My guest today is Dr Ghassan Jawad Kadhim, who is a political advisor and analyst of politics of the Middle East. His expertise lies in his own homeland, Iraq, where he has spent nearly twenty years supporting dialogue and development. He has worked extensively with local as well as international actors on diverse projects seeking to promote national reconciliation, co-existence, and peacebuilding. He has served as an adviser on anti-corruption, security, and political stability.
Ghassan is one of those people who seems to know everyone and is never far from decision makers. His enthusiasm to get things done has been publicly recognised in a book written about his life and contribution to Iraq by Dr Brian Brivati, a British historian, in his 2016 book ‘The Last Optimist In Baghdad’.
Some of the topics we covered are:
- Becoming the ‘Key-maker’
- Ghassan’s personal experience of torture at the hands of his own countrymen
- The power of perspective in shaping narratives
- The complexity of Iraq
- The progressive destabilisation of Iraq over decades
- Issues with domestic leaders and why they are stifling progress
- Complexity of governance in Iraq
- The birth and impact of ISIS
- Interests of regional and global actors
- Possible ‘redrawing’ of maps of Iraq and the region
- Was the invasion of 2003 worth it?
- The ‘curse’ of oil
- What the future holds for Iraq
Listen to the podcast here
Dr Ghassan Jawad Kadhim – Still ‘The Last Optimist In Baghdad‘?
My guest in this episode is Dr. Ghassan Jawad Kadhim, who is a Political Advisor, Analyst, and expert on the politics of the Middle East. His particular expertise lies in his own homeland, Iraq, where he has spent years supporting dialogue and development. He has worked extensively with local as well as international actors on diverse projects seeking to promote national reconciliation, coexistence, and peacebuilding. He has served as an advisor on anti-corruption initiatives, improving security, and promoting political stability. Ghassan is one of those people who seems to know everyone and is never far from decision-makers.
His enthusiasm to get things done has been publicly recognised in a book written about his life in contribution to Iraq by Dr. Brian Brivati, a British historian in his 2016 book, The Last Optimist In Baghdad. That book’s title sums up Ghassan well. For those in the Iraqi development sector, Ghassan is known for his three-piece suits and is often referred to as the best-dressed man in Iraq. I first met Ghassan while working in the development sector in Iraq back in 2018.
The company I worked for was facing some serious challenges, and Ghassan provided some trusted advice on many occasions. He was also the person who always knew who to talk and for that, he quickly earned the nickname The Key Maker. Not only did he know which stool to knock on, but he also held the keys. Ghassan, it is an absolute pleasure to speak with you again, and thank you for joining me on the show.
Thank you very much, Maz. It’s a very nice introduction to me. I never expected that I did that much work. I’m getting older.
Truth be told, it is merely a snapshot of your broad experience and the people you speak with. In fact, I read Brian’s book. He visited your home, and he looked at the photographs of you with various prime ministers and presidents. The point I was trying to make is that you’re never far from decision-makers. That is an absolute skill and something that you’ve become very famous for in Iraq and further in the field as well. Before we drop into those stories, Brian, in his book, also tells the story of your life and the many things you’ve achieved. He also tells a little bit about the young Ghassan. You were born in Baghdad. Maybe we can start there. Tell us a little bit about who Ghassan was as a young man and what was the environment he grew up in.
I’m still young, but to talk about my childhood, I was born in Baghdad of five brothers and no sisters family. It’s unfortunate for my mom because my father was injured during the war between Iraq and Iran in 1980. He had a broken back so he was barely working. All the heavy raise of those five children goes to my mom, unfortunately. She was a successful woman. We all finished school. We have high degrees like PhDs and Masters. In our culture in the Middle East, we depend on our parents to help as a starter. It’s different from the Westerns. When you are eighteen, you are separated from your family and will take care of yourself. She’ll always be my mom, and I will be always a kid for her until this moment.
I can go back before college. I was a painter and a drummer. I did a lot of painting and I was playing music too. We have an ordinary tool called oud. It’s like a guitar, but it’s bigger. In our culture, to draw or play music, it’s not that much brought money for you. It’s more culturalised. It brings you more audience to listen and to feel. It’s more art than real work. In my country, you need to be a worker. I did a lot of handwork too.
I was a taxi driver at the same time. One time, I had passengers in my car. They’ve been talking about some economic things. I finished school as an accountant and I was studying Master’s. I was a driver and being a driver is a work that everybody can do. They thought that I was trying to interfere in their discussion and gave them advice on how to solve their accounting problems. They said, “Are you serious? How do you know that?” I told them, “I studying Master’s in Accounting.” It was one of the days that I remember.
One of the other stories is I have a love story with my wife for five years. Because there are differences, they refused my proposal for her. I was driving my taxi with four girls. They are studying in different colleges. When they hear a lecture in Economics and Administration College, they say, “You are driving?” I said, “This is to pay the bills.” It’s a Western phrase but for us, it’s to pay the other stuff for my family.
