The Nahrein Network


'We are still displaced,' 20 years after the Iraq war

5 April 2023

Iraqi National Museum Deputy Director Mushin Hasan holds his head in his hands as he sits on destroyed artefacts in Baghdad in April 2003

By Hanna Duggal and AJLabs

“One of my earliest memories is from a week or so before the invasion,” Meethak al-Khatib, an Iraqi journalist and filmmaker, tells Al Jazeera. “I came into our living room. My uncle had come over. He was putting duct tape on all the windows. I asked him why he was doing that. He said so the glass will not turn to shrapnel. While he was doing that, on our TV was the last time I saw Saddam as president.”

On March 19, 2003, a United States-led coalition began bombing Iraq. One day later, a ground invasion began. Al-Khatib was seven years old.

At the time, al-Khatib and his family lived in Ramadi, 110km (70 miles) west of Baghdad. They left their home during the early onset of the invasion, but the family was unable to meet their basic needs in Heet, a city in Al-Anbar province, so they returned to Ramadi to find that US forces had set up a base next to the family home.

“Things in our neighbourhood were very problematic with the US base being near,” al-Khatib says. “We always had the fear of attacks happening on the base. I can recall that an attack or disturbance would occur at least once a week against this base.”

After al-Qaeda's attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, US forces invaded Afghanistan with the purpose of quashing the group’s network and bringing down its leader, Osama bin Laden. Later on, allegations that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction was used to justify the invasion of Iraq as a continuation of the US "war on terror".

Iraq’s dictator was toppled, but no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.

Instead of the promised democracy, the US war and its destruction scarred the country, its people and culture.

Al-Khatib's family has been displaced since 2014 after the emergence of ISIL (ISIS) and its takeover of vast swathes of Iraq and Syria, including Ramadi.

“During the ISIS war, we lost our home,” al-Khatib says. “And I keep linking it to the 2003 war. Everything that is happening in our lives - displacement, not having the life we deserve, ... we are asking to have normal ordinary family lives.”

4.4 million internally displaced

The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq lasted until 2011 and led to multiple waves of large-scale displacement. The number of internally displaced people (IDPs) rose from zero registered in 2003 to 2.6 million in 2007.

By the time the US announced an end to its combat operations in December 2011, the number of Iraqi IDPs stood at 1.3 million.

However, with the rise, advance and fall of ISIL from 2013 to 2019, the number of IDPs increased again, reaching a peak of 4.4 million in 2015.

As of 2022, there were nearly 1.2 million internally displaced people across the country.

2.3 million refugees

In addition to those internally displaced, millions more Iraqis became refugees. At their peak in 2007, more than 2.3 million Iraqis had fled the country, and 80 percent had ended up in neighbouring Syria and Jordan.

Among those who fled in the years following the invasion were half of Iraq’s registered doctors, according to the Iraqi Medical Association.

As of 2022, the United Nations had registered 345,305 Iraqi refugees living mostly in Germany (44 percent), Jordan (10 percent) and Iran (10 percent). The infographic below breaks down where Iraqi refugees fled after the US invasion.

Widespread violence

The removal of Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum that escalated sectarian tensions and resulted in a civil war.

“There’s so many different actors with guns and power and authority over us,” al-Khatib says. “So instead of one dictator before, we have hundreds now.”

“I think it changed, everything changed," he says. "I just don't like the options that now, as a young Iraqi, I've been given. If the options are between the war or Saddam, then I don't want either.”

According to data compiled by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, at least 7,966 conflict events were recorded across the country from 2003 to 2021. That is at least one conflict event per day over the course of 19 years.

More than 60 percent (4,955 events) of the violence occurred in only three provinces - Nineveh, Baghdad and Al-Anbar. The map below highlights where these violent conflicts occurred.

Economic instability

Since the invasion of Iraq, the country has suffered from an extended period of high inflation. At its height in 2006, the consumer inflation rate hit 53 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Despite US objectives to maintain economic stability and rebuild Iraq’s oil infrastructure after the 2003 invasion, entrenched violence, commodity shortages, dollarisation and unstable monetary policy contributed to high inflation.

In 2008, inflation was brought under control. However, in recent years, Iraq’s cost of living has once again skyrocketed. In 2020, a decline in oil prices led to the devaluation of the Iraqi dinar. According to the World Bank, over the past decade, oil revenues accounted for more than 99 percent of Iraq's exports and 42 percent of its gross domestic product.

