Trudy Rubin: Memories of the Iraq War, my interpreter’s tragic end, and the horrors caused by hubris

Tribune Content Agency

Twenty years ago, when I first hired him in Baghdad, my Iraqi interpreter and driver Salam was thrilled that the Americans had toppled Saddam Hussein. I worked with Salam over the next several years, on my many reporting trips to Iraq, and I can’t stop thinking about his personal tragedy as we reach the 20th anniversary of the invasion.

A Shiite Muslim whose uncle had been murdered by Saddam’s thugs, Salam was delighted to see the domination of the dictator’s Sunni minority come to an end. Yet he was friends with Sunnis in his neighborhood and took me to meet them in their mosque and in their homes.

Salam was certain the Americans were going to transform Iraq for the better. He eagerly helped the U.S. soldiers in the FOB (forward operating base) in his mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood, tipping them off about a local Shiite militia that had started murdering Sunni residents. But when the FOB pulled out, members of the Shiite family he had fingered got their relatives in the now Shiite-run army to arrest him as a “terrorist.”

In 2010, I managed to visit Salam in a filthy, smoke-filled jail. He had lost 50 pounds and showed me the torture marks from electric shocks on his body, before starting to cry. A heavyset, bearded, chain-smoking Iraqi intelligence agent, who thankfully didn’t speak English, glared at us the whole time we talked.

When he was finally set free, nearly two years after being detained, Salam received death threats from the Shiite militia and had to flee with his family. They barely made it through Syria to Turkey, then traveled on an open refugee boat to Turkish Cyprus, and finally sneaked illegally through barbed wire into Greek Cyprus. Unable to work legally, Salam had to exist by smuggling.

Meantime, one brother in Baghdad was killed by his vengeful Shiite neighbors and a second brother had to live in hiding after death threats. The surviving brother was entitled to a U.S. special immigrant visa as a relative of someone who had worked with U.S. journalists but was left waiting for years — as happened to so many eligible Iraqis.

For years, I stayed in touch with Salam and even visited him in Cyprus in 2011 to help him get temporary residence when the Cypriot government was kicking out most Iraqis. But the last time I called, he could only gurgle on the phone, having suffered a stroke. His dreams, his family, his life had been destroyed by the war he had welcomed, as Iraq deteriorated into a morass of sectarian chaos and corruption. His brother, still forced to live in hiding in Baghdad, never got that visa to the U.S.

What disturbs me most about the 2003 Iraq War — besides the deaths and tragedies inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the thousands of dead or damaged U.S. soldiers — is the willful blindness of the U.S. officials who began it.

I’m not just referring to cherry-picked intelligence or the false claims about weapons of mass destruction or the hubristic belief that ousting Saddam was key to remaking the entire Mideast. I mean the willful, determined ignorance by the most senior U.S. officials and their advisers about the most basic realities of Iraq.

As I wrote then, I sympathized emotionally with the idea of ousting the hideous Saddam. I had spent time in Iraq and knew so many Iraqis like Salam who had suffered under his despotism — and who wanted him gone. Moreover, I was certain he would renew his dormant nuclear program once sanctions were eventually lifted, which would threaten the region.

But, as I also wrote then, the George W. Bush administration seemed to have zero awareness of and little interest in learning about the political and social realities inside Iraq, without which any invasion would be a disaster. (Nor were they interested in ample evidence that Saddam had no connection with 9/11 or al-Qaeda central, nor any active nuclear program.)

A couple of interviews I did shortly before and after the invasion are seared in my memory as proof of the willful ignorance that propelled the U.S. to start the war.

In November 2002, months before the war began, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the key Bush administration officials who promoted the invasion, told me he would be “astonished” if there was instability in Iraq after a war. He said this risk had been “totally exaggerated.”

Wolfowitz also said the historical model for post-Saddam Iraq would be “post-liberation France.”

What did he mean? He envisioned that the Pentagon’s favorite Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi, would return from London — and be wildly welcomed like Gen. Charles de Gaulle was when he returned to Paris from his London exile after World War II. Chalabi would then lead Iraq to democracy that would shake up the whole region.

Wolfowitz seemed oblivious to the fact that Chalabi was a Western-educated intellectual who had not stepped foot in Iraq since he was 13 years old, didn’t understand the depth of its sectarian splits, and had no following there.

Ditto for the legendary Middle East historian and Princeton professor Bernard Lewis, who had the ear of Vice President Dick Cheney and introduced Chalabi to him, Wolfowitz and others. Lewis insisted to me in an interview that “Ahmed will solve everything.” He envisioned that the then-crown prince of Jordan, Prince Hassan, a Sunni, would be invited to Iraq to reinstate the Hashemite monarchy that had been overthrown in 1958. Hassan would then appoint Chalabi as prime minister and all would be well.

Somehow, Iraqis would accept a U.S.-imposed Sunni monarch after the United States had deposed a Sunni dictator and elevated vengeful Shiites to power? I still remember my shock that this vaunted Mideast expert, whose advice was taken to heart at the top of the Bush administration, could be so oblivious to the facts.

If there is one huge lesson from the Iraq War, it is the madness of starting an optional war based on willful ignorance and political hubris — a lesson Vladimir Putin is now learning. But hubris is a highly infectious disease that must be constantly fought by sane politicians and journalists alike.