Iraq’s recent re-entry into American public discourse was marked by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country as well as hagiographies marking the death of the Iraq war’s foremost advocate, Christopher Hitchens. This renewed interest in Iraq serves as a reminder not only of the country’s displacement from public consciousness, but also the likelihood that U.S. military withdrawal signals Iraq’s final dismissal from the American narrative.
Although it is easy to now scoff at Bush’s misplaced Mission Accomplished banner and boasts in 2003, for most Americans the gap between rhetoric and reality on Iraq has by no means narrowed. This is evident in the widespread assumption that the withdrawal of American forces means that the war in Iraq is over. This conclusion erroneously assumes that the imprint of America’s material legacy in Iraq can be magically erased, and is as misplaced as Bush’s confidence in the immediate success of the Iraq campaign.
The enduring nature of the Iraq war is reflected by recent developments on the ground. U.S. announcement of the war’s end was met with a coordinated bombing in Baghdad on December 22, 2011, consisting of 16 explosions that involved 9 car bombs, 6 roadside bombs, and 1 mortar. Within two hours, 63 people were killed and 185 wounded. Amidst these bombings, the tributes to Christopher Hitches, who had succumbed to cancer on December 15, 2011, were a particularly fitting reminder of the American disconnect between reality and rhetoric on Iraq. Commentators were effusive in their praise of Hitchens’ rhetorical form and debating style. Transitioning easily from lamenting the war to celebrating one of its cheerleaders, these hagiographies mirrored the facile and absurd reconciliation of rhetoric and reality characteristic of a culture Hitchens “helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, and sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.”
Whether at home or in the West, Iraqis have not had the luxury of indulging in such facile reconciliations between the “facts of war” and the rhetoric of war. Unlike their American counterparts, Iraqis must confront the “facts of war” every day in the disorienting patchwork that is the country’s segregated, bounded, and fortified spaces, including the Green Zone, Red Zone, unofficial mini-Green Zones, neighborhood mini-compounds, ethnically cleansed neighborhoods, as well as ubiquitous checkpoints, blast walls, and barbed wire. A typical walk through an Iraqi city bears witness to this prism of fragmented identity in which streets are divided and barred to reflect a forced ethnic, political, and national identity.
This prism of fragmented identity, in which Iraqi identity is supposedly reflected, was suddenly shattered by calls from Iraqi youth earlier this year for peaceful protests to start on February 25, 2011 in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, as well as in other locations across Iraq. Impacted by “Arab Spring” revolts in the region, organizers in Baghdad united across social and religious divisions to voice their demands against the segregated and fortified spaces of the city. Organizers eschewed sectarian and partisan slogans, and save for caricatures of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, avoiding using any images of politicians.
An Iraqi Spring – Performing the Effects of War
Since February, thousands of Iraqis have participated in a string of demonstrations across the country. A number of Facebook pages have emerged, such as The Great Iraqi Revolution and The Iraqi Uprising. Rather than calling for the government’s overthrow, most protests have centered on challenging the country’s nearly non-existent infrastructure, lack of basic services like electricity and sanitation, unemployment, and widespread corruption. Hundreds of Iraqis have been wounded since the starts of demonstrations, with an estimated 35 people killed, including 29 on the February 25 “Day of Rage.”
Although demonstrations reached their peak in early 2011, protests have continued around the country nearly every Friday. These protests, which have been more performative than any other witnessed throughout the “Arab Spring,” simultaneously dramatized demonstrators’ aspirations for a quotidian, ordinary experience of their fragmented cities, like access to electricity, sanitation, and public spaces, while also highlighting the existence of repression.
According to critic John Berger, demonstrations are staged disruptions of ordinary life, as well as potential “rehearsals” for the more sustained upheavals of revolution. But in Iraq where organizers are tasked with revolting under occupation, protesters have performed the “facts of war” while taking the government to task for failing to provide basic electricity and clean water, let alone to ensure its citizens’ security.
