Before driving into northern Iraq, Dr. Azar Mirkhan changed from his Western clothes into the traditional dress of a Kurdish pesh merga warrior: a tightfitting short woolen jacket over his shirt, baggy pantaloons and a wide cummerbund. He also thought to bring along certain accessories. These included a combat knife, tucked neatly into the waist of his cummerbund, as well as sniper binoculars and a loaded .45 semiautomatic. Should matters turn particularly ticklish, an M-4 assault rifle lay within easy reach on the back seat, with extra clips in the foot well. The doctor shrugged. “It’s a bad neighborhood.”
Our destination that day in May 2015 was the place of Azar’s greatest sorrow, one that haunted him still. The previous year, ISIS gunmen had cut a murderous swath through northern Iraq, brushing away an Iraqi Army vastly greater in size, and then turning their attention to the Kurds. Azar had divined precisely where the ISIS killers were about to strike, knew that tens of thousands of civilians stood helpless in their path, but had been unable to get anyone to heed his warnings. In desperation, he had loaded up his car with guns and raced to the scene, only to come to a spot in the road where he saw he was just hours too late. “It was obvious,” Azar said, “so obvious. But no one wanted to listen.” On that day, we were returning to the place where the fabled Kurdish warriors of northern Iraq had been outmaneuvered and put to flight, where Dr. Azar Mirkhan had failed to avert a colossal tragedy — and where, for many more months to come, he would continue to battle ISIS.
Azar is a practicing urologist, but even without the firepower and warrior get-up, the 41-year-old would exude the aura of a hunter. He walks with a curious loping gait that produces little sound, and in conversation has a tendency to tuck his chin and stare from beneath heavy-lidded eyes, rather as if he were sighting down a gun. With his prominent nose and jet black pompadour, he bears a passing resemblance to a young Johnny Cash.
The weaponry also complemented the doctor’s personal philosophy, as expressed in a scene from one of his favorite movies, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” when a bathing Eli Wallach is caught off guard by a man seeking to kill him. Rather than immediately shoot Wallach, the would-be assassin goes into a triumphant soliloquy, allowing Wallach to kill him first.
“When you have to shoot, shoot; don’t talk,” Azar quoted from the movie. “That is us Kurds now. This is not the time to talk, but to shoot.”
Azar is one of six people whose lives are chronicled in these pages. The six are from different regions, different cities, different tribes, different families, but they share, along with millions of other people in and from the Middle East, an experience of profound unraveling. Their lives have been forever altered by upheavals that began in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq, and then accelerated with the series of revolutions and insurrections that have collectively become known in the West as the Arab Spring. They continue today with the depredations of ISIS, with terrorist attacks and with failing states.
For each of these six people, the upheavals were crystallized by a specific, singular event. For Azar Mirkhan, it came on the road to Sinjar, when he saw that his worst fears had come true. For Laila Soueif in Egypt, it came when a young man separated from a sprinting mass of protesters to embrace her, and she thought she knew the revolution would succeed. For Majdi el-Mangoush in Libya, it came as he walked across a deadly no-man’s-land and, overwhelmed by a sudden euphoria, felt free for the first time in his life. For Khulood al-Zaidi in Iraq, it came when, with just a few menacing words from a former friend, she finally understood that everything she had worked for was gone. For Majd Ibrahim in Syria, it came when, watching an interrogator search his cellphone for the identity of his “controller,” he knew his own execution was drawing nearer by the moment. For Wakaz Hassan in Iraq, a young man with no apparent interest in politics or religion, it came on the day ISIS gunmen showed up in his village and offered him a choice.
As disparate as those moments were, for each of these six people they represented a crossing over, passage to a place from which there will never be a return. Such changes, of course — multiplied by millions of lives — are also transforming their homelands, the greater Middle East and, by inevitable extension, the entire world.
History never flows in a predictable way. It is always a result of seemingly random currents and incidents, the significance of which can be determined — or, more often, disputed — only in hindsight. But even accounting for history’s capricious nature, the event credited with setting off the Arab Spring could hardly have been more improbable: the suicide by immolation of a poor Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller in protest over government harassment. By the time Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011, the protesters who initially took to Tunisia’s streets calling for economic reform were demanding the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the nation’s strongman president for 23 years. In subsequent days, those demonstrations grew in size and intensity — and then they jumped Tunisia’s border. By the end of January, anti-government protests had erupted in Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Jordan. That was only the beginning. By November, just 10 months after Bouazizi’s death, four longstanding Middle Eastern dictatorships had been toppled, a half-dozen other suddenly embattled governments had undergone shake-ups or had promised reforms, and anti-government demonstrations — some peaceful, others violent — had spread in an arc across the Arab world from Mauritania to Bahrain.
As a writer with long experience in the Middle East, I initially welcomed the convulsions of the Arab Spring — indeed, I believed they were long overdue. In the early 1970s, I traveled through the region as a young boy with my father, a journey that sparked both my fascination with Islam and my love of the desert. The Middle East was also the site of my first foray into journalism when, in the summer of 1983, I hopped on a plane to the embattled city Beirut in hopes of finding work as a stringer. Over the subsequent years, I embedded with a platoon of Israeli commandos conducting raids in the West Bank; dined with Janjaweed raiders in Darfur; interviewed the families of suicide bombers. Ultimately, I took a five-year hiatus from magazine journalism to write a book on the historical origins of the modern Middle East.
In my professional travels over the decades, I had found no other region to rival the Arab world in its utter stagnation. While Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya set a record for longevity in the Middle East with his 42-year dictatorship, it was not that different elsewhere; by 2011, any Egyptian younger than 41 — and that was roughly 75 percent of the population — had only ever known two heads of state, while a Syrian of the same age had lived his or her entire life under the control of the father-and-son Assad dynasty. Along with political stasis, in many Arab nations most levers of economic power lay in the hands of small oligarchies or aristocratic families; for everyone else, about the only path to financial security was to wrangle a job within fantastically bloated public-sector bureaucracies, government agencies that were often themselves monuments to nepotism and corruption. While the sheer amount of money pouring into oil-rich, sparsely populated nations like Libya or Kuwait might allow for a degree of economic trickle-down prosperity, this was not the case in more populous but resource-poor nations like Egypt or Syria, where poverty and underemployment were severe and — given the ongoing regional population explosion — ever-worsening problems.
I was heartened, in the Arab Spring’s early days, by the focus of the people’s wrath. One of the Arab world’s most prominent and debilitating features, I had long felt, was a culture of grievance that was defined less by what people aspired to than by what they opposed. They were anti-Zionist, anti-West, anti-imperialist. For generations, the region’s dictators had been adroit at channeling public frustration toward these external “enemies” and away from their own misrule. But with the Arab Spring, that old playbook suddenly didn’t work anymore. Instead, and for the first time on such a mass scale, the people of the Middle East were directing their rage squarely at the regimes themselves.
Then it all went horribly wrong. By the summer of 2012, two of the “freed” nations — Libya and Yemen — were sliding into anarchy and factionalism, while the struggle against the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria had descended into vicious civil war. In Egypt the following summer, the nation’s first democratically elected government was overthrown by the military, a coup cheered on by many of the same young activists who took to the streets to demand democracy two years earlier. The only truly bright spot among the Arab Spring nations was the place where it started, Tunisia, but even there, terrorist attacks and feuding politicians were a constant threat to a fragile government. Amid the chaos, the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s old outfit, Al Qaeda, gained a new lease on life, resurrected the war in Iraq and then spawned an even more severe and murderous offshoot: the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Why did it turn out this way? Why did a movement begun with such high promise go so terribly awry?