In March 2022, protests broke out in southern Iraq as the price of goods rose sharply. Officials blamed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“At least in the previous regime, despite a dictatorship, it was a state that was functioning, that had infrastructure, an economy that is functioning despite sanctions and a bureaucracy in a government - something that takes decades to build," al-Khatib says. "Clearly the governments that came up after 2003, they didn't figure that out. They didn't do it right.”

“Sometimes I remember things from 2003, and I say, ‘Oh, that's why I'm very stressed. That's why I feel a bit depressed,'” al-Khatib says. “It's like a combination of all this mess that the Americans left in my country is following me like the shadow of this war.”

According to Iraq Body Count, at least 210,090 civilians have been killed in war-related violence since 2003. The highest annual fatalities occurred in 2006 when about 30,000 civilians were killed.

The Costs of War project estimates that hundreds of thousands more Iraqis may have died from the knock-on effects of the conflict.

According to the US Department of Defense [PDF], 4,431 soldiers were killed in action and non-hostile events and 31,994 were wounded in combat during the Iraq War.

The war has also left scars on the country’s heritage.

After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, looters broke into the National Museum of Iraq and stole 15,000 objects, including artefacts dating back thousands of years.

“The really terrible damage and the stuff that's much, much harder to quantify is looting from outside the museum on archaeological sites and cultural heritage sites,” Eleanor Robson, professor of ancient Middle Eastern history at University College London (UCL), tells Al Jazeera. “So [that is] stuff that's still in the ground and has never been excavated or studied. It is impossible to quantify.”

Under ISIL, further losses of cultural and religious sites occurred, including the destruction of the city of Mosul and monuments in Nineveh province. By the end of May 2016, 41 buildings of historical significance were said to have been destroyed or ruined in Mosul, according to Rashid International, a network of archaeologists, cultural heritage experts and professionals safeguarding and promoting the cultural heritage of Iraq.

“Heritage is from the same root as inheritance, and it's different from history,” Robson says. “Heritage is the bit of the path that connects to us, that we feel a personal attachment to, that we're rooted in. It's what we have inherited from our ancestors. And so it gives people in general, wherever they are in the world, that sense of identity.”

“The longer consequences [are] that a whole generation is gone, and [there is] nobody to teach and encourage the new generation,” the professor says.

Robson and her colleagues run the Nahrein Network, based at UCL. It is focused on the sustainable development of Middle Eastern history and heritage.

“Our mission is reskilling and upskilling Iraqi heritage professionals to get their voices and their opinions heard,” Robson explains.

Education severely impacted

The impact on education in Iraq has been widespread. Before the war, Iraqi education was well resourced and open to women. However, the US invasion severely impacted the sector and restricted access for many segments of society.

A survey conducted by Iraq's Ministry of Education at more than 3,200 secondary schools across the country found that between June and August 2003, 80 percent of schools were either moderately or severely damaged.

The most affected provinces were Najaf (90 percent damaged), Nineveh (88 percent) and Tamim (87 percent). The least affected were the northeastern provinces of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. No data was available for Baghdad.

The 2003 toppling of the Iraqi government led to many academics leaving the country. More have left due to sanctions put in place in the 1990s, war and suppressed freedom of speech.

“There was an immediate impact on my colleagues," Robson says, adding that many academics were killed after the invasion.

"It was just chaos, and [they] were assassinated or killed in terrible accidents. I can think of two colleagues who were run off the road,” she says.

“My mom was a teacher, and she worked in a school nearby," al-Khatib says. "At one point, al-Qaeda started to have a lot of control in my city. One day, [my mom] came back home, and she said, ‘I have been told that I have to wear a niqab now’ because it was not acceptable that she wore just a hijab.”

As for his hopes for the future, al-Khatib says he wants his family to have to worry only about regular things.

"[I want to be able to] worry if my sister will get into the university she wanted or [for] my dad [to worry] that he's not changing his car to the car he likes or my mom wanting us to go to take a holiday, or my brother wanting to go to another place.

“We still really suffer a lot from all these decisions [taken since the war in Iraq], so what I really want is just to have a normal life, to be left alone, to not be forced and told to do things.”

Read article here