It was difficult in Saddam Hussein’s time. You cannot see a margin cost during Saddam Hussein’s time. It’s only for people who are close to the regime. Since I was away from that side, I was close to people. When the people come together and when I am with them, I will always be the middle guy. If there are artists, I will be the artist. We will talk about art and colours or whatever. If there’s a music subject, I will be in the middle. It became a key for me every time. There’s always someone interested in something. I will feed that interest and it’ll be the bridge to build the relationship.
That’s a wonderful way of describing how you have developed in your personal and professional endeavours. That’s what I remember as well. Having worked with you for only a short while, you were always, if not, did then, one of the most interesting people in the room. You worked the room and controlled the room, and you made sure that you were involved. It comes so naturally to you but that’s an exceptionally difficult skill to develop but also to maintain.
Some people will try and work the room but it’s quite a difficult job to sustain because there are so many networks you need to keep in your mind alive. You need to know not only who you’re speaking to but who that person speaks to and who they’re likely to see and meet. It’s about developing the web and being in the centre of that web or being a central node. You made the point that your dad was wounded seriously or injured in the ‘80s in Iran and Iraq wars. Was he a fighter?
He was working in the Air Force as a maintenance person like as an engineer. The radars in the ‘80s were much older than the satellites. Every time there is a problem with radars, they have to have a convoy to fix the radars at the borders. It happened at the start of the war. In 1980, they sent him on a mission to the border across to Diyala, and an Iranian helicopter attacked the vehicle. Remember, I was a short guy but my father was tall. He has a big body. They tried to help him by taking him out of the window at the time of the helicopter attack with the rockets. I remember the day when his colleagues came to our house. They didn’t say that he was wounded because they didn’t know that he was dying. We found out that he was heavily injured and had to go outside for treatment. He went to London for nine months.
How old were you at that point in time?
6 or 7, about that age.
The reason I was asking about that is because it strikes me as though you have developed, and Brian talks about this again in the book, a particular level of resilience. That is something beyond what we, in the West, normally understand as resilience. It’s almost an ability to adapt to the situation rapidly and make the best out of a pretty horrible situation. I wonder whether your early exposure to that war and also the situation with your dad and mom having her to look after five boys, to what extent has that shaped who you then became?
I like Brian’s approach in his book to how my character has been developed. I feel that I’m talking about aliens. The character has been built through years of poorness. We’ve been in the mid-family but because of my father’s situation, we felt that we became poor. We are five brothers and in culture, we should work to feed and support ourselves and our mom. There were a lot of challenges during Saddam for the same time and there were even family challenges. Sometimes, you find some jealousy from your family and their family because it’s rich. I’m talking about others. They’re rich but they are losers in schools or whatever. You’ll find even these stories.
For me, I tried to build my character. This is the first time that I’m saying that. It is to make myself the mediator not on this side or that side. I should be always in between so I will not lose the others. I will keep everybody. This is how I accepted the environment, lived with it, and reflected different things. During that time, we did it together. Sometimes when we face an issue, it’s weird and ought for us. When I try to use the sponge way to take all the juice from the environment, I will reflect it differently by adding my points and policy to the holster, for instance.
You mentioned something that is not me. I don’t want to be or meant to be in the middle. I always found when I’m sitting, until this moment, in one room that the language of other people is like a waste of time sometimes. They talk in compliments, especially in diplomatic meetings or in my job character. They waste other time by saying stories and some issues. They don’t go to the point or touch the point. This is what we want. Let’s get to the point and use the rest of the time, especially for diplomatic meetings. It’s a 45 to one-hour meeting.
In the first ten minutes of the meeting, let’s touch on the problem. We can use the rest of the time to solve that problem. What we do at the end of our meeting, we’ll mention the subject and leave it to follow up. In my opinion, this is not the right way to do it. Sometimes, on the Western side, they bring paper with them to submit to the decision-maker to follow-up. In our culture, we use verbal promises and dialogue, but people can forget.
There are people attending that meeting, but it’s not reflected on paper. We didn’t start with the problem. We started with compliments and, unfortunately, with lies. Our country and city are nice. We don’t need any help, but we definitely need touch up. This is my explanation of my way. It is to go directly to the pain. Touch that pain and make it heal instead of suffering from that pain. I don’t know if you’ve got it.
In fact, it resonates strongly with me because, in many ways, I can empathise with what you’re saying. I have been shaped and influenced in a similar way but in very different circumstances. As you know, I was born in Bosnia and then fled the war. My father was wounded in the war and he stayed behind while we were refugees in Germany. At the age of ten and even from that time on, my role in life became to build bridges between those otherwise divided. One of the things that I hear you saying is the frustration of the inability of those in power, oftentimes, to understand what power they hold. Rather, they tend to waste time and opportunities, making people’s lives better, and stopping pain and suffering through rhetoric, empty words, ceremonies, and as you said, even lies.