Rather than simply voicing their demands through chants or on posters, demonstrators have acted out the effects of war, the deprivation of a previously known modernity. Iraqis, who took to Baghdad’s streets armed with mops to protest the lack of sanitation services, began cleaning the streets themselves. The mops also symbolized a cleansing of another kind—namely, sweeping the city clean of its political corruption. In Sulaymaniyah, a group of men challenged gender-segregated protests where women stood behind cordons, by charging into the male-dominated crowd with five female mannequins.
These spectacular displays have been accompanied by the daily urban rhythm of cigarette sellers, coffee servers, and musicians flowing in and out of the crowds. People display pictures of missing family and the disappeared, a reflection of a reality where avenues for finding loved ones have been obstructed and all that remains is the right to grieve and seek answers in a temporary community.
Reclaiming a Fragmented Country: Action over Words
These spectacular and iconic displays not only have provided grassroots activists with valuable symbolic resources but also have deliberately moved beyond spoken language. Protestors aimed to undermine sectarian and ethnic divisions within Iraq, and also to transmit their messages across international boundaries. In one symbolically potent gesture, protestors united in a surge of anger to pull down two blast walls blocking access to a bridge leading to the Green Zone and its political elite. A collective sigh of relief and cheers followed before armed forces responded with water cannons, sound bombs, and rubber bullets.
The collapse of the blast walls deliberately echoed the iconic moment when Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled by U.S. troops at the onset of the occupation. The destruction of these walls was also an attempt at actual, material reclamation of a city still occupied. Demonstrators staged spectacular, non-verbal displays to recreate symbols of war and occupation, and to perform the dismantling of their structures. By sweeping away the actual filth and symbolic corruption debilitating the city, protestors also revolted against the more ordinary disruptions of their lives.
By privileging action over speech, these performances are meant to convey a resistance to war and corrupt government on the part of ordinary Iraqis. By embodying the “facts of war” and performing a reclamation of the city, these actions belie easy reconciliation between war’s material effects and its rhetoric. Giving tangible, visible, physical form to the “facts of war”, in the self-engineered setting of the protests, is a visually arresting reminder of the enduring effects of occupation (despite global headlines). These staged performances invite spectators to identify with the experiences of the demonstrators in the hope of ensuring that the gap between reality and rhetoric does not remain so wide. More significantly, they create a temporary space for spectators and demonstrators alike to visualize a completely different future for Iraq: one in which the city is not segmented and divided by blast walls, one in which streets are materially and symbolically clean, one in which public grief is not censured, one in which women and men enjoy unobstructed access to the sites of the city and in the protests themselves.
Iraq’s Tahrir Square and other protest sites by no means offer a reprieve from “the facts of war” and occupation, or a break from government authoritarianism. On the first day of protests, armed forces fired live bullets into the crowds. Cars were banned. Maliki, clerics, and other government figures discouraged demonstrations by pre-emptively labeling demonstrators as agitating “Ba’athists”. Armed forces conducted searches before allowing entry into key protest sites, often turning demonstrators away. Protestors and journalists alike were beaten, shot, and assaulted on-site or had their homes and offices ransacked.
In a country repeatedly described by the media as a dystopia of enduring uncertainty and nation-state obsolescence , the task of revolting under occupation has itself become an exercise in endurance and fortitude. Organizers have united their divided cities and towns through dissent against a dismantled infrastructure and the violence wrought by segregation. In general, demonstrations are seen as public spectacles disrupting ordinary life. Indeed, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and other protest sites transformed into disruptive stages where demonstrators dramatized the “power” they still lacked. But organizers also turned their protests into microcosms of their country’s aspirations for the most basic, routine, and ordinary of rights—the freedom to gather, grieve, and simply listen to music with their fractured communities. Against the unpredictability of occupation and war, these weekly small-scale demonstrations brought predictability and routine to the disorder. Since the announcement of U.S. withdrawal, these unique demonstrations have not ceased, showing that, despite the rhetoric, Iraq’s Tahrir moment, like the war itself, is far from over.
* Nahrain Al-Mousawi is a teacher, writer, and PhD candidate who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa and issues of migration.