It's a country of contradictions.

RASCOE: And you both now live abroad. How do you see the future of Iraq? What is the future for those who stay?

AL AQEEDI: I think for me, how I see is that the only thing that can save Iraq is the generational shift that is happening. This new generation, the post-2003 generation, they lived in somewhat freedom, at least freedom of thought, that when I grew up - and I believe Ghaith, too - we did not have that. We were not really allowed to think. They have access to the world. They've been exposed to different ideas and ideologies, and they have somewhat of a choice. And also, immigration is not really an option anymore. So for this generation, they need the country to work. They have to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAD INSTRUMENTAL PIANO MUSIC ZONE'S "SAD INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC")

RASCOE: That was Rasha Al Aqeedi, an editor at New Lines Magazine, and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, the author of the new book, "A Stranger In Your Own City." Thank you both so much for joining us.

ABDUL-AHAD: Thank you so much.

AL AQEEDI: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAD INSTRUMENTAL PIANO MUSIC ZONE'S "SAD INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.