In the process, the United States invaded Afghanistan, quickly overthrowing the Taliban regime that housed Osama bin Laden, the head of the al-Qaida terrorist network blamed for the attacks.
But it wasn’t long before President George W. Bush turned his attention to Iraq, identifying it, along with Iran and North Korea, as part of an “axis of evil” and claiming that its brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, was armed with weapons. of mass destruction and had ties to al-Qaida. No evidence of either has been found.
What followed was a US-led invasion of a country in the heart of the Middle East that sparked a decade of warfare, with consequences reverberating throughout the region to this day.
“At first, I was happy with the American invasion, everyone was happy. We were filled with hope for a better future, ”said Mohammed Agha, an Iraqi Kurd who was 27 when the invasion began.
“But then what happened was the institutions of the country were destroyed and are never being rebuilt again,” he said. “There was no planning for the next day and no nation building.”
Agha’s remarks reflect the lingering anger and bitterness felt by many Iraqis over what they see as a lost opportunity to remake their country following the ouster of Saddam, who ruled with an iron fist for nearly 30 years old.
The invasion reshaped Iraqi politics, including a shift in the country’s power base from the Sunni Arab minority to the majority Shiite, with the Kurds gaining their own autonomous region. But while many Iraqis hailed Saddam’s ouster and the degree of democracy that followed, they expected the United States to provide good governance, security, and reliable basic services like electricity. .
The failure of any of these things fueled resentment and led to an insurgency that eventually escalated into civil war, with Shiite and Sunni militias fighting the Americans for control of the country.
After decades of conflict, Iraq today has a relatively stable government, and car bombs, suicide bombings and death squads have declined. But the economy is in tatters, its infrastructure is collapsing and corruption is rampant. The government, with its restless policies, is unable to control the dozens of powerful Iranian-backed militias that exercise enormous control.
For some, the loss is also personal.
On the evening of April 7, 2003, two missiles crashed with such deafening sound and force that they threw Itimad Hassoun to the ground of his house in the Jadriyah neighborhood of Baghdad and knocked his doors off their hinges.
The Americans had been bombing for more than two weeks as part of their “shock and fear” campaign to topple Saddam, and the Iraqi capital was plunged into darkness. Hassoun was seated by candlelight with her husband. The next few moments were blurry, as she groped blindly, screaming for him and their children.
Her son, two daughters and a granddaughter lay dead in the rubble of their neighboring house. Only a newborn granddaughter survived.
Twenty years after September 11, Hassoun is 74 and still dresses in black after losing his son 18 years ago. She says she will never forgive America for killing her loved ones.
“There is nothing that makes me happy. I have a pain that cannot be taken away and a wound that cannot be healed. It’s in me, ”she said, looking frail and tired as she sat in a chair in a large guest room.
Baghdad fell on April 9, two days after the airstrike that killed Hassoun’s family. Many Iraqis cheered when the US Marines shot down a statue of Saddam in the capital’s Firdous Square.
But the euphoria was short-lived as hope gave way to occupation, as well as more daily death and destruction after the Americans disbanded the Iraqi military. This decision led to the rise of al-Qaida and later the Islamic State group in the country.
The following years were marked by horror images. Among them: the bodies of four US security agents hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates in Fallujah in March 2004; photos of the ill-treatment of Iraqis in the US-run Abu Ghraib prison; the bloody battles between US troops and al-Qaida militants in Fallujah in 2004; the February 2006 attack by Sunni extremists that shattered the golden dome of a revered Shia shrine in Samarra, triggering sectarian bloodshed.
By the time Washington withdrew its last combat troops in December 2011, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians were dead, along with 4,487 Americans. US troops were asked to return in 2014 after the Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of the Islamic State group’s attack there and in neighboring Syria. Tens of thousands more Iraqis were killed before the last pockets of these militants were defeated in 2017.
“A dictatorship was removed for a supposed democracy, and we ended up with a civil war, al-Qaeda and ISIS, with no services and just thieves all around us,” said Assim Salman, the 53-year-old neighbor of Hassoun who helped dig the bodies of his loved ones that fateful night.
“To hell with such a democracy.”
In his 2010 memoir, “Decision Points,” Bush admitted to making mistakes in Iraq, including the decision to disband the Iraqi military, and said he had a “sickening feeling” whenever he thought of the inability to find weapons of mass destruction, his main justification for war. But he maintained his decision to invade.
Political analyst Bassam al-Qazwini said the people of Iraq and Afghanistan paid the price for the US invasions after 9/11, not the rapid collapse of regimes in those countries.
Instead of building democracy in Iraq, he said, Americans have supported a political class that has created networks of corruption and militias that continue to plunder the country. Despite being rich in oil, Iraq suffers from chronic blackouts and crumbling infrastructure due to corruption, profits and mismanagement. Tens of thousands of students graduate each year with no hope of finding employment.
“This corrupt network is capable of killing Iraqis to survive, just as Saddam killed Iraqis to stay in power. So what has changed? “Said al-Qazwini, citing the crackdown on peaceful anti-government protests in 2019.
Today, Hassoun lives in the same house in Jadriyah, 200 meters (yards) from the Tigris. Black and white photos of her husband adorn the walls.
Dina, his granddaughter who survived the bombing, is now an 18-year-old dental student.
Hassoun wants the few thousand Americans still in Iraq to leave – “a departure without return this time” – because of what they have done to his family.
But his neighbor Salman, like many other Iraqis, views with concern the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, worried about a return of militant groups like the Islamic State.
“America has to make it right,” he said. “She can’t do to us what she did in Afghanistan, where she fought the Taliban for 20 years and then gave the country back to them.
Karam reported from Beirut.