The scattershot nature of the Arab Spring makes it hard to provide a single answer. Some nations were radically transformed, even as others right next door were barely touched. Some of the nations in crisis were relatively wealthy (Libya), others crushingly poor (Yemen). Some countries with comparatively benign dictatorships (Tunisia) blew up along with some of the region’s most brutal (Syria). The same range of political and economic disparity is seen in the nations that remained stable.
Yet one pattern does emerge, and it is striking. While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, the six most profoundly affected — Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — are all republics, rather than monarchies. And of these six, the three that have disintegrated so completely as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century. In each, little thought was given to national coherence, and even less to tribal or sectarian divisions. Certainly, these same internal divisions exist in many of the region’s other republics, as well as in its monarchies, but it would seem undeniable that those two factors operating in concert — the lack of an intrinsic sense of national identity joined to a form of government that supplanted the traditional organizing principle of society — left Iraq, Syria and Libya especially vulnerable when the storms of change descended.
In fact, all but one of the six people profiled ahead are from these “artificial states,” and their individual stories are rooted in the larger story of how those nations came to be. The process began at the end of World War I, when two of the victorious allies, Britain and France, carved up the lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire between themselves as spoils of war. In Mesopotamia, the British joined together three largely autonomous Ottoman provinces and named it Iraq. The southernmost of these provinces was dominated by Shiite Arabs, the central by Sunni Arabs and the northernmost by non-Arab Kurds. To the west of Iraq, the European powers took the opposite approach, carving the vast lands of “greater Syria” into smaller, more manageable parcels. Falling under French rule was the smaller rump state of Syria — essentially the nation that exists today — and the coastal enclave of Lebanon, while the British took Palestine and Transjordan, a swath of southern Syria that would eventually become Israel and Jordan. Coming a bit later to the game, in 1934, Italy joined the three ancient North African regions that it had wrested from the Ottomans in 1912 to form the colony of Libya.
To maintain dominion over these fractious territories, the European powers adopted the same divide-and-conquer approach that served them so well in the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. This consisted of empowering a local ethnic or religious minority to serve as their local administrators, confident that this minority would never rebel against their foreign overseers lest they be engulfed by the disenfranchised majority.
This was only the most overt level of the Europeans’ divide-and-conquer strategy, however, for just beneath the sectarian and regional divisions in these “nations” there lay extraordinarily complex tapestries of tribes and subtribes and clans, ancient social orders that remained the populations’ principal source of identification and allegiance. Much as the United States Army and white settlers did with Indian tribes in the conquest of the American West, so the British and French and Italians proved adept at pitting these groups against one another, bestowing favors — weapons or food or sinecures — to one faction in return for fighting another. The great difference, of course, is that in the American West, the settlers stayed and the tribal system was essentially destroyed. In the Arab world, the Europeans eventually left, but the sectarian and tribal schisms they fueled remained.
Seen in this light, the 2011 suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi seems less the catalyst for the Arab Spring than a culmination of tensions and contradictions that had been simmering under the surface of Arab society for a long time. Indeed, throughout the Arab world, residents are far more likely to point to a different event, one that occurred eight years before Bouazizi’s death, as the moment when the process of disintegration began: the American invasion of Iraq. Many even point to a singular image that embodied that upheaval. It came on the afternoon of April 9, 2003, in the Firdos Square of downtown Baghdad, when, with the help of a winch and an American M88 armored recovery vehicle, a towering statue of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was pulled to the ground.
While today that image is remembered in the Arab world with resentment — the symbolism of this latest Western intervention in their region was quite inescapable — at the time it spurred something far more nuanced. For the first time in their lives, what Syrians and Libyans and other Arabs just as much as Iraqis saw was that a figure as seemingly immovable as Saddam Hussein could be cast aside, that the political and social paralysis that had so long held their collective lands might actually be broken. Not nearly so apparent was that these strongmen had actually exerted considerable energy to bind up their nations, and in their absence the ancient forces of tribalism and sectarianism would begin to exert their own centrifugal pull. Even less apparent was how these forces would both attract and repel the United States, damaging its power and prestige in the region to an extent from which it might never recover.
At least one man saw this quite clearly. For much of 2002, the Bush administration had laid the groundwork for the Iraq invasion by accusing Saddam Hussein of pursuing a weapons-of-mass-destruction program and obliquely linking him to the Sept. 11 attacks. In October 2002, six months before Firdos Square, I had a long interview with Muammar el-Qaddafi, and I asked him who would benefit if the Iraq invasion actually occurred. The Libyan dictator had a habit of theatrically pondering before answering my questions, but his reply to that one was instantaneous. “Bin Laden,” he said. “There is no doubt about that. And Iraq could end up becoming the staging ground for Al Qaeda, because if the Saddam government collapses, it will be anarchy in Iraq. If that happens, actions against Americans will be considered jihad.”
Beginning in April 2015, the photographer Paolo Pellegrin and I embarked on a series of extended trips to the Middle East. Separately and as a writer-photographer team, we had covered an array of conflicts in the region over the previous 20 years, and our hope on this new set of journeys was to gain a greater understanding of the so-called Arab Spring and its generally grim aftermath. As the situation continued to deteriorate through 2015 and 2016, our travels expanded: to those islands in Greece bearing the brunt of the migrant exodus from Iraq and Syria; to the front lines in northern Iraq where the battle against ISIS was being most vigorously waged.
We have presented the results of this 16-month project in the form of six individual narratives, which, woven within the larger strands of history, aim to provide a tapestry of an Arab World in revolt.
The account is divided into five parts, which proceed chronologically as they alternate between our principal characters. Along with introducing several of these individuals, Part 1 focuses on three historical factors that are crucial to understanding the current crisis: the inherent instability of the Middle East’s artificial states; the precarious position in which U.S.-allied Arab governments have found themselves when compelled to pursue policies bitterly opposed by their own people; and American involvement in the de facto partitioning of Iraq 25 years ago, an event little remarked upon at the time — and barely more so since — that helped call into question the very legitimacy of the modern Arab nation-state. Part 2 is primarily devoted to the American invasion of Iraq, and to how it laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring revolts. In Part 3, the narrative quickens, as we follow the explosive outcome of those revolts as they occurred in Egypt, Libya and Syria. By Part 4, which chronicles the rise of ISIS, and Part 5, which tracks the resulting exodus from the region, we are squarely in the present, at the heart of the world’s gravest concern.
I have tried to tell a human story, one that has its share of heroes, even some glimmers of hope. But what follows, ultimately, is a dark warning. Today the tragedy and violence of the Middle East have spilled from its banks, with nearly a million Syrians and Iraqis flooding into Europe to escape the wars in their homelands, and terrorist attacks in Dhaka, Paris and beyond. With the ISIS cause being invoked by mass murderers in San Bernardino and Orlando, the issues of immigration and terrorism have now become conjoined in many Americans’ minds, forming a key political flash point in the coming presidential election. In some sense, it is fitting that the crisis of the Arab world has its roots in the First World War, for like that war, it is a regional crisis that has come quickly and widely — with little seeming reason or logic — to influence events at every corner of the globe.
PART I: Origins
1. Leila Soueif (Egypt)
Laila Soueif attended her first political rally when she was just 16. It was 1972, and the protesters were demanding what students have so often desired — a more equitable world, greater freedom of expression. But they also had a demand that was a bit more specific to the Arab world: that Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, launch a war to recover the Sinai Peninsula, which was seized by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. From this experience, Laila would soon be convinced of the power of civil disobedience; Sadat launched an attack on Israel the following year. What Laila hadn’t counted on was the more immediate wrath of her parents. Just two hours after she joined the protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Laila’s mother and father tracked down their teenage daughter and dragged her home. “From that, I learned that it was easier to defy the state than to defy my parents,” she said.
