Iraq: Twenty years after the invasion

Nermeen Al-Mufti , Friday 24 Mar 2023

The fortunes of Saadoun Street in Baghdad serve as an indicator of the history of Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti in Baghdad.

Twenty years after the invasion
photo: AP


How to write about the night of 19-20 March 2003 when Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, aside from those in the Iraqi Kurdish Region, were bombed by thousands of warplanes when former US president George W Bush announced the beginning of the US-led invasion?

“I cannot talk about the past 20 years, because any talk about it does not cover the full extent of the devastation that took place in Iraq, which is known to all,” said Abdel-Amir Al-Majar, a political analyst, in a comment to Al-Ahram Weekly.

“However, I think Iraq will not need another 20 years to overcome this ordeal, but instead needs to return to itself away from the divisions created by some politicians and rejected by the Iraqi people.”

He said that these divisions would not be able to resist the national will, if this was allowed to become fully present in the political and social arenas.

“Life in Iraq before the occupation was not ideal,” said Rawa Ali, a woman who lost her husband in a car bomb in Baghdad in 2006. “But 20 years have passed, and we are still waiting for the new Iraq promised by Bush. Instead, Iraq has been pushed into chaos, and the Iraqis are paying a very high price.”

One way of presenting the history of the past 20 years is through Saadoun Street, one of the main streets in Baghdad that was once described as the most elegant street in the city and perhaps also the most elegant in Iraq as a whole and in the entire region.

This street, any street, is like the veins of the city, not suffering from blockages when the city is in full health, summed up in order, the application of the law, cleanliness, green squares, monuments, murals, and the preservation of heritage and distinctive architecture.

The veins of Baghdad began showing symptoms of disease even before the US-led invasion as a result of the years of sanctions against Iraq, but then they became sick owing to the US occupation and ongoing unsolved problems.

Saadoun Street is in downtown Baghdad and runs between Tahrir and Firdaws Squares. It witnessed the announcement of the fall of the regime led by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on 9 April 2003 with the toppling of the statue of Saddam that was in Firdaws Square, meaning that for a time it was renamed “Freedom Square.”

It became a site for demonstrations to deliver requests to the occupation forces. There was a small protest in June 2003, for example, when a father from the city of Amarah with his son who was barely ten years old raised a banner asking for help. Asked what he wanted, he said he had had to sell everything he owned for $1,500 by April 2003.

When the bombing of his hometown intensified, he had decided to come to Baghdad with his family, but on his way there a US patrol stopped him. After searching him, they took this small amount from him and gave him a paper with an address in Baghdad to retrieve it later, according to an Arab translator who was accompanying them.

Looking at the paper later, as the man was not able to read, it was found to consist of nothing but obscenities.

Saadoun Street also witnessed looters who began looting everything they could carry in the aftermath of the US-led invasion, including the statue of Abdel-Mohsen Al-Saadoun, a former Iraqi prime minister who died in 1929 after whom the street is named.

Its platform remained empty until another statue was placed on it that resembles the old one.

There were once two of the most beautiful theatres in Iraq on Saadoun Street, the Sixty Chair Theatre and the Baghdad Theatre. The first was lost among the ugly commercial changes that took place in the street, while the second was transformed due to negligence into a warehouse.

The most beautiful cinemas were also once located on Saadoun Street, and these were converted into theatres during the sanctions against Iraq. Unfortunately, they put on commercial plays that have nothing to do with Iraqi theatre, and now they have turned into crowded stores. There were also once bookstores in Saadoun Street, though these now are also gone.

Restaurants and hotels of varying degrees were also once located on the street, and patients and their companions used to come from the provinces to the clinics of the most famous doctors on Saadoun Street.

These are now struggling to survive after other streets in Baghdad have been turned into medical districts that include hospitals, pharmacies, and medicine stores. There were and still are many tourism and airline offices in Saadoun Street, and recently one could find an advertisement by the owner of a company put on the glass door, saying that “we do not deal in travel tickets for dollars.”

This means that the company will not issue tickets in order to exchange Iraqi dinars for dollars and then change them back again so that both sides get the benefit of the difference in the price on the black market.

In 2005, Saadoun Street witnessed a car bombing targeting a US army convoy. Iraqi civilians were killed, shops were destroyed, and cars were burned as a result. In 2008, Nasr Square, which lies along the street, saw one of the most bloody terrorist operations in Iraq up until that point, causing the death or injury of dozens of civilians.

The street witnessed young Iraqis protesting in Tahrir Square in the so-called (Tishreen) October protests in 2019 that lasted for many months and in which hundreds of protesters were killed and thousands injured, including those left with permanent disabilities.

Former Iraqi prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi promised to turn a building housing a Turkish restaurant into a museum of the protests, but this was not done and will not be done under the new government.

The walls of the Tahrir tunnel still contain the pictures of martyrs and graffiti drawn by the protesters. Today, there are fewer street children than there once were. The number was higher when the Palestine Hotel in Saadoun Street was used by Western and Arab networks at the beginning of the US occupation.

The hotel witnessed the murder of Spanish photographer José Coso in April 2003 by US forces.

Touring the area today, the present writer found that the fountain in Firdaws Square was working. However, by the end of the tour it had stopped. Asked why, I was told that the electricity supply had been cut off.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: