There could have been no hope of escape. This was the human cost of taking on Saddam Hussein: violent death. Even though months had passed since the building had been burnt out, the scorch marks were still visible. Now, some months after the US-led attack on Iraq, a clearer idea of the numbers who had been killed was starting to emerge.
It was not 2003 or after. It was 1992. The schoolteacher who was showing me the gutted brick and concrete building said it had been the local headquarters for Saddam Hussein’s secret police. Countless opponents of his regime had been tortured there. It had been torched by a vengeful population in the wake of the 1991 war.
Now this part of northern Iraq, with its majority Kurdish population, was no longer under the control of Saddam Hussein’s government. I had been able to enter Iraq without a visa, from Turkey. My guide was a Kurd. During the time I spent with him during that reporting trip, he spoke more than once of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons at Halabja. Memories of murderous oppression did not fade.
I thought of the teacher again in the autumn of 2002. The United States, under another President Bush, was once again preparing to attack Iraq. By then, I was the BBC’s correspondent in the Gaza Strip. The post offered a rare perspective. I listened to and watched international English language news media in which contributors queued up to express support for the expected invasion. The people among whom I lived – the Palestinians of Gaza – were overwhelmingly against it.
In Gaza then, Saddam Hussein was hailed by many as a hero, lionised for his implacable enmity towards Israel. His picture, in which he was often shown in traditional Arab dress, appeared on shop fronts and rear windows. A week or so before the invasion began, with a winter wind from the desert making Gaza unusually cold, there was a ceremony in which funds from Iraq were distributed to the families of those – fighters and civilians alike – who had been killed in the conflict with Israel.
I spoke to another teacher during those days: Ahmed Abdullah, who had arrived Gaza in 1948 as an infant refugee. Arguing that democracy would never come to Iraq on the barrel of a gun, Mr Abdullah shared his fellow Gazans’ opposition to the planned invasion.
He shared something with his fellow teacher, too. Like my guide through the shell of the secret police building, Mr Abdullah had a hatred of being trapped, and oppressed.
As the invasion and occupation of Iraq went on, public support for Saddam Hussein in Gaza fell away with the winter wind. Demonstrations petered out; a large tent set up as a focus of opposition to the war was taken down.
Later that year I went to report from Iraq on the aftermath of the invasion. Arriving in Bagdad in early December, I remember being struck by the number of US soldiers wearing sunglasses even in the dull days of midwinter. They may have seen themselves as liberators. They looked like occupiers.
The timing of my trip meant that I was part of the BBC team reporting from Iraq when Saddam Hussein was captured. I was the first BBC reporter to reach the village where the deposed dictator had been hauled from the hole in the ground where he had been hiding.
The glee with which senior officials celebrated created a false sense of victory. As I noted in my recent book, Reporting Conflict, “It was undoubtedly a triumph for the coalition, especially in propaganda terms, but audiences probably inferred that its strategic significance was greater than it really was.”
It was only months later, in the spring of 2004, that the insurgency began – provoked then, perhaps, not only by loyalty to the deposed dictator but also by hatred of the occupation and the chaos which had come with it.
While the political leaders who launched the invasion remain largely unrepentant, they also remain ignorant: ignorant of what it means to live under occupation; ignorant of how it feels to live with the threat of suicide bombers; ignorant of how angry any population on earth can feel as a result. The approach was the diplomatic equivalent of the dark glasses which rendered the occupying forces faceless. Policy makers were distant, their perspectives obscured.
Iraq Body Count has calculated that more than 100,000 civilian deaths followed the 2003 invasion. Among the dead, there were probably many who once dreamed of an Iraq no longer under Saddam Hussein’s power.
What went wrong? To borrow that Clinton campaign slogan from the 1992 election, “It’s the occupation, stupid.”
James Rodgers is the author of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), and of No Road Home: fighting for Land and Faith in Gaza (forthcoming, Abramis, 2013). He is a former BBC correspondent in Moscow, Brussels, and Gaza. He now lectures in Journalism at City University London. This article originally appeared in the New Statesman, UK.