Laila was born into a life of both privilege and intellectual freedom. Her parents were college professors, and her older sister, Ahdaf Soueif, is one of Egypt’s best-known contemporary novelists. She gravitated toward leftist politics at an early age. While studying mathematics at Cairo University in the mid-1970s, she met her future husband, Ahmed Seif, who was already the leader of an underground communist student cell calling for revolution.
By then, Egypt had long been regarded as the political capital of the Middle East, the birthplace of revolutionary movements and ideas. In the modern era, it owed that status largely to the legacy of one man: Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Well into the 1940s, Egypt, along with most of the rest of the Middle East, remained a lesser global concern, still in the thrall of the European powers that imposed their will on the area decades before. That began to change at the end of World War II with the discovery of vast new oil fields in the region, and with the collapse of the British and French colonial empires. The pace of change greatly accelerated when Nasser and his Free Officers Movement of junior military officers overthrew Egypt’s Western-pliant king in 1952.
Championing “Arab socialism” and Pan-Arab unity, Nasser swiftly became a galvanizing figure throughout the Arab world, the spokesman for a people long dominated by foreigners and Western-educated elites. Just as crucial to the strongman’s popularity was what he opposed: colonialism, imperialism and that most immediate and enduring example of the West’s meddling in the region, the state of Israel.
Nasser’s success inspired many other would-be Arab leaders, nowhere more so than in the artificial states of the Middle East formed by the European powers. By 1968, military officers espousing the Baathist (“renaissance”) philosophy — a quasi-socialist form of Pan-Arabism — had seized power in Iraq and Syria. They were joined the following year by the Libyan lieutenant Muammar el-Qaddafi, and his somewhat-baffling “third universal theory,” which rejected traditional democracy in favor of rule by “people’s committees.” In all three countries, just as in Egypt, Western-favored monarchs or Parliaments were neutered or cast aside.
But Nasser possessed an advantage that his fellow autocrats in the region did not. With a sense of national identity that stretched back millenniums, Egypt never seemed in danger of being torn apart; the centrifugal pull of tribes or clans or sectarian identity simply didn’t exist there to the degree it did in Syria or Iraq. At the same time, Egypt’s long tradition of relative liberalism had given rise to a fractious political landscape that ran the spectrum from secular communists to fundamentalist Islamists.
Part of Nasser’s genius was his ability to bridge these divides, and he did so by appealing both to Egyptian national pride and to a shared antipathy for the West, a vestige, perhaps, of 70 years of heavy-handed rule by Britain. Thus, even when Islamist conservatives became alarmed by Nasser’s moves toward greater secularism, most still saw him as a hero for nationalizing Western businesses, and for besting Britain, France and Israel in the 1956 Suez crisis. Similarly, urban liberals like the Soueif family who disdained Nasser’s strong-arm rule — his was a military dictatorship, after all — also cheered him for his leadership in the international Nonaligned Movement, for proudly thumbing his nose at the threats and enticements of the United States as it sought to compel Egypt into its orbit during the Cold War. This became the means by which Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat, maintained their grip on power: play left and right off each other as a matter of course; bring them together when needed by focusing on an external foe. Such maneuvering resulted in many odd political turns, including the first protest march of Laila Soueif.
After working on leftist causes together throughout their time at the University of Cairo, Laila and Ahmed married in 1978. That same year, Egypt’s political landscape was neatly turned upside down. In September, Sadat signed the Camp David accords, which led to an American-brokered peace treaty with Israel. That stunning about-face simultaneously propelled Egypt into the camp of American client-states and isolated it from much of the rest of the Arab world. Even more ominously for Sadat, what was seen in the West as an act of courage was regarded by most Egyptians as an act of betrayal and national shame. This was certainly the view of Laila and Ahmed. It was in the wake of the 1979 peace treaty that some of the men in Ahmed’s underground cell began buying up arms on the black market and vowing armed action against the government. Those plans never got off the ground, though. Instead, it was a cabal of Islamist military plotters who finally got to Sadat, shooting and killing him at a military parade in Cairo in October 1981.
A month later, Laila gave birth to her and Ahmed’s first child, a boy they named Alaa. Their lives took on an air of increasingly apolitical domesticity, and by 1983, Laila, then 28, was juggling the demands of child-rearing with her new position as a professor of mathematics at Cairo University. All normalcy was shattered, however, when Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, ordered a sweeping security crackdown. Among those ensnared in the dragnet were Ahmed and his colleagues in the underground cell. Severely tortured until he signed a full confession, Ahmed was then released to await his verdict. When that verdict was returned, in late 1984, the news was grim: Ahmed was found guilty of illegal weapons possession and sentenced to five years in prison.
At the time, Laila was in France, having accepted a scholarship to further her math studies, but when Ahmed’s sentence was handed down, she rushed back to Cairo with Alaa. Thanks to a curious loophole in Egyptian law, sentences for security-related offenses like Ahmed’s had to be approved by the president, a process that normally took several months and during which the defendant could remain out on bail. It presented the couple with a tempting choice.
“We had to decide,” Laila, who is now 60, told me. “Does he submit and go into prison for five years, do we try to find some way to get him out of the country or do we go into hiding?” She gave a nonchalant shrug. “So we went into hiding.”
For several months, the couple lived as fugitives with their 3-year-old son. Ultimately, though, both realized it was a futile exercise. “He wasn’t willing to leave the country,” Laila said, “and he couldn’t stay in hiding forever. He decided it was easier to do the five years, so he gave himself up.” But not necessarily easier for Laila. She became pregnant during her and Ahmed’s brief time on the run, leaving her to tend to a second child, a girl they named Mona, as Ahmed served out his prison sentence.
It was in prison that Ahmed experienced something of an epiphany. By continuing the entente with the United States and Israel that Sadat had begun, Mubarak naturally also inherited the taint of capitulation in the eyes of many of his countrymen. Unable to forge national cohesion by turning to the old external enemy card — after all, Egypt was now in bed with those supposed enemies — Mubarak had devised a more carefully calibrated system to play his secular leftist and militant Islamist oppositions against each other. Ahmed, thrown into prison with both factions, saw firsthand how this strategy played out when it came to even the most basic of human rights. As he would later tell Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch, “The communists would say secretly, ‘It doesn’t matter if Islamists are tortured.’ And the Islamists would say, ‘Why not torture communists?’ ”
Determined to fight for judicial reform, Ahmed devoted himself to studying law in his prison cell. Within a month of his release in 1989, he was admitted to the Egyptian bar.
This placed the ex-political prisoner and his wife at a crossroads. With Laila a tenured professor at Cairo University and Ahmed now a lawyer, the couple had the opportunity to carve out a comfortable existence for themselves among the Cairene elite. Instead, and at ultimately great personal cost, they would plunge ever deeper into Egypt’s widening turmoils, trying to cross the very divides that had for so long been critical to the government’s own survival.
2. Majdi el-Mangoush (Libya)
A once-prosperous port city roughly 120 miles east of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, Misurata was a main terminus of the old trans-Saharan trade route, the stopping point of camel caravans taking gold and slaves from sub-Saharan Africa for export across the Mediterranean. Ever since, it has been one of Libya’s chief commercial hubs, its residents regarded as industrious and particularly capitalist-minded. Prominent among those inhabitants is the Mangoush clan, so much so that one of the oldest neighborhoods of the city bears the family name. And it was in that neighborhood on July 4, 1986, that Omar and Fatheya el-Mangoush, civil servants for the Misurata municipal government, welcomed the birth of the youngest of their six children, a boy they named Majdi.