I can empathise with that. While my life changed coming to Australia, which is a different and peaceful country, I still can empathise with that, although you’ve lived that now for decades. I also think that it’s important to bring in, for some additional context, some of your very raw personal experiences. We’ve spoken about this back in Iraq over tea, and I’ve seen photos that you’ve shown me, but you had a particularly horrible experience where you were kidnapped and tortured. I suspect that also would’ve been a huge catalyst for the frustration, almost the anger, and the lunacy of the situation in Iraq. Maybe I’m wrong, but it would be interesting to hear. You can give us a summary of what happened with what you’re willing to share, and then we can take it from there.
Let’s agree on one thing. Nobody is right 100% and wrong 100%. This is something I learned. You should share with the person in front of you that he has a percentage of right and wrong. Even with our wives, when we are debating, fighting, or whatever we call it, we’re always, “We are right, and you are wrong.”
With our wives, we’re always wrong. Let’s be honest too.
Talk about yourself.
You’re a brave man.
I’m not. This is what I’m trying to say. Give the right to the other person. You’ve been talking about the frustration and the kidnapping cases. What happens is two kidnapping cases in 2006 and 2007. One is from the Shia group and the second is from the Sunni group. I know the names of those groups, but it’s not worth it now to mention because they became a political wing. In Northern Ireland, the people who did the killing became the government and parliament. It’s everywhere in Rwanda because there’s always time to leave the open to start your political way. It’s unfortunate for us that people use us as a plate to reach out to the main meal. Unfortunately, they used the people. In 2006, I was in a coincident in one of the biggest markets and was kidnapped.It is unfortunate how people use other people as a plate to reach out to the main meal. Click To Tweet
At that time, I was working with the National Republican Institute, an American organisation. It was my first or second month in that organisation. I was trained by Blackwater because they indirectly trained some security agencies. I’m always asked and chase these kinds of contracts to be part of the peace context. They did training for security to avoid kidnapping. Everybody said bad things about Blackwater. They did a lot of bad things. In my perspective, they are doing their job. It’s a security company. Are they aggressive? Yes, they are aggressive, but they’ve been doing their job. To interpret how to be secure, you’ll always reach out that you should hold a gun to be secure.
Their perspective, training, and lectures about how to avoid kidnapping, I have been using it during the kidnapping. They say that you should make a friend, don’t make them angry, and try to escape in the first hours. It’s all I did during the kidnapping. I couldn’t escape because they kidnapped 24 people plus me, and I was the first one. They’ve been added to that car. It was a minivan. It’s like an ambulance, and they add the rest. I was between the driver and the rest, so I couldn’t escape.
They started beating me from the first break because when he had a break, everybody would come to the driver, and he would feel stuck on the steering wheel, so he would start beating the one behind him. I was lucky to get the first slaps from the driver. I’m saying lucky because it starts with slaps. It’s continued with many torture things like being hanged upside down. They broke my shoulder and whatever things happened. I don’t know if it’s a good word to say that I was thrown. I was thrown from the car to one of the garbage in the area and I’m still alive.
To clarify that. You mean after they finished torturing you, you were thrown out into a garbage bin on the side of the road.
Yes. They took me with the rest. They’ve been 23 at the beginning and they’ve been 24. We found that another group had been taken too in the same area. It was a small school in the Oriental area. I was trying to see my route and they discovered that I’ve been looking. They tied my eyes again and started beating me again. I was asking, “Are you Sunni or Shia?” Some of them have been rude. They don’t respond. Some of them said they were Sunni. I found that most of them are Sunnis. I said, “I am Shia and Sunnis are the kidnappers.” Either they will kill everybody from Sunni because these are the stories that we’ve been hearing from the media, and I will be with Shia.
Just so it’s clear for the audience. There were other people that were kidnapped and they were Sunni, but the kidnappers themselves were Shia like you are. Not only why were you kidnapped but why were they all kidnapped? Were they all kidnapped because the Shia group knew they were all Sunni?
I don’t know why they were kidnapped at that time but it was the start of the Civil War between Shia and Sunnis. It ended in 2008. Most of the politicians in Iraq refuse to call it a Civil War but it was a Civil War in various areas. Nobody goes to the Sunni area. Nobody goes to Shia areas. This is exactly my second time of kidnapping when I went, by coincidence, to a Sunni area. I was captured there, but it was the start of the Civil War. When I looked at Sunnis, it was like, “Why am I here?” They know my name. Usually, you know the person by his name if he’s Shia or Sunni. Some of the names were mixed between Shia and Sunni.
From my name, you can tell that I’m Shia, especially with my surname. Nobody responds. I started raising my hand because nobody asked me any questions. With the raise of my hand, the slap started again to my face. They took me and the torture started for four people with the heavy metal sticks. It was very heavy ones. They start beating you without knowing because your eyes are tied from where it will come. From my experience of kidnapping, to make people happy, you’ll feel the first two of the beating. The rest you’ll not feel.
It’s sad to think that you know that from firsthand experience. That’s the reality.
It’s good to tell people about it because people think that the torture continues. No. You will die from the first two, but because you are not feeling it, you’ll feel that you are going to the most merciful creature or whatever is called God. It’s the root. When they beat me and hung me upside down, I was not feeling it. Sometimes I yell but it’s not for the pain. It’s done. I’m dying. Since my father passed away years ago, I started seeing my father calling me. This is again from my training. You should keep ideas in your mind so I kept one idea.
