Pope Francis in Iraq

The Pope’s visit should be front page news in the US. But like everything related to the country whose government it overthrew, the journey has been ignored. Iraqis and especially the citizens of Mosul are overwhelmed by the Pope’s presence. You’d think that would mean something.

There was a time when the Pope visiting a conflict zone would have been front page news. In 1994, at the height of the Bosnian War, Pope John Paul II, decided to fly to Sarajevo—against the UN’s advice—as part of a personal peace mission to the Balkans. It was big news and NPR sent me from London to cover the trip. I flew into the city on a Luftwaffe cargo plane with one piece of cargo: the Popemobile; and one other passenger, the Pope’s driver.

A few hours after I landed, the trip was canceled. Too dangerous.

Pope Francis’s journey to Iraq is no less fraught. ISIS sympathizers still carry out sporadic attacks around Mosul, yet the visit has not made a deep impact in the American or British press. The event continues the collective repression from memory of the country and the war fought there to “liberate” it from Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime and the subsequent catastrophe that overtook the place, concluding with the establishment of a so-called Caliphate by ISIS in Mosul in 2014.

The Pope is the only senior figure of what we think of as “The West” to visit Mosul and the rest of Iraq in this open fashion.

I think I understand why. Americans and their wingmen, the British, have forgotten Iraq. To explain, I’m going to use Freud’s classic formulation: trauma, latency, neurosis.

The trauma was the Bush Administration’s utter failure in Iraq. It is intellectually lazy to say, “America failed in Iraq.” The war was plotted, planned and executed by the Bush Administration. Its origins in part really do have something to do with the Oedipal relationship between George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush. The younger Bush came into office with his surrogates briefing that removing Saddam was a foreign policy priority, as this New Yorker article from the week of Bush’s inauguration in 2001 explains. Nine months later the World Trade Center attacks gifted the Bush team an excuse for the action. No member of Congress with a serious hope of re-election was going to withhold support for the Iraq invasion.

And American citizens fell in behind their leaders.

I covered the war as an unembedded reporter based in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The 173rd Stryker Brigade convoy slowly moves from Iraqi Kurdistan towards Mosul two days after Saddam Hussein’s regime disintegrated (c) Michael Goldfarb

The night before the war began, by chance, I met Ahmad Shawkat, a man my age, who I hired as my translator. He also became my guide to the history and culture of the region. He was a Kurd from Mosul, living in internal exile, having been driven out of his hometown for dissident political activity.

I agreed to keep him employed until he could return home to Mosul. Ahmad was an academic, a natural teacher, and in the weeks the war went on he gave me a course on the history and culture of the region with special emphasis on its religious tolerance. We visited monasteries, Yezidi temples, and villages that had once been Jewish.

At a time when all the reporting coming from the Muslim world was of fundamentalism and the clash of civilizations, the places we visited demonstrated a more complex reality: the long, braided history of the Abrahamic faiths in one small region of the Fertile Crescent.

Mar mattai monastery, near Mosul, founded 363 CE, wiki commons

We were in Mosul the day the regime collapsed, and in the city’s anarchic streets you could see the possibility for failure if the Bush administration didn’t get its act together quickly. It didn’t.

Democracy cannot be given at the point of a gun. People who have been governed in a totalitarian way need a long period of guidance to be able to live in an open society. When decades have taken away the ability to think and speak for oneself, to have ordinary ambitions for free action, for your children’s future; when one of the main forces holding your society together has been suspicion of everyone around you, trust in every aspect of existence needs to be relearned.

The Bush administration ignored the lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It could have and should have known that when Saddam’s regime was overthrown anarchy was probable, that mafia rule of the street was likely. But they put nothing in place to prevent these forces taking root and so Iraq disintegrated.

A year after the overthrow of Saddam I went back to Iraq. By then Ahmad had been murdered and I was researching a book about him. Everywhere you could see and feel the fear and anger that had replaced the relieved bewilderment that followed the quick campaign to remove the dictator.

I attended a press conference in Baghdad where almost all the questions were about rumors of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. The day I left the country, conflict with the militias that had stepped into the power vacuum erupted on two fronts.

As my friend Sami Abdul Qadir drove me through the Kurdish mountains to the Turkish border we heard news on the radio of a US military operation in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood. That same day some Blackwater mercenaries were murdered in Fallujah, their corpses mutilated and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates. The Marines were sent in to pacify the city. Fallujah was ultimately levelled.

A few weeks later the Abu Ghraib story burst into the open and then George W Bush landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to declare mission accomplished,

In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. For the next few years the anti-American insurgency in Iraq built a head of steam. Abu Ghraib and its associated prison facility Camp Bucca would provide the leaders for that insurgency and then ISIS. But by then most Americans—unless they had family serving there—had stopped paying attention to Iraq.

American society had entered the period of latency. It was unable or unwilling to think about the obvious fact that Iraq, on the terms that Bush took the country to war, had been a failure. As for talking about it—well, the Crash of 2008 changed the subject, as did the rather remarkable fact that a man of color was elected President. Iraq was forgotten.

The period of neurosis has been marked by withdrawal from global leadership. This began in earnest the day Barack Obama changed his mind about punishing the Assad regime for crossing Obama’s “red line” and using chlorine gas on Syria’s citizens in their push to overthrow the Arab world’s other Ba’ath dictatorship.

This was actually a popular decision in the US. But there was a price to pay for Obama’s failing to act against Assad and disengagement from Iraq.

In 2014, ISIS or Daesh, swept out of the borderland between Syria and Iraq and raced towards Mosul and there was nothing to stand in its way. The group immediately began to destroy Mosul’s most precious cultural inheritance: its tolerance of the many religions in the area.

But again, there was virtually no action by the Obama administration, nor did the Republican congress push for concerted action. You would have thought the latter being in thrall to so-called “evangelical Christians” might have made more of a fuss. But the evangelicals are really more of a ethno-nationalist political faction than a religious group, and politics had for almost a decade said Iraq was best forgotten.

I returned to Kurdistan in 2015 and visited with Christian refugees from Mosul and surrounding villages of the plains of Nineveh. I went to the front with some Kurdish peshmerga. They were at a position at the foot of the Mt Alfaf, 12 miles from Mosul, guarding Mar Mattai.

(c) Michael Goldfarb

In 2016/2017 Mosul was destroyed in order to save it.

By then Donald Trump was President. With his feral intelligence, Trump, had picked up on the deep desire of the majority of Americans to retreat from the world - and throw up walls against it. He successfully ran for office by making withdrawal of US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, a main plank of his platform.

With ISIS gone it was safe to forget Iraq again. America retreated further and further from its place and responsibilities in the world in general but in Iraq specifically.

So the Pope has stepped into the gap left by a US in retreat. That might be worth a front page story or two—even in the midst of a pandemic—but it hasn’t been.

Iraqis of all faiths, however, are grateful that Francis has not forgotten them. And they would be grateful to you, if you remembered them as well.

One of the best ways to stay up to date with what is happening in Mosul, at least, is to follow @mosuleye. He stayed in Mosul throughout the ISIS occupation and risked his life daily to get word out about the terror the city was living through. For his own safety he now lives abroad but has continued to make sure his city, people and country are not forgotten.

Forgetting Iraq really isn’t a luxury Americans should allow themselves either. Whether they were for or against the war, the failure of the Bush Administration after the overthrow of Saddam was a major event in the history of America’s Calamity. There is no way to avoid that fact.

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Thanks for reading this post. There will of course be a lot more about Iraq, Kurdistan and Mosul in the book I am publishing chapter by chapter here at substack. Check out the main page.