By the time of Majdi’s birth, Libya had been ruled by Muammar el-Qaddafi for 17 years. Viewed in the West as something of a rakish enfant terriblewhen he and his fellow military plotters overthrew Libya’s king in 1969 — Qaddafi was then himself just 27 — the handsome former signal corps lieutenant was wildly popular among his countrymen in the years immediately following the coup. A key to that popularity was his emulation of Gamal Abdel Nasser in neighboring Egypt. Like Nasser, Qaddafi kindled Arab pride by nationalizing Western business interests, including parts of Libya’s vital oil industry, and standing in vehement opposition to the state of Israel. By spreading the wealth around, he also enabled families like the Mangoushes to live a comfortable middle-class life.
Over time, however, Qaddafi’s rule increasingly bore less resemblance to Egypt’s “soft” dictatorship and more to that of two others influenced by the Nasser model: the Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria. The parallels were quite striking. In all three countries, the dictators developed elaborate personality cults — their faces adorned posters and murals and postage stamps — and aligned themselves with the “anti-imperialist” bloc of Arab nations, their stances helped along by deepening ties with the Soviet Union. True to the Baathist credo of “Arab socialism” and Qaddafi’s third universal theory, all three countries embarked on fabulously ambitious public works projects, building hospitals and schools and colleges throughout their lands and bankrolling those enterprises with oil receipts (in the cases of Libya and Iraq), or through the patronage of the Soviet Union (in the case of Syria). At the same time, the states established extravagantly bloated governmental structures, such that their ministries and agencies quickly became the main pillars of the economy; eventually more than half of the Libyan work force — Majdi el-Mangoush’s parents among them — was on the government payroll, and the figures in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were similar. “Everybody was connected to the state somehow,” Majdi explained. “For their housing, for their job. It was impossible to exist outside of it.”
For all their revolutionary rhetoric, the dictators of Libya, Iraq and Syria remained ever mindful that their nations were essentially artificial constructs. What this meant was that many of their subjects’ primary loyalty lay not to the state but to their tribe or, more broadly, to their ethnic group or religious sect. To keep them loyal required both the carrot and the stick. In all three nations, the leaders entered into elaborate and labyrinthine alliances with various tribes and clans. Stay on the dictator’s good side, and your tribe might be given control of a ministry or a lucrative business concession; fall on his bad side, and you’re all out in the cold. The strongmen also carefully forged ties across ethnic and religious divides. In Iraq, even though most all senior Baathist officials were, like Saddam Hussein, of the Sunni minority, he endeavored to sprinkle just enough Shiites and Kurds through his administration to lend it an ecumenical sheen. In Hafez al-Assad’s Sunni-majority Syria, rule by his Alawite minority was augmented by a de facto alliance with the nation’s Christian community, giving another significant minority a stake in the status quo.
This coalition-building had a unique geographic dimension in Libya. Aside from the historical rivalry that existed between the principal regions, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, human settlement in Libya had always been clustered along the Mediterranean coast, and what developed there over the millenniums was essentially a series of semiautonomous city-states that resisted central rule. Thus, while Qaddafi didn’t need to worry about religious sectarianism — virtually all Libyans are Sunni Muslims — he did need to think about drawing into his ruling circle the requisite number of Misuratans and Benghazians to keep everyone mollified.
And if inducements and handshakes didn’t work, there was always the stick. Libya, Iraq and Syria erected some of the most brutal and ubiquitous state security apparatuses to be found in the world. Operating with utter impunity, the local security forces, or mukhabarat, of all three dictatorships rounded up enemies of the state, real or imagined, at will, to be thrown into their nation’s dungeons after sham trials or simply executed on the spot. The repression wasn’t limited to individuals but often extended to entire tribes or ethnic groups. Certainly the most notorious case was Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against Iraq’s ever-restive Kurdish minority in 1988; before that pogrom was over, between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds had been killed. Over a two-year period, hundreds of thousands more were turned out of their razed villages and forcibly relocated.
The state also had a very long memory, as Majdi el-Mangoush discovered growing up in Misurata. In 1975, two of his mother’s relatives, both midlevel army officers, joined in a failed coup attempt against Qaddafi. While both were executed, that didn’t remove the stain on the family name. (Testament to the enduring tribal nature of Libya, Majdi’s mother was also of the Mangoush clan.)
“It’s not that we were directly persecuted because of it,” Majdi, who is now 30, explained, “but it was something officials would always comment on: ‘Ah, so you’re a Mangoush.’ It meant the government watched you a little closer, that you were never viewed as completely trustworthy.”
And in all three countries, there dwelled one group that was deemed wholly untrustworthy, one that almost always received the stick: Islamic fundamentalists. In Syria and Iraq, even identifying oneself as a Sunni or Shia could draw state suspicion, and in all three nations the mukhabarathad a special brief to surveil conservative clerics and religious agitators. Subtlety was not a hallmark of these campaigns. When, in February 1982, a group of Sunni fundamentalists in Syria under the Muslim Brotherhood banner seized control of portions of the city Hama, Hafez al-Assad had the place encircled with ground troops and tanks and artillery. In the ensuing three-week “Hama massacre,” somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 residents were killed.
But a perverse dynamic often takes hold in strongman dictators — and here, too, there were great similarities among Qaddafi, Hussein and Assad. Part of it stems from what might be called the naked-emperor syndrome, whereby, in the constant company of sycophants, the leader gradually becomes unmoored from reality. Another is rooted in the very nature of a police state. The greater the repression of security forces, the further that any true dissent burrows underground, making it that much harder for a dictator to know where his actual enemies are; this fuels a deepening state of paranoia, which can be assuaged only through even greater repression. By the 1990s, this cycle had produced a bizarre contradiction in Iraq, Syria and Libya: The more the leaders promoted a cult of hero worship and wallpapered their nations with their likenesses, the more reclusive those leaders became. In Majdi el-Mangoush’s case, despite living in a country whose total population was less than that of New York’s five boroughs, not once in 25 years did he ever personally glimpse Qaddafi. This was about the same number of times he uttered the dictator’s name in a disparaging way in public. “You would only do that with family, or with the most trusted of friends,” Majdi explained. “If you were around others and wanted to say something at all critical, it was ‘our friend.’ ”
There was another notable aspect to the posters and murals and mosaics of the dictators that could be seen everywhere in Libya, Iraq and Syria. In a great many of them, framing the image of the strongman, there appeared the outline of the country’s borders. Perhaps that juxtaposition was designed to impart a simple message — “I am the leader of the nation” — but it’s possible that the artificial-state dictators were also sending a message that was both more ambitious and more admonishing: “I am the nation; and if I go, then so goes the nation.” Of course, that may have been just what many members of the Mangoush clan — celebrated enough to have their own namesake neighborhood, notorious enough to be permanently marked — were secretly hoping.
Portfolio: Libya 2002
2. Azar Mirkhan (Kurdistan)
In early 1975, as Laila Soueif, at Cairo University, continued to agitate for change, Gen. Heso Mirkhan was serving as a chief lieutenant to Mustafa Barzani, the legendary warlord of the Iraqi Kurds, in a brutal guerrilla war against the Baathist government in Baghdad. For more than a year, the vastly outnumbered Kurdish fighters, known as the pesh merga, had fought the Iraqi Army to a standstill. Crucial to the Kurds’ success was a steady flow of C.I.A.-supplied weaponry, along with Iranian military advisers, as Iran waged a U.S.-sponsored proxy war against Iraq. But when the shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein abruptly concluded a peace treaty in early March, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered an immediate cutoff of aid to the Kurds. In the face of an all-out Iraqi offensive, Barzani was airlifted out to end his days in a C.I.A. safe house in Northern Virginia, but thousands of other stranded pesh merga fighters were left to their fate, including Heso Mirkhan. With Saddam Hussein’s soldiers closing in, the general led his family in a frantic dash over the mountains for sanctuary in Iran. Somewhere along the way, his wife gave birth to another son.
