Hazem Saghieh

Iraq...A Tormented Country Visited by the Pope

Iraq is a tormented country. Its poetry speaks of its agony and its songs echo its pain. Deep feelings of guilt weigh heavily on Iraqis’ souls, burdened by the Iranian policy of expansion, ISIS, militias, corruption and impoverishment. Without even looking into the role ascribed to forsaking Hussein the son of Ali and the battle of Karbala in establishing this sentiment, the modern era is itself rich with reasons to feel guilty..Those killed today will be revealed as innocent victims tomorrow, while paths taken often lead to depressing destinations different to those that had been expected.

Feelings of guilt could be expressed by one community in this phase and another community in that phase, but their overwhelming presence remains among the elements shaping Iraq’s politics and society, or rather the weakness of this politics and this society.

Let us go over a little history:

The Ottoman officers who sided with the Hashemite Revolt of 1916 found themselves fighting the Germans who had trained them alongside the British they had been brought up despising. Later on, those officers cooperated with the British in governing Damascus for a short period and then in the governance of Baghdad for a long period, some believe until 1958.

Those in the center and the south who launched the Iraqi Revolt of 1920 suddenly realized, after it ended, that they had not harmed anyone but themselves. They were sidelined from the decision-making process, and their exclusion went on until 2003.

In 1941, the Farhoud Pogrom befell Iraq’s Jews. It was the inception of the process through which the country was emptied of its Jews, after they had constituted more than a quarter of Baghdad’s residents in the nineteen twenties. Today, there is an explicit nostalgia, in writing, memoirs and cinema, for Iraq’s Jews and “their old days.’’

The subsequent centuries would pave wider paths to tragedy. In 1958 the massacre of the royal family dyed the new republic’s face with blood. In 1963, with extreme carnage, the Baathists brought down Abdel Karim Kassem and then executed him. Since 1968, the regime has implicated many Iraqis in causing other Iraqis pain. Saddam’s wars resulted in the deaths of many of his citizens and that of many others. His execution at dawn on Eid al-Adha in 2006 and the civil war of the same year were mass producers of feelings of guilt.

All of these momentous events pierced many hearts, those of this team and the other. Today, some Iraqi shed tears for Faisal the Second and the Hashemite family. Others shed them for Kassem, some for Saddam, and more numerous than them all are those who shed tears for the victims of Saddam and his wars.

In addition to crying over the Jews, there is also crying over the Kurds and Christians. During this long period, the killing of Kurds, with which the birth of modern Iraq was inaugurated, has not stopped: The country was established in 1920, shortly after Mahmoud al-Hafid’s uprising was defeated. Demand for Kurdish blood has not subsided since then.

As for the Christians, whom Pope Francis came to console and whose spirits he came to raise, the suffering of their modern history begins with the 1933 Simele massacre that targeted Assyrians to reach the ISIS emergence. The number of Christians living in Iraq has decreased from one and a half million people at the start of this century to between 300,000 and 400,000 people today.

This blood-soaked history is what Pope Francis came to assuage. But can the pope do it?

In 2003, when the Americans toppled Saddam Hussein, it seemed to some that an opportunity had emerged to put an end to the bloodshed and contain the feelings of guilts stemming from various sources. The Iraqi people’s reclamation of their Iraq, life under a democratic system, loomed on the horizon.

Subsequent developments proved those who had made this assessment mistaken: those with the lion’s share of the new regime’s power have gifted Iraq to Iran amid gradual US withdrawal. They gave the sectarian primacy over the national, imitating those who preceded them in power after the roles had been reversed. The stronger Iran, the stronger ISIS or its equivalent, and the greater the number of both Christians and non-Christians killed. When this happens, the voices of those calling for a stronger Iranian presence in Iraq to ensure that Iraqis can face ISIS grow louder, and this cycle goes on and on…

The past and ongoing ramifications of granting this glorious gift to Iran could transform, in some tomorrow, into a source of guilt that supersedes all of those that preceded it.

As for the pope’s visit, the fact that it comes amid this climate is a reason to worry about its productivity. This is because preaching about love to those filled with hate is likely to remain nothing more than preaching, akin to calling for peace among worriers. The fact is that only armed peace and love can save Iraq from its pains and the feelings of guilt arising from this pain. And of course, Pope Francis does not fight.

As a matter of fact, only fighting peace and love can save Iraq from its pains and feelings of guilt. And of course, Pope Francis does not fight.