My mom, my wife, and my first daughter. She was one year and two months old, I was seeing them in my eyes, and after a hard punching, they decided to put me in a car outside to crash me. I was put in one of the barriers like Jesus, and the car pushed my chest. They said, “Are you going to convince them that you have a relationship with Tara?” I told them, “I don’t have. I was in the market.” They said, “Put him in a car.” I found all the Sunnis have been with me in that car.
I was feeling that they would kill them all, and they would be killed too. Since I was the last one who was put in the car, they threw me in the garbage because they thought that I would die. I started seeing the people. They put them on the opposite wall and they left. They didn’t kill them. Those people came to me and I told them I was still alive. They don’t know the area. They took off the tie from my eyes and I told them, “You can go from this side and this side. This is the area here. Can you please take me to the main road because I cannot walk so people can take me home?” Another group from the same side came and they said, “We heard your story. We came to help.” People start escaping because they’re the same people. I told one of them, “I live in that area. Can you help me?”
He said, “From which tribe are you?” I told him, my tribe. He said, “You are from my tribe.” I was looking for his hand. He has a big hand. I said, “Maybe he was one of the beaters who beat me.” It’s good to reflect the pain as a joke. It’s a black joke, but it keeps your life. One week after my kidnapping, I went to the same market to break that I’m afraid. I hate to be terrified by some. I went to that place to check it and see what was going on. After one year, I was in my car. It was Ramadan. Since my wife is Sunni Muslim, she broke the fast before me. Usually, she’s after me. I said, “Why does she break the fast? She’s supposed to break it with me.” I was thinking and I was not seeing my road. I found myself in the middle of Haifa Street.
I was captured there. Nobody beat me. They said, “You are lucky.” It’s a phrase to Shia. They decide to do what they call Shari’ah court. One from Yemen, one from Lebanon, and one from Iraq. They wear this short dress. We call it dishdashah. They said that they decided that I’m a believer. I saw others like kids and women have been put in the walls too so they can tell us all. Suddenly, they heard horns of handles and they said, “Americans.” Nobody even touches me. The interpreter came to me. I told them, “I can speak English. I need to talk to the officer.”
I told them that I work with IRI, and they took me to IZ for military investigation or whatever the things afterwards. It’s two cases, and it changed my life. When I returned to my wife, she refused that I should leave. I called my HQ in IRl, and they decided to move me to Erbil. We started another tribe project to move through villages, cities, and tribes of Iraq to gather the tribes together against the Civil War. It was called the Awakening Projects. From that time, I started my business to be the negotiator or the fixer, if I may say, between others.
It’s a fascinating story. There are a number of books in there. It’s an interesting segue into the complexity of Iraq for most people tuning in. I can empathise because, in Bosnia, it’s the same. You can tell whether someone is served Bosnia-Croat by their name. In most Western countries, that doesn’t necessarily always make sense because people look the same. In Iraq, it is a matter of life or death, as you so eloquently described.
This is not a tribe. When I went to Northern Ireland, I found that they knew the family remains. There’ve been some killing times through the names of families in Northern Ireland because they have plans in Scotland and they have families in Northern Ireland. There have been some Western cases, so they understand, but it’s not always obvious to Iraq because usually, Iraq, Bosnia, and other countries, you will see it through the angle of the camera. The media transposed to the audience what the cameraman wants to show, but they are not living.
For instance, if someone is not mass talking to me about Iraq, he will feel that Iraq is like hell, like Afghanistan. Mass can describe Iraq differently. It’s a beautiful country and very kind people. If you live there, you can walk on the streets. You don’t need security. There are incidents happening in New York and London, which always happens. I don’t know why in Iraq, it’s being exaggerated a lot.
The kidnapping on mass between different religious groups, surely has roots in centuries of Islam that is manifesting in a particularly nasty way in Iraq. I’m sure there are causes for that. Without getting into the complexity of it, maybe you can draw a picture for us. What it is that makes Iraq so complex, and why is it so complex? Why is it so difficult for us to understand?
It’s the start of the world. Christianity started in Palestine or Jordan. It was born there but most of the people, they’ve been most of the believers of Jesus in Iraq because the start of the world is between the two rivers countries. It’s the Tigris and Euphrates. Everything has been invented in that country. The wheels have been invented there. Everybody thinks it’s their own. For instance, we’ve been attacked by the Persians. We’ve been attacked by Perks and the big waves. Everyone attacks Iraq because it’s the start of everything. If you want to be proud, you will say that I’m Iraqi. I was born in Soma.
I’m from Somalia. That means you have the roots to reach out at the start of this world. It became complex because it’s like our weather. It’s hot in this country and there’s snow in this country. There’s rain and there’s dry. We have a sea and two rivers. We have mountains and hills. We have everything in this country. We are an oil country, unfortunately. We have agriculture in this country. It’s different reasons and characters every time. People are different. It’s not always when you are different, you are weak. Usually, when you are different and together, that means you have different ideas. Some of the internal and the outside don’t want a stable country in this part of the world.