“The treaty was signed on the 6th of March,” Azar Mirkhan, who is now 41, explained, “and I was born on the 7th. My mother gave birth to me on the road, on the border between Iran and Iraq.” He gave a rueful little laugh. “That is why my family has always called me ‘the lucky child.’ Kurdish luck.”
Indeed, it is hard to find any people quite as unlucky as the Kurds. Spread across the mountainous reaches of four nations — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — they have always regarded themselves as culturally apart from their neighbors and have constantly battled for independence from those nations they inhabit. The governments of these nations have tended to view their reluctant Kurdish subjects with both fear and distrust, and have taken turns quashing their bids for independence. Those governments have also periodically employed the Kurds — either their own or those of their neighbors — as proxy fighters to attack or unsettle their regional enemies-of-the-day. Historically, when those feuds were brought to an end, so, too, was the Kurds’ usefulness, and they were soon abandoned — as occurred in the 1975 “great betrayal.”
While the number of rebellions and proxy wars that have occurred across the breadth of Kurdistan over the past century is almost impossible to count, the biography of Heso Mirkhan’s commander, Mustafa Barzani, provides something of a gauge. By the time of his death in 1979, the 75-year-old Barzani had not only waged war against Turkey, Iran (twice) and the central government of Iraq (four times), but had somehow found the energy to also take it to the Ottomans and the British and a host of Kurdish rivals. Multiply Barzani’s list by four — the Kurds of Syria, Iran and Turkey have each had their own competing guerrilla groups and independence movements — and it all becomes a bit staggering.
Despite the fears of these governments that they might some day be confronted by an independent “greater Kurdistan,” the truth is that the differences among the Kurds in these four countries now rival their similarities. One thing they have in common, though, is a longstanding warrior tradition, and among the Kurds of northern Iraq, there is no more celebrated family of pesh merga — literally translated as “those who face death” — than the Mirkhans.
Following their father, Dr. Azar Mirkhan and four of his nine brothers have undergone pesh merga training; today, one brother, Araz, is a senior pesh merga commander on the front lines. But the family has paid a high price for membership in the warrior caste. Heso, the patriarch, was killed in combat in 1983, while one of Azar’s older brothers, Ali, met the same end in 1994.
But it hasn’t been just the region’s governments that have historically victimized the Kurds. In fact, few nations have brought the Kurds of northern Iraq more sorrow than the United States. After their role in the great betrayal of 1975, the Americans would again be complicit in the Kurds’ suffering — if this time largely through silence — just 10 years later.
By then, the United States’ chief ally in the region, the shah of Iran, had been overthrown and replaced by the hostile Shiite fundamentalist government of Ayatollah Khomeini. Searching for a new partner in the region, Washington found one in Saddam Hussein. With the Iraqi dictator waging war against Khomeini’s Iran, and with the United States secretly funneling weapons to his bogged-down military, by 1988 Hussein was so integral to the Reagan administration’s realpolitik policy in the region that it simply looked the other way when Hussein launched the murderous Anfal campaign against his Kurdish subjects. A squalid new low was reached in March of that year, when Iraqi forces poison-gassed the Kurdish town Halabja, killing an estimated 5,000 people. Despite overwhelming evidence that Hussein was responsible for the atrocity — Halabja would figure prominently in his 2006 trial for crimes against humanity — Reagan-administration officials scurried to suggest it was actually the handiwork of Iran.
What finally ended the American arrangement with Saddam Hussein was the Iraqi despot’s 1990 decision to invade neighboring Kuwait, upsetting not just the Western powers but also most of his Arab neighbors. Perversely, that event very nearly led to yet another slaughter of Iraq’s Kurds. Instead, it would eventually lead to their liberation, as well as mark the crucial moment when the United States propelled itself headlong into Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides.
In the face of Hussein’s belligerence, President George H.W. Bush marshaled an international military coalition — Operation Desert Storm — that swiftly annihilated the Iraqi Army in Kuwait, then rolled into Iraq itself. With Hussein’s government appearing on the verge of collapse, Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up in revolt. Both of Iraq’s marginalized communities — the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north — eagerly did so, only to see the United States suddenly take pause. Belatedly concluding that Hussein’s demise might play into the hands of a still-hostile Iran, the Bush administration ordered American troops to stand down as the Iraqi Army regrouped and began a pitiless counterattack.
To forestall a wholesale massacre of the rebels they had encouraged, the United States joined its allies in establishing a protected buffer zone in Kurdistan, as well as no-fly zones in both northern and southern Iraq. That still left Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, of course, and ready to take his revenge at the first opportunity. While the Bush administration concluded there was little it could do to aid the geographically isolated Shiites in the south — they soon suffered their own Anfal-style pogrom — to protect the Kurds, they forced Hussein to militarily withdraw from all of Kurdistan. Taking matters a step further, in July 1992 the Kurdistan Regional Government, an autonomous union of Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces, was established.
The Bush administration most likely regarded this Kurdish separation as a stopgap measure, to be undone once the tyrant in Baghdad had gone and the danger had passed. The long-suffering Kurds of Iraq saw it very differently. For the first time since 1919, they were free from the yoke of Baghdad, and they had their own nation in all but name. While very few in the West appreciated the significance at the time, the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or K.R.G., marked the first dismantling of the colonial borders that were imposed on the region 75 years earlier, the de facto partition of one of the Middle East’s artificial nations. In the years just ahead, tens of thousands of members of the Iraqi Kurdish diaspora would abandon their places of exile to return to their old homeland. In 1994, that included a 19-year-old college student, Azar Mirkhan, who had spent almost his entire life as a refugee in Iran.
4. Majd Ibrahim (Syria)
Before its destruction, Homs was a pleasant-enough place, a city of roughly 800,000 in the flat interior of Syria’s central valley, but close enough to the foothills of the coastal mountain range to escape the worst of the region’s tremendous summer heat. It was never a spot where tourists tarried very long. Although Homs dated back to before Greek and Roman times, little of the ancient had been preserved, and whatever visitors happened through the town tended to make quickly for Krak des Chevaliers, the famous Crusader castle 30 miles to the west. There was an interesting covered souk in the Old City and a graceful if unremarkable old mosque, but otherwise Homs looked much like any other modern Syrian city. A collection of drab and peeling government buildings dominated downtown, surrounded by neighborhoods of five- and six-story apartment buildings; in its outlying districts could be seen the unadorned cinder-block homes and jutting rebar that give so many Middle Eastern suburbs the look of an ongoing construction site, or a recently abandoned one.
Yet, until its demise, Homs had the distinction of being the most religiously diverse city in one of the most religiously mixed countries in the Arab world. Nationally, Syria is composed of about 70 percent Arab Sunni Muslims, 12 percent Alawites — an offshoot of Shia Islam — and a roughly equal percentage of Sunni Kurds; Christians and a number of smaller religious sects make up the rest. At the geographic crossroads of Syria, Homs reflected this ecumenical confluence, with a skyline punctuated not just by the minarets of mosques but also by the steeples of Catholic churches and the domes of Orthodox Christian ones.
