Ten years on, and even Tony Blair has told the BBC that “Life in Iraq was not as he had hoped” and Amnesty Recently published a report stating that torture, unfair trials and other human rights abuses were still rife.
In an email interview, I spoke to Dr. Bassam Yousif, an Associate Professor at Indiana State University. I began by asking him about his life growing up in Iraq.
He told me:
“I left Iraq during the 1980s, before the Gulf war (1990) and sanctions period. Growing up in a middle class family in Baghdad 30 or 35 years ago is very different from growing up there today. In some respects it resembled growing up in Western Europe or North America: school, soccer, swimming etc… In other respects it was very different because one had to be very careful about what he said: even mild criticism of the government could result in arrest or imprisonment. So in certain respects you had a (technologically speaking) modern sort of life; in other ways it was horribly claustrophobic and repressive.”
What impact did the UN ban on imports/exports and other sanctions have on the country and its people?
“The sanctions were comprehensive, i.e. included exports and imports. They were quickly altered to allow for imports of essential goods. But it didn’t matter because it was exports that paid for imports. Although imports into Iraq could not be easily regulated, almost all exports came from oil, which flowed through defined pipelines and tankers and could be easily monitored and stopped. This in fact is how the sanctions worked, by severely constricting the ability to import–i.e. indirectly through denial of finance that exports provided, not directly through restrictions on imports.”
“The impact on people and society was devastating. According to one (conservative) estimate, more than 200,000 people (mostly children) died as a result of sanctions between 1990 and 1998. To put this in perspective, this is roughly 3 to 4 times the number of British civilians who died in WW2.”
“The impact on society was just as horrid. The regime stayed in power, in part by playing the sectarian card. Millions left Iraq (many of them middle class professionals) and society was hollowed out. Many of the people who stayed became more sectarian as they turned to sect and tribe for resources and support. The upshot is an impoverished, deprived and more atomized society.”
Following the war many professionals left Iraq, a situation that was highlighted in an article on IRIN several years ago. I asked Dr. Yousif about the effect this has had on Iraq. He explained:
“It is catastrophic. GDP is poor gauge of how well-off societies are, for a variety of reasons. This is even more so in an oil exporting country such as Iraq. When the price of oil increases, GDP and government revenues also rise as do its ability to spend. This rise occurs regardless of whether there is employment or improved security or better access to public services. So a rise in GDP provides more money to spend or invest on say electricity, security or jobs creation, i.e. economic development. But if professionals and technicians are leaving, converting those revenues into factories and power plants becomes more difficult because your human productive resources are dwindling, even if your financial resources are rising.”
What do you think the government should do to address the void being left by professionals leaving the country?
“It has done things, for example, increased salaries for university professors and other professionals. But it is really swimming against a very strong tide. The only thing that will get professionals to stay is a fundamental change in the provision of peace and security.”
I also asked if the situation in Iraq had become worse since the second Iraq war and what the conditions were like for people living in Iraq. Dr. Yousif replied:
“People are materially better off because the lifting of economic sanctions and higher oil revenues has put more money into the Iraqi economy. On the other hand, the lives of ordinary Iraqis have become less secure, which is why they continue to leave the country.”
“This may sound strange given that the war removed a basically totalitarian dictatorship from power. Although most Iraqis did not support Saddam and were happy that he was removed, they will tell you that there was more security during the regime of Saddam Hussein than there is now. The main difference is that under Saddam the average citizen was basically powerless and insecure with respect to the state, and state violence was directed in a more or less predictable way (mostly) at the political opposition. But now there are multiple oppressors and the violence is less predictable. Iraqis are now insecure with respect to gangs or thugs who may demand extortion, fanatics who may attack them on their way to the market, some elements in the Iraqi security establishments or occupation forces. According to the UN, about 150,000 people died as a result of the war (between 2003 and 2006). Probably millions were internally displaced. This is clearly an insecure nation.”
Is Iraq a better country without Saddam Hussein and with a new government in place?
“Not yet. A brutal dictatorship has been removed. People are in some respects better off materially; they can criticize the government more or less openly.”
“But people lack electricity, jobs and are less secure than they were. This is why they continue to leave Iraq. Even the few Iraqis who have returned usually do not return with their families and prefer to keep them outside Iraq.”
“The slow pace of rebuilding and the violence is sometimes presented in the media as an understandable or inevitable consequence of removing a dictator who kept a tight lid on a disparate country. This is incorrect. Much of the slow rebuilding and violence is the result of poor policies on the part of the occupying authorities in Iraq, including poor economic policies (which I have written about). Portraying violence and lawlessness as understandable actions of a long repressed population absolves the occupation powers of their responsibilities, which include maintaining peace and security.”