When you divide a country, it’s easier to rule or control. It’s better to divide this country. They were even divided between Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia. Now it’s much worse. It’s divided between Shia themselves and the Sunnis have different powers. The Kurds, if you remember, there’s power in Sunni and Erbil. If you want to reach that control, you will divide them more. You’ll reach out even the houses. You’ll divide the brothers. One brother belongs to that party and one brother belongs to this party.When you divide a country, it is easier to rule and control. Click To Tweet
I find it interesting. One of the things that maybe I can pick up on and you’ve said it 2 or 3 times how terrible life was during Saddam Hussein’s time. You made the point that it’s even worse or more divided now. Did you mean that it’s more divided now than before the 2003 invasion or during Saddam’s time, or the division is greater now than when?
It’s much worse than during Saddam. I’m not saying that Saddam’s time is good. If we’d like to go before Saddam Hussein, it’s much better than Saddam Hussein. If we go during the monarchy time, it’s much better than the public time. The killing started when they killed the King of Iraq. It’s like you are in the mountain and you are throwing a truck from the mountain. It’s like that in Iraq. In 2003 key, people thought that if they got rid of Saddam Hussein, things would get much better.
In 2003 and 2004, it was a stable situation because there were no rules. It seems that the people who change the regime, they are not believing that they change the regime. They are now controlling the country. Unfortunately, the leaders who came after 2003 are thinking about the mind of the opposition, not the mind of the ruling country or the leaders of this country. They’re still thinking that they are living outside.
What do you mean? Are these domestic leaders?
The opposition domestic leaders came from outside because Saddam Hussein was going after them. When the coalition got rid of Saddam Hussein, they decided to create a board of councils. It’s what’s going on in Libya and creating a leader’s partnership. Most of those leaders, except for Kurds because Kurds started in 1991, a separation from ruling in one-to-one. In the two governments of the Kurdish region, some of them became enemies of Saddam Hussein. The second will be closer to Saddam Hussein to win the battle against this brother. What happens when those all leaders come together after 2003? It was a shock for them.
They are now ruling the biggest oil country. They are ruling the oldest country what they will do? They couldn’t do anything, unfortunately, because they’d been thinking on the mind of the opposition. They still think that they are a threat. They couldn’t deal even with the collision forces. They kept the Americans sometimes do bad decisions. That’s why Paul Bremer, the first governor of Iraq, made mistakes. When he did his first mistake, instead of getting a position against him, they’ve been starting helping the mistakes to be bigger.
Later, they can blame the Americans, but it’s their fault. They didn’t stand from the beginning. The only person and division who was against some mistakes was Najaf because Najaf started calling for the Constitution. The referendum happened in 2005 by calls of Sistani to have our own constitution. It is to stop the division between the leaders themselves occurs on the Sunnis. That constitution, with all its gaps on it, kept the country alive until now. It needs amendments but it’s like the Good Friday deal. I’m always using Northern Ireland because of how close they’ve been to the Iraq situation.
Also, there were a lot of people from the Good Friday Agreement that have helped in Iraq as well throughout the years. I’ve certainly met a couple of them.
This is how I understand the mistakes. It’s like the snowball. The mistakes start small but it’s got bigger from the results after 10 or 15 years. We reach out now to the chaos of decision, freedom, or explanation of freedom and democracy because of the first mistakes that happened after 2003. They need someone like a superior to stop these things. The leaders, with all due respect, started from Jaafari, the first Prime Minister, Allawi, and Maliki for eight years, and Haider al-Abadi and Adil Abdul-Mahdi in the current academy.
You cannot put all heavy things on their back because he’s one person on his console because it’s a cabinet. Usually, the cabinet contains all the political parties. There are two political parties against it. You cannot decide. You’ll lose time so you need a strong leader. That’s why Malaki, who was successful in his first round or the first four years because he was so strong is still in the Iraqis mindset about the same time. They still remember the strong person or the stiff believer.
The same patterns still resonate within those who hold power. They still subscribe to the same methods of ruling and governing.
I didn’t want to mention names because it’s campaign time in Iraq. It’s good to tell the story that we have different layers of leaders. The first layer is gone. The second is almost gone. We are having now the third one, which has been civil society activists and political party members. They were not the real players at that time. They don’t have that confidence that they can rule the country. They need different skills of training. Those first or second layers have huge training from different organisations. IRI, NDI, USIP, and EU are different. They’ve always focused on how to train those leaders to shift from the opposition to the country, the state, and how they can do the state and be a Federal country.
They accept the differences between Kurds and Sundays and live together. The crisis of ISIS unified Iraq and the world against that element creature. Iraq was the first front face of ISIS, and the rest, they’ve been giving assistance. If I want to describe that in a very simple way, Iraqis help to live in peace in Australia. If we do not defeat or eliminate that creature, it’ll be separate everywhere. It’ll be like the Coronavirus.