This gave Homs a cosmopolitan flavor not readily found elsewhere — so much so that in 1997, the Ibrahims, a Sunni couple, thought nothing of putting their first child, 5-year-old Majd, in a private Catholic school. As a result, Majd grew up with mostly Christian friends and a better knowledge of Jesus and the Bible than of Muhammad and the Quran. This didn’t appear to bother Majd’s parents at all. Although raised as Muslims, both were of the nominal variety, with his mother rarely even bothering to wear a head scarf in public and his father dragging himself to the mosque only for funerals.
Such secular liberalism was very much in keeping with the new Syria that Hafez al-Assad sought to shape during his otherwise typically iron-fisted 30-year dictatorship, a secularism undoubtedly encouraged by his own religious minority status as an Alawite. After his death in 2000, the policy was carried on by his son, Bashar. A bland and socially awkward London-trained ophthalmologist, Bashar came to power largely by default — the Assad patriarch had been grooming his eldest son, Bassel, to take over until a fatal car accident in 1994. But Bashar, while projecting a softer, more modern face of Baathism to the outside world, also proved adroit at navigating the tricky currents of Middle Eastern politics. While still publicly vowing to recover the Golan Heights taken by Israel in the Six-Day War, he maintained an uneasy détente with Tel Aviv, even pursuing secret negotiations toward a settlement. By gradually loosening Syria’s hold on neighboring Lebanon — its troops had occupied portions of the country since 1976, and Damascus was a prime supporter of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia — the younger Assad was viewed increasingly favorably by the West.
And to a young Majd Ibrahim then coming of age, it increasingly appeared that it was the West where his nation’s future lay. Like other middle-class boys in Homs, he wore Western clothes, listened to Western music, watched Western videos, but Majd was also afforded a unique window onto the outside world. His father, an electrical engineer, worked at one of the best hotels in Homs, the Safir, and Majd — fascinated by the hotel, with its constant bustle of travelers — made any excuse to visit him as he went about his day. For Majd, the Safir was also a place of reassurance, a reminder that no matter what small deviations Syrian politics took along the way, he would always be able to inhabit the modern and secular world into which he was born.
Part II: The Iraq War
2003 – 2001
5. Khulood al-Zaidi (Iraq)
As the second-youngest of six children — three boys and three girls — born to a hospital radiologist and his stay-at-home wife, Khulood al-Zaidi had a relatively comfortable middle-class childhood. But like most of the other girls in Kut, a low-slung provincial city of some 400,000 located 100 miles down the Tigris River from Baghdad, she lived a life that was both cloistered and highly regimented: off to school each day and then straight home to help with household chores, followed by more study. Save for school, Khulood seldom ventured from home for anything beyond the occasional family outing or to help her mother and older sisters with the grocery shopping. In 23 years, she had left her hometown only once, a day trip to Baghdad chaperoned by her father.
Yet, in the peculiar way that ambition can take root in the most inhospitable of settings, Khulood had always been determined to escape the confines of Kut, and she focused her energies on the one path that might allow for it: higher education. In this, she had an ally of sorts in her father. Ali al-Zaidi was insistent that all his children, including his three daughters, obtain college degrees, even if the ultimate purpose of the girls’ education bordered on the obscure.
“My father was very progressive in a lot of ways,” she explained, “but even with him, going to college was never about my having a professional career. Instead, it was always the idea of ‘Study hard, get a degree, but then find a husband.’ ” She shrugged. “This was the Iraqi system.” Khulood pursued a degree in English literature at a local university, but the expectation was that, degree in hand, she might teach English at a local school for a few years, then marry and start a family. Khulood had different plans, though: With her English proficiency, she would go to Baghdad and look for work as an interpreter for one of the few foreign companies then operating in Iraq.
That scheme was sidetracked when, just three months short of her graduation, the Americans invaded Iraq. In the early morning of April 3, 2003, the fighting reached Kut. Advance units of the United States First Marine Expeditionary Force encircled the city, and for the next several hours methodically destroyed one Iraqi redoubt after another, their tanks and artillery on the ground complemented by close air support. Of this battle for her hometown, Khulood, then 23, heard a great deal but saw nothing. There was a simple explanation for this. “Women weren’t allowed out of the house,” she said.
Before the invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney predicted that Americans would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq, and his prediction was borne out in the streets of Kut on April 4. As the Marines consolidated their hold on the city, they were happily swarmed by young men and children proffering trays of sweets and hot tea. Finally permitted to leave her home, Khulood, like most other women in Kut, observed the spectacle from a discreet distance. “The Americans were very relaxed, friendly, but mostly I was struck by how huge they seemed — and all their weapons and vehicles, too. Everything seemed out of scale, like we had been invaded by aliens.”
While there continued to be sporadic fighting elsewhere by remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government — given the Orwellian label of “anti-Iraqi forces” by the Bush administration — the few coalition troops who remained in Kut that spring and early summer felt secure enough to mingle free of body armor with residents and to patrol its streets in unprotected trucks. Those soldiers also quickly returned the city to something close to normalcy. The university was reopened after just a two-month interruption, enabling Khulood to obtain her bachelor’s degree that August. The real work now was in rebuilding the nation’s shattered economy and reconstituting its government, and to that end a small army of foreign engineers, accountants and consultants descended on Iraq under the aegis of the Coalition Provisional Authority, or C.P.A., the American-led transitional administration that would stand down once a new Iraqi government was in place.
One of those who came was a 33-year-old lawyer from Oklahoma named Fern Holland. A human rights adviser for the C.P.A., Holland had a special brief in the summer of 2003 that included developing projects to empower women in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq. In September 2003, that mission took her to Kut and her first encounter with Khulood.
“I will always remember the first time I saw Fern,” Khulood said. “She brought a group of us women together to talk about the work she wanted to do in Iraq. She was surprisingly young — this is easy to forget, because her personality was so strong — with bright blond hair and a very open, friendly manner. I had never met a woman like her. I don’t think any of us in that room had.”
What Holland told the women in the Kut meeting hall was no less exotic to them than her appearance. With the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, she said, a new Iraq was being established, one in which democracy and respect for human rights would reign supreme. What’s more, to consolidate this new Iraq, everyone had a role to play, not least the women of Kut.
For Khulood, that talk struck with the force of epiphany. This was the moment she had been waiting for her entire life. Almost immediately, she began doing volunteer work on women’s rights projects for Holland. “I had thought about these issues before, but under Saddam Hussein they were like fantasies,” Khulood said. “Now, I saw a future for myself.”
Holland was perhaps less confident. From past experience working in conservative and male-dominated societies in Africa, she suspected that it would only be a matter of time — and probably a very short time — before the forces of tradition rose up in opposition to her work, so she had to set change in motion quickly. She also knew that, as an outsider, her role needed to be a limited one; what was required was dynamic local women to spearhead the effort, women like Khulood al-Zaidi.
The following month, Holland chose Khulood to be a representative at a national women’s leadership conference, held under the auspices of the C.P.A. At that conference, Khulood received even headier news: She had been selected as part of a women’s delegation that would soon travel to Washington to help draft the new Iraqi Constitution. When word of this spread at the conference, it provoked a backlash. “A lot of the other women objected because I was so young,” Khulood said. “Even I thought it was maybe too much. But Fern insisted. She told the other women, ‘Khulood represents the youth of Iraq — she is going.’ She was my biggest supporter.”
On that November 2003 trip to Washington, the 23-year-old fresh out of college met with a parade of dignitaries, including President George W. Bush. Upon her return, she was formally hired by the C.P.A. to serve as an assistant manager of the Kut media office. It was a very long way for a young woman who, less than a year earlier, had imagined no greater future than finding interpreter work with a foreign company. “It was a very exciting time,” Khulood said. “Because you could feel everything changing so fast.”
