15 Years Ago I Helped Oversee Iraq’s First Democratic Election

15 Years Ago I Helped Oversee Iraq’s First Democratic Election

15 Years Ago I Helped Oversee Iraq’s First Democratic Election

The children I saw then would be adults now. I wonder how tired they must be of being stuck between the US and Iran.


In 2005, I stood outside the compound gate of an abandoned schoolhouse and watched Iraqis gather in long crooked lines to vote. It was mid-October and warm, and the Iraqis came in groups of two or three, waiting easily. Mothers stood in line with their children. It was a peaceful moment in a place that was, by all definitions, a web of violence.

I was a US Marine then, in an infantry battalion assigned to a dusty valley where the Euphrates river meets the Syrian border. When we arrived, the valley was largely under the control of Al Qaeda–backed anti-occupation insurgents, thanks namely to a shortage of American manpower. But our leaders had a mandate, and by October we had managed to clear half the valley in time for the Iraqis living in the smaller towns along the river could vote in the referendum to ratify their new constitution.

When they left the school to go home, they flashed big smiles and peace symbols with the tips of their vee’d fingers stained with purple ink—the mark of having voted.

I felt pride watching those men and women choose. It was early in the war, very early in comparison to how long it would go on (at least this iteration of it), but despite our distinctly American need to invade a country on such a stack of dubious fears, lies, and hubris, the Marines around me felt a sense of hope seeing Iraqis come to vote for their own independent future. It also seemed like our way out of Iraq, that eventually they would be self-governing enough to thrive, or at least manage, on their own, without outside influence.

The US military understood this, that a democratic, truly self-governing Iraq would give the United States a way out. This has never changed.

Iraqis in Baghdad have been protesting their government since October 1, 2019, against Iranian influence and rampant corruption in their government and high unemployment. In November, protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in Karbala. At least three were killed by Iraqi security forces. Later that month, another 44 protesters were killed by Iraqi security forces in Nasiriyah and elsewhere.

The protests that began last October are just one in a string of protests over government corruption and high unemployment reaching back to at least 2011. There are more protests scheduled later in January.

From October to the end of the year, more than 300 Iraqis have been killed and another 15,000 or more wounded, most by Iraqi troops. Little of this has affected the zeitgeist in the United States; the American people have had little personal need to think about their wars overseas. The Iraqi people have always been a backwater interest of American foreign policy in the Middle East, both under Bush and Obama, and the intricate web of our conflicts always seems to outpace Trump’s narrow understanding of the world outside of his own gross ego.

Iraqi protesters have been killed expressing the rights Americans purportedly sought for them when I was there—the right to self-govern without foreign influence—only to have that right further curtailed by the Trump administration’s knuckle-dragging response to manipulation by Iran.

The Iraqi people have borne the brunt of the hatred between the United States and Iran for many years. And now their efforts have been threatened again by war.

In clear anticipation of a hot conflict, shortly after Suleimani was assassinated, Iraqis took to Twitter to voice their fear. The hashtags #iraqi_parliament_does_not_represent_us, #iraq_is_not_war_ground, and #keep_your_conflicts_away_from_iraq have blossomed on social media since January 3.

“Mean world,” tweeted Zainab, a Baghdad protester, “We’re not just a numbers!! [sic] Iraqi people want peaceful life and strong independent country. We’ve been protesting since three months for it and still. We lost enough! More than 500 soul are killed and 20,000 injured!! #Iraq_Is_Not_War_Ground.”

Zuhur, another Iraqi voicing her opinion, tweeted, “Iraq is not your battlefield. Fight your war away from us. #Iraq_Is_Not_War_Ground.”

On Sunday, Iraq’s parliament voted on a nonbinding resolution “to revoke its request for assistance from the international coalition fighting Islamic State” instead of backing the Iraqi people’s freedom of speech and their right to self-determination. Only 51 percent of the politicians voted. Of those who voted, none of which included Sunni and Kurdish minorities, all supported the resolution.

Trump threatened to sanction Iraq for asking the Americans to leave without paying for our airbases. Talking to reporters on Air Force One, he said: “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

How supportive of a democratic Iraq are we now?

“If the US wants war with Iran the war should not be in Iraq,” said Dalia Al-Rekapy, a 24-year-old woman living in Baghdad. “We cannot afford another war.”

Al-Rekapy, a lawyer who practices civil and personal status law, explained to me that the Iranian government has more effective leverage in the Iraqi government than the Iraqi people who elected them, which points to an inherent and ready-made strategy for the United States: Back the protesters.

The more I’ve learned since coming home about the dynamic between the Iraqi people, its government, and Iran, the more I want to see American involvement replaced by an Iraqi government that represents the will of its people and not the will of neighboring countries, but the cultural connection between those two countries (namely religious) makes that difficult.

Trump killed Soleimani not to protect Iraqis or further any real US strategy, but because he was afraid, in his own mind, to look like Obama over an embassy attack. “It’s nice to wake up in a country who once again leads like they should,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr. on January 1, announcing the narrow action-hero concerns of his geography-flunking/summer school mind. “When our embassy’s is [sic] under attack & they ask for help they actually get it… Immediately! Yesterday’s action vs the disgraceful response at Benghazi is all you need to know about leadership then & now.”

So once again, Iraqis are enduring our warmongering. New boss, same as the old boss.

The Iraqis’ protests are driven by the same self-governing interest that drove them to the polls in 2005. They do not want Iran to influence their government any more than the United States professes disdain over Iranian influence in the region. Backing the Iraqi protesters demanding an end to corruption and increased economic opportunity is America’s way out of Iraq.

“Trump must listen to the people, not the [Iraqi] government,” Dalia explained to me. “We are afraid of sanctions.”

I’m tired of American troops being asked to sacrifice their bodies on an ego-based, rudderless strategy. I’m tired of American political and policy-making industries that have paid campaign trail lip-service to ending the wars but kept them going once they gained power. I’m tired of seeing Iraq serve as a battlefield for the mindless war-drumming between stale antagonists vying for little more than a better gas price and ideological pride. I’m tired of seeing the Iraqi people pay the price for it.

And if I’m tired, living here in the United States as I do where I have little threat to worry me, how tired are the Iraqis I saw flash me peace signs with their fingers stained by ink? The children I saw then would be adults now.

I asked Dalia what she was tired of.

“Everything,” she said.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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