Some critics of that might say that wasn’t the birth of ISIS but also a result of the invasion in 2003 and the lost structures and architecture that existed to keep things at bay. It was the fall and the lack of new structures that allowed Sunni fundamentalism to galvanise.
What happened in 2003, the stealing and bombing of things was because of the old regime. The old regime decided to call everything by its name. The bridge is called Saddam Hussein Bridge. The museum is called Saddam Hussein Museum. Even at the end of his years, he starts praying for us on TV. We have two TV channels. They’ve been feeding the people even with the prayers. When they got rid of Saddam Hussein, people started thinking, “There’s no Saddam Hussein. That means everything belongs to us.”
The chaos from ordinary people or poor people happens after 2003. The looting is the same looting that happened in the United States when the campaign between Trump and the current president. When the issues happen, nothing happens in the United States. It reflects on the Iraq case. It’s more of a psycho issue. When people feel there’s no control, it depends on their nature if they will accept. It’s like the old days. He will go back again to his real creature to be a monster or to be an angel. Some people prefer to be angels and stay at home. Some people decide to change their life. It’s like, “This is the time to change my life. I should still go or bring whatever things are to be sold on the market.”
I’ve heard it because some other guests mentioned it as well. It was also an expression of that freedom sanctioned by the Americans and the Brits. The saying was, “Let them loot,” because it was an expression of freedom and a releasing event of the years of oppression under Saddam.
It’s like Texas days. They use the movies of cowboy Americans. When they start cleaning the cities, this is the first day of the invasion. We call it invasion because the UN calls it invasion. Some Iraqis call it liberation. That’s another division between the countries. In Iraq, we have three flags. We have the Turkish flag, the Sunni flag, and the Shia flag. The Shia is the state, which is with Allahu Akbar. The Sunni is still with stars, the old regime one because they still think it belongs to them so they use the same flag and that occurs with the sun. It’s a country with 3 flags and 2 constitutions because there’s a constitution for decisions. It’s a country with two parliaments and has all the divisions between them.
They cannot decide on one decision. For instance, to choose a prime minister, even if you are a majority, you cannot be a prime minister. You should go to the Kurds and to the lower winners in the election to give them ministry positions to be with you to raise your seats at the parliaments and to form your government. It’s not always that when you are a majority, you’ll be ruling the country and making the success. That’s what reflected on Shia. There is the majority, but they couldn’t control the country because of their two colleagues who want more to be part of the government or to build their own religion.The majority doesn't always rule a country. The Shia aren't the majority, but they controlled Iraq because of their two colleagues who want to be part of the government and build their own religion. Click To Tweet
It’s incredible. In one example, it’s very similar to Bosnia, but I’m sure it’s similar to other parts of the world as well, where you have different groups, whether religious or ethnic groups competing for power. Power is retained through the identity of that group. The identity, in Bosnia, is the same. The leaders are elected based on their ethnicity or their identity. Therefore, it is that identity that gives them their power. If they try to build bridges between the different groups, they will be demonised by members of their own group because they’re potentially giving up on their identity and everything. They stood, bled, and died for everything.
It makes it a very difficult problem when the identity of a group is the very source of both peace and war. It makes it very difficult for those in power to try and find ways to build bridges because it is so easy to fuel the flames, at least in the Bosnian example. I wonder if it’s similar in Iraq. The people have had enough the moment they want the country to unite and move forward. Those who profit from the division, in other words, those in power, will start the rhetoric of threats that the other group is trying to harm you. The other group is trying to take more from us. The other group will come and kill us again. These kinds of stories are to keep the people divided. I don’t know if that’s similar in Iraq as well.
It’s similar everywhere in this region, especially after what’s called the Arab Spring in 2011. I remember that I’d been discussing the Arab Spring in front of the minister of the FCL in the United Kingdom. Part of my life, I started going to London to be part of civil society work and leadership work by doing training for Middle East activists. I was attending the start of the Arab Spring. It was a nice subject to talk about, especially from Brits. They like to drink tea during that discussion and how much it’s easy when they’re drinking tea and people are killed in their countries. We start talking about Arab Spring and after 15 or 10 minutes, we start taking questions. Of course, I was always the naughty person.
I said, “Why do you call it Spring? Why it’s a season? If it’s a season, that means there will be summer, autumn, and winter. Are you ready for these seasons?” There was no response with all this big mouth of democracy and other lecturers that we’ve been hearing from Britain. I remember that my friend and colleague Professor Brian Bugatti said, “I don’t think that will solve the problem.” At least I was the voice. Maybe not the only voice, but I was a voice. I couldn’t stay longer for people talking about tragedy in countries and they are not helping. They spend millions on first aid. Why you are not spending these millions to stop feeding the groups? From where do you think these groups get their weapons? From where do they get their ammo?
This is what happens in Syria and Iraq. How do you think ISIS has been created? How it’s feeding? Who helps ISIS to reach out to these areas? Why do they come through other countries by planes, the foreign fighters from Britain, the EU, Tunisia, Africa, and everywhere? How do they reach out to that area? Why does nobody notice that all ticket flights go to the same area? Why does nobody notice the financial support going to some offices and all the financial support and payments going to the United States first and from the United States going to other countries? There are too many wise, but it was invented for a reason.