Portfolio: Iraq 2003
6. Wakaz Hassan (Iraq)
Wakaz Hassan is saved from ordinariness by his eyes. In most every other way, the tall and gangly 22-year-old would appear unremarkable, just one more face in the crowd — but so intensely dark and arresting are his eyes that you might initially think he was wearing mascara. In his stare is a kind of mournful impenetrability that hints at the hard world he has seen.
Only 8 years old in 2003, Wakaz seemed destined for an exceedingly normal life, even a prosaic one. The youngest of five children born to an Iraqi bank clerk and his wife, he spent his childhood in the drowsy farming community of Dawr, just 15 miles down the Tigris River from Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit. “All was very good there,” he recalled. “Easy.”
That changed with the American invasion. Long considered a Baathist stronghold by virtue of Hussein’s origins there, Tikrit and its environs were a prime early objective of the invaders, with the city itself the target of intense aerial bombardments. By mid-April 2003, coalition troops occupied the string of gaudy palace buildings erected by Hussein along the Tikrit riverfront and began conducting raids through the surrounding river towns in search of fugitive Baathist officials. The May 15 raid on Dawr netted 30 suspected Baathists — a startling number for such a small community — but the town was soon to yield up an even greater prize. In mid-December 2003, American troops discovered a “spider hole” on the northern edge of Dawr and pulled out Hussein himself.
The young Wakaz had only the vaguest grasp of all this. According to him, his family — Sunni, like most all residents of the Tikrit area — was not particularly religious, nor was it political in any way. He remembered hearing something about the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at an American-operated prison — clearly a reference to the Abu Ghraib scandal — and then there was the time American soldiers searched his family’s home, but those soldiers were quite respectful, and the episode passed without incident.
“I know others had problems with the Americans,” Wakaz said, “but my family, no. For us, we were really not affected at all.”
What the Hassan family did blame the invaders for, at least in a general way, was the ensuing collapse of the Iraqi economy, a downturn that cost Wakaz’s father his job at the Rafidain Bank. To support his young family, the Hassan patriarch used his savings to open a small sweet shop on Dawr’s main street. “So yes, our life was definitely much easier before the Americans came,” Wakaz conceded. “Even if it wasn’t their fault directly, that is when everything became much harder.”
7. Khulood al-Zaidi (Iraq)
As she entered the new world opened up to her by Fern Holland, Khulood remained unaware that the seeds of disaster for the American intervention had already been sown.
In their Iraqi war plans, the Pentagon had set down comprehensive blueprints detailing which strategic installations and government ministries were to be seized and guarded. But the American military seemed to have given little thought to the arsenals and munitions depots that Hussein had scattered about the country. In one town and city after another, these storehouses were systematically looted, sometimes under the gaze of coalition soldiers who did not intervene.
The occupying authorities soon compounded this misstep. In a move now largely regarded as calamitous, one of the first actions taken by the C.P.A.’s administrator, Paul Bremer, was to disband the Iraqi military. Just like that, hundreds of thousands of men — men with both military training and access to weapons — were being put out of their jobs by the summer of 2003.
It may have been the edict immediately preceding that decree, however, that had the most deleterious effect. Under the terms of C.P.A. Order No. 1, senior Baath Party members were summarily dismissed from government positions and placed under a lifetime public-employment ban. In addition, employees in the upper echelon of all government institutions were to be investigated for Baathist affiliations. As critics pointed out, tens of thousands of apolitical Iraqi professionals — a group that included Khulood’s radiologist father, Ali al-Zaidi — were compelled to join the party in the 1990s as part of a “recruitment drive” by Saddam Hussein; now these teachers and doctors and engineers were at risk of being disenfranchised.
The effects of Order 1 stretched far beyond the dismissed Baathists. In Iraq, as in much of the rest of the Middle East, government offices operated on an elaborate patronage system in which most every employee, from senior staff down to the steward who brought refreshments to visitors, owed their jobs to the head man; as might be expected, that man — almost invariably a Baath Party member during Saddam Hussein’s reign — usually handed out those jobs to members of his extended family or tribe. What the firing of as many as 85,000 Baathists actually meant, then, was the cashiering of countless more people and the instant impoverishment of entire clans and tribes.
Under the weight of these blunders, it’s remarkable that the Iraqi occupation didn’t blow up sooner. An omen of what was to come occurred in August 2003, when the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was destroyed by a truck bomb, killing 22, including the U.N.’s special representative for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. That was followed by a steady escalation in attacks against coalition forces. By the beginning of 2004, C.P.A. officials perceived a deepening hostility toward their initiatives, so much so that even Fern Holland began to worry. As she wrote in an email to a friend in late January: “We’re doing all we can with the brief time we’ve got left. It’s a terrible race. Wish us luck. Wish the Iraqis luck.”
On March 8, 2004, the new provisional Constitution of Iraq was signed. The clause that set a goal of having 25 percent of future parliamentary seats held by women was largely credited to the behind-the-scenes lobbying of Fern Holland.
The following afternoon, a Daewoo containing three C.P.A. civilian employees was traveling along a provincial highway when an Iraqi police pickup truck pulled alongside. With a blast of automatic gunfire, the car was sent careering across the highway before stalling on the shoulder; the men in the police truck then clambered out to finish off their victims with assault rifles. All three of the Daewoo’s occupants were killed in the fusillade, marking them as the first C.P.A. civilians to be murdered in Iraq. That included the driver and presumed target of the attack, Fern Holland.
Following Holland’s murder, a sense of trepidation spread among the thousands of C.P.A. personnel scattered across Iraq. “We were all in a state of shock, of course,” Khulood al-Zaidi said, “but I think we were also waiting to see what it meant, if it had been an attack on Fern in particular or if this was going to be something larger.”
The answer came very soon. In tandem with the growing Sunni insurgency in central Iraq, through the first months of 2004, a radical Shiite cleric in Baghdad, Moktada al-Sadr, had been demanding a withdrawal of all coalition forces from the nation. In early April, Sadr unleashed his militia, the Mahdi Army, in an effort to bring that withdrawal about through a series of well-coordinated attacks against military and C.P.A. installations. Kut’s turn came on April 5, when some 200 Mahdi militiamen began attacking the C.P.A. compound.
Khulood spent hours trapped in the C.P.A. media office, as the coalition forces assigned to guard the compound returned fire. Finally a C.P.A. supervisor turned to Khulood. “If you are not afraid,” he said, “you should just go.”
With two other local workers, Khulood managed to thread her way out of the compound and, dodging down side alleys, to escape. With the C.P.A. compound subsequently abandoned, she remained in hiding as the Mahdi militiamen who now controlled Kut searched for any local C.P.A. employees left behind. Even after American forces retook the city, Khulood remained so frightened she didn’t leave her family’s home for two weeks.
The Mahdi uprising radically altered the flow of events in Iraq. Both Sunni and Shia militias sharply increased their attacks against coalition forces, marking the true beginning of the Iraq war. Despite this, the C.P.A. went ahead with their program of ceding control of Iraq to a new central government. In May, the last of the foreign civilians based in Kut began withdrawing, and within two months, the whole of the local C.P.A. infrastructure was placed under the authority of the new Baghdad government.
For a time, this did seem to calm passions in Khulood’s hometown, enough so that she vowed to continue the women’s rights initiatives begun by her murdered mentor. That autumn, she helped found a small nongovernmental organization called Al-Batul, or Virgin. Its goals were modest. “Kut has a small Christian population,” Khulood explained, “so my idea was to bring Christian and Muslim women together to work on projects that were important to both communities. It was mainly to teach the women how to defend their rights, to show them that they didn’t always have to obey what men said.”
