Beyond the binary image
Three months later, I returned to Iraq for the first time since 1991 as part of a collective to film a documentary about Iraqis in a post-Saddam Iraq. We wanted to show my countrymen as three-dimensional beings, beyond the binary of Saddam versus the United States. In American media, Iraqis had been reduced to either victims of Saddam who longed for occupation or supporters and defenders of dictatorship who opposed the war.
We wanted Iraqis to speak for themselves. For two weeks, we drove around Baghdad and spoke to many of its residents. Some were still hopeful, despite being drained by years of sanctions and dictatorship. But many were furious and worried about what was to come. The signs were already there: the typical arrogance and violence of a colonial occupying power.
My short visit only confirmed my conviction and fear that the invasion would spell disaster for Iraqis. Removing Saddam was just a by-product of another objective: dismantling the Iraqi state and its institutions. That state was replaced with a dysfunctional and corrupt semi-state.
We were still filming in Baghdad when L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, announced the formation of the so-called Governing Council in July 2003. The names of its members were each followed by their sect and ethnicity. Many of the Iraqis we spoke to on that day were upset by the institutionalisation of an ethno-sectarian quota system.
Ethnic and sectarian tensions already existed, but their translation into political currency was toxic. Those unsavoury characters on the governing council, most of whom were allies of the United States from the preceding decade, went on to loot the country, making it one of the most corrupt in the world.
We were fortunate to have been able to shoot our film in that brief period during which there was relative public security. Shortly after our visit, Iraq descended into violence; suicide bombings became the norm. The invasion made my country a magnet for terrorists ("Weʹll fight them there so we donʹt have to fight them here," President George W. Bush had said) and Iraq later descended into a sectarian civil war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more, irrevocably changing the country’s demography.
The next time I returned to Baghdad was in 2013. The American tanks were gone, but the effects of the occupation were everywhere. I had low expectations, but I was still disheartened by the ugliness of the city where I had grown up and horrified by how dysfunctional, difficult and dangerous daily life had become for the great majority of Iraqis.