ISIS, did you mean?
Other ISIS and other groups.
That’s how we started this segment because that’s where my confusion lies. The way I understand the unfolding of the development of ISIS is that it was a vacuum left behind by the invasion. Now you are almost in a way confirming that by indirectly implying that the world should have seen it and that it was happening in front of our noses basically.
Why did they sell Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi vehicles in his first call in Mosul they saw 40 black SUVs going to Mosel, and they didn’t attack them. They attack a small flight in Yemen by sending drones. I’m not defending Osama bin Laden but they attack Osama bin Laden. They found him in Pakistan by following his driver. From his driver, they found the rest. Why they didn’t do that from the beginning? Why they are giving us lessons? Our lesson is very expensive. We are a spitting lot. Our house and dignity are gone. Some people leave their areas and live in different areas. In our culture, there’s a different perspective. They lost their dignity and hardship. There are too many questions. Go to the story of Kadafi.
What happens to Kadafi? Who killed him? Why was he killed in that way? How many countries participate? The root thing now is some countries are saying they’re part of what happens in Libya, the players. I will give you another example of what’s going on now. The state of Iraq is in danger because of the Iranian and Turkish competition. It’s not Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It’s the two countries here now who physically have forces. I didn’t see physical forces for Iran. They have hands or wings. I saw the physical minister of defence at the Iraqi border, and he was attending some of his horse meetings in Iraq. The reason is he’s defending his country from PKK. Do you think there’s PKK in Libya?
I don’t know. Probably not, I’d imagine.
That’s why I asked this question because there is none. The country or the world is going very fast to draw a new map of the world. After the end of World War II when they start mapping the countries, now they should map the countries. Who got the feet on the ground or the power will get more land.The world is going very fast to draw a new world map since the end of the Second World War. Everyone started to pinpoint who got the feet on the ground, has more power, and acquired more lands. Click To Tweet
I suspect that the Kurdish region would be the one contested by Turkey. Is that what you are suggesting?
This is my estimation. What’s going to happen to the Kurdish region is to be secured by the church. They will not prefer to be under the government because they think that there are some issues between the two countries. They did refer them before. It was not successful, but they did it. Now, if there will be more movements, they will prefer to have Turkish security. They will feel more secure with Turks. They will be under the protection of Turkey. If I were Kurdish, I would do that. For the rest of the Sunni, there’s competition between Saudi Arabia and UAE to have that part Sunni area. Iran will not let anyone who comes to Dora, which is the Shia part, which starts from Baghdad and the rest. Iran is not the only player in these areas.
There will be an unstable situation in these areas. That’s what happened in 2019 when the demonstration happened. It started from Baghdad to the South, not in the North or Sunni areas. The changes happen in the Shia opposition, the government. It’s Shia against Shia. It’s the Shia revolution against the Shia Revolution. I’m sure that there are a lot of hands behind these revolutions. It’s to make it weaker like what happens when they rule other countries. We will see a new map for sure soon. Let’s expect a new map in Iraq. We will see new maps maybe in Egypt, Syria, and Libya. It seems like it started.
Biden, when he met with al-Kadhimi in the White House, announced the full US withdrawal by the end of 2023. How do you read that, given what you said?
He said change. When they said to change the forces from combating forces. The withdrawal is not obvious to the rest of the political analysts if it’s the combating forces that will go. The advisor can always be shifted to another fighter because he’s already an advisor or trainer. He’s much better even the fighter. Of course, there are some political parties. They are concerned about nature too because it’s another face of the coalition. It’s not that the coalition has been created against us for sure comparing both. It’s a footprint. You can always use NATO as an excuse to fly drones or whatever to do missions. Even the war has changed. They’ve been a unit against the unit. Now it became like sticks.
You are sitting in your house and you fly a drone in Syria. You are watching the news. You are not feeling the pain. It became like a game. Even the wars have changed. They use a Chinook for a faster-combating war. You don’t need to drive for two hours to have a fight. You’ll use a helicopter. You’ll have your good trained pharmacists. They have good equipment and you’ll win. It’s a Special Forces. Even the name of the war has been changed. In my opinion, even in your program, the Voice of War, we can hear that there’s a huge voice of war. The war in the phrase as a name has changed a lot.
I tend to agree with that. I’ve spoken to some other people about that because that’s very true. Maybe I’ll go to a core question here. Given everything we’ve talked about and the current situation. I’m conscious of the time as well but I do want to talk a little bit about the future. Before we go there, what do everyday Iraqis or those from all persuasions say about the invasion of 2003? What was it worth it in their eyes?
It depends. First of all, it’s very difficult to get an answer from Iraqis about their opinion about what happened. It depends on how much he’s closer to the current regime, how much benefits and interest he got from the current regime, and how much pain he got from the current and old regimes. The old regime had too many enemies. He did a lot of crimes that reflected badly on our people. The people are 18 or 19 who were born in 2003 until 2023. He doesn’t know about Saddam Hussein. He knows just those people. He will say, “Don’t talk about that. I don’t know that party. Tell me what did you do during that period? How much did you spend money to build this country? You did nothing.” He compares between Baghdad and Erbil.
When he goes to Erbil, it’s like a different country. It’s clean. The highways are very clean. The buildings are very high. Why the good decision? They are part of my country. They are better position than Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. Why does Basra produce 85% of its oil and it’s a desert? Why this city is giving money to all, including KRG, and they are suffering? There are too many questions. I don’t think we should say what the Iraqis should say about the old regime because some people suffered from the old regime.
In my opinion, the people that are suffering more, even if they have motor cars and they have thousands of dollars. It doesn’t bring happiness to them. They start traveling too. Not to mention COVID, but at least, they start traveling everywhere and are freeway. During the old regime, you cannot do that because you have to spend a lot of money to get even passports. Nobody except Iraqis. The financial position of most of the Iraqis who compare their situation with the old regime depends on their positions. If they’ve been close to the old regime or far from the old regime.
You made the point or you said it almost under your breath that Iraq, unfortunately, has oil. What did you mean by that?
There is a country that has never been in the media, and some countries don’t have oil. Since we are a rich country and a weak government, even if we have a strong government, we will be under the supreme of others. Because of that oil, we’ve been punished. The struggle started with the first invasion of Britain into our country, and they discovered oil. Our disaster started too, because now everybody thinks that they have a share of that oil, and people started making more interest in that oil. Shares of our lands have been given to others expecting that there will be oil so everybody will have a share.The disaster in Iraq started because everybody thought they had a share of the oil there. Click To Tweet
Iraq got smaller and smaller shrinking to a size because of the oil. Our administration, local or domestic, has been so slow to think of a much better way to find a solution not to depend on oil, at least because if there will be oil on our border, what happens if we invade Kuwait? We stopped selling oil. The whole country has suffered under the siege of Americans. We lost, according to the UN reports, more than 500,000 kids because of that siege. They’ve been punishing Saddam Hussein, but they are not punishing Saddam Hussein. They’re punishing the people. It’s because of that oil. We have many sources, but we’ve been badly managing these sources.
What does the future of Iraq look like in your view? You’ve mentioned redrawing the maps, which is in itself.
I hope Iraq is still Iraq. I’m seeing what’s going on in Afghanistan. I’m trying to figure out if there is going to be a scenario like Afghanistan and Iraq. There will be a new version of ISIS because they’ve been always talking about this new version of ISIS. If they create a new one with a different perspective because they found that there are some mistakes ISIS did, they might provide solutions for these things and make ISIS rule. They can smuggle and deal with that ISIS origin.
On a more personal note, what does the future look like for you? You are pretty close to the government. You are also helping and advising NATO. What does the future look like for Ghassan?
I’m not a fortune teller to let you know, but we can analyse. I’m trying to be out of politics. I’m thinking now differently. I was always an advisor to some of the government and the governments. You know that my job is always unpaid because I’m getting payments from different associations. To avoid a conflict of interest, I’m not taking a salary from the government. Most of the organisations that I’ve been working with left the country.
I was hoping to have a job with a decent salary to support my family and continue. It seems that it’s too difficult to get that position because you should be a politician, bribe someone if you’d like a position, or promise that you’ll be part of corruption issues in the future. The three of those things I cannot do. I was thinking to open my own work as a PR company between London and Iraq and providing private work to clients everywhere in the Middle East and Iraq. I’ll not be that far from politicians, but at least organise and translate the relationship with government figures.
Between Iraqi figures and the outside world, is that what you mean?
Even locally. Between two clients from, for instance, Tunisia and Kurdish. If I had them, I could build that bridge through my work and make the wheels move instead of having obstacles on wheels.
Ghassan, I’m very conscious that we’ve well and truly past the one hour. As always, it is an absolute pleasure speaking with you. I feel a lot of pain in Iraq. I fell in love with Iraq. I fell in love with the people of Iraq when I was there. Even though I was there for only a short while, I empathise with what the people of Iraq are going through. I take my hat off for people like you who keep on going. I also got the sense in our conversation that there’s a lot of frustration in you.
You’ve been at this for a long time. I wish that you can still remain your resilience for the sake of Iraq and its people. I wish you all the best of luck. You’re a very unique person who has very unique skills, and Iraq can benefit from those as many other places. I wish you the best of luck, and I do thank you for giving me so much of your time. I know it hasn’t been easy trying to get our connection and everything sorted.
Thank you very much, Maz. I appreciate the words that come from you. I appreciate our old friendship and the continuance of the friendship. Let’s hope that what I’ve been talking about, the new mapping and other issues, is only a dream. It’s a bad nightmare. Also, things get better. I hope for a successful program for you.
I do wish you all the best. I hope that we can work together in the future. You are a fascinating individual, and I’ve learned a lot from you. Until next time we speak.