But in the deepening sectarianism spreading across Iraq, Sunni and Shia militants alike increasingly viewed the Christian community as the infidels within; in turn, terrified Christians were beginning to abandon the nation in droves, an exodus that would eventually reduce their numbers in Iraq by more than two-thirds. Further, the only possible source of funding for an endeavor like Al-Batul was from the foreign occupiers, enabling militants to denounce it as a front in the service of the enemy. Almost immediately, Khulood began receiving anonymous threats for continuing her work on “American issues,” threats that escalated to the point where she was denounced by name in a local newspaper.
The memory of that time caused Khulood, now 36, to become somber, reflective. “I can see now that I was quite naïve, that I didn’t take the situation as seriously as I should have. But my feeling was that I was only working on things that might give women a better life, so how was I a threat?”
In October 2004, the Al-Batul office in Kut was shot up. Undeterred, Khulood rented a second office, only to have it looted. That January, while attending a human rights training seminar in Amman, the capital of neighboring Jordan, she received a warning: If she resumed her work in Kut, she would be killed. She remained in Jordan for three months, but in April 2005 — a year after the death of Fern Holland and with the fighting in Iraq now spiraling into sectarian war — Khulood finally slipped back to her hometown.
She recognizes now that this decision bordered on the foolhardy. “It was just very difficult for me to give up on this dream I had for Iraq,” Khulood said, recalling how Holland told her that “to bring change it takes people with courage, that sometimes you have to push very hard. Well, I didn’t want to die, but Fern had, and I think I held onto this hope that if we kept trying, maybe things would improve.”
Shortly after returning to Kut, Khulood went to the local police station to file a report about her looted office, only to be treated dismissively. A more ominous note was struck when she met with one of her old Al-Batul colleagues. “Why did you come back here?” the woman asked. “Everyone knows you’re working for the American Embassy.” Her colleague’s accusation came on the heels of a call summoning Khulood to the local militia headquarters. “That’s when I finally saw there was no chance for me in Iraq, that if I tried any longer, they would surely kill me.”
8. Laila Soueif (Egypt)
As Khulood was planning her escape from Iraq in April 2005, Laila Soueif was escalating her opposition to the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
By then, Laila and her husband, Ahmed Seif, had been Egypt’s most celebrated political dissident couple for well over a decade, serving as constant nuisances to the Mubarak government. Since his release from prison in 1989, Ahmed had become the nation’s pre-eminent human rights lawyer, the champion of an eclectic array of defendants in politically motivated cases that included leftist university professors, Islamic fundamentalists and — in a nation where homosexuality remains effectively illegal — members of Cairo’s gay community. When I first met him that autumn, Ahmed was involved in perhaps the most controversial case of his career, defending a group of men accused of complicity in a 2004 hotel bombing in the Sinai Peninsula that left 31 dead.
For her part, and even while retaining her mathematics professorship at Cairo University, Laila had gained a reputation as one of Cairo’s most indefatigable “street” leaders, the veteran of countless protest marches against the government. Part of what drove her was a keen awareness that, as a member of the Cairene professional class, she enjoyed a freedom to dissent that was all but denied to Egypt’s poor and working class. “Historically,” she said, “that bestowed a degree of immunity — the security forces really didn’t like to mess with us, because they didn’t know who in the power structure we could call up — but that also meant we had a responsibility, to be a voice for those who are silenced. And being a woman helped, too. In this culture, women just aren’t taken that seriously, so it allows you to do things that men can’t.”
But she was also quite aware that her activism — and the government’s grudging tolerance of it — fit neatly into the divide-and-rule strategy that Hosni Mubarak had employed since assuming power in 1981. In the past, Egyptian governments were able to gin up bipartisan support when needed by playing the anti-West, anti-Israel card, but Anwar Sadat traded that card away by making peace with Israel and going on the American payroll. The new strategy consisted of allowing an expanded level of political dissent among the small, urban educated class, while swiftly moving to crush any sign of growing influence by the far more numerous — and therefore, far more dangerous — Islamists.
In Laila’s estimation, what finally caused this strategy to fray was the launch of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel in September 2000. With most Egyptians of all political persuasions holding that their government sold out the Palestinians with the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Mubarak was suddenly powerless to muzzle pro-Palestinian demonstrations lest he be seen as an even greater lackey of the Americans. “For the first time,” Laila explained, “we began organizing openly and publicly without taking any permission from the government and without taking cover under any of the so-called legitimate political parties. And what was the government going to do about it? This established the pattern — you don’t wait for permission, you don’t look for an existing political party to take you in, you just organize — that we used many, many times afterward.”
In short order, street protests became a constant feature of Egyptian life. Even more deleterious from the government’s point of view, fury over the Palestinian situation galvanized opposition groups from across the political spectrum to march and work together.
With this new dynamic in place, the last thing Hosni Mubarak needed was another reminder to the Egyptian people of his fealty to Washington — but then came the United States’ decision to invade Iraq.
While astute enough to oppose that invasion in public, and to engage in high-profile diplomacy to try to head it off, Mubarak wasn’t able to escape its fallout. In the eyes of many Egyptians, after 23 years of taking lucre from the Americans, the dictator was simply too much their puppet to make a show of independence now. That cynical view only hardened as the war in Iraq dragged on and the daily body count mounted. From 2002 through early 2005, some of the largest antiwar demonstrations in the Arab world were taking place in the streets of Cairo, and Laila Soueif was on the front lines in nearly every one of them. “Of course, on the overt level it was to protest what was occurring in Iraq,” Laila said, “but this also reflected the failure of Mubarak.”
At the same time, the dictator did himself few favors with a series of domestic initiatives that further inflamed the opposition. Grooming his son Gamal as his successor, in February 2005 Mubarak engineered a rewriting of the Constitution that, while ostensibly allowing for direct presidential elections, actually rigged the system so as to make domination by his political party all but perpetual. In presidential elections that September, Mubarak won a fifth six-year term with nearly 89 percent of the vote, after having arrested the only notable candidate to stand against him, Ayman Nour. Under mounting pressure at home and abroad, he reduced his interference in the November 2005 parliamentary elections, only to see the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party still officially banned, take an unprecedented 20 percent of the seats.
By late 2005, when I spent six weeks traveling through Egypt, growing contempt for the government was evident everywhere. To be sure, much of that antipathy derived from the nation’s economic stagnation and from the corruption that had enabled a small handful of politicians and generals to become fabulously rich — the Mubarak family financial portfolio alone was reported to run into the billions — but it also had a strong anti-American component, and pointed up a profound disjuncture. At the same time that Egypt was regarded in Washington as one of the United States’ most reliable allies in the Arab world, in no small part because of its continuing entente with Israel, over the course of scores of interviews with Egyptians of most every political and religious persuasion, I failed to meet a single one who supported the Israeli peace settlement, or who regarded the American subsidies to the Mubarak government, then approaching $2 billion a year, as anything other than a source of national shame. As Essam el-Erian, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, bluntly told me: “The only politics in Egypt now are the politics of the street, and for anyone to work with the Americans is to write their political death sentence.”
It was during this time of ferment that the three children of Laila Soueif and Ahmed Seif, who previously had shown little interest in activism, began to have a change of heart about politics. The first to make the evolution was their son, Alaa, a pioneering Egyptian blogger, and it happened when he accompanied Laila to a protest march in May 2005.
“He had become very interested in citizen journalism,” Laila said, “so with all the street actions surrounding the Constitution and Mubarak running again, he had begun coming down to cover the demonstrations — not to participate, just to report on them.”
But the protest on May 25 was a very different affair. Waiting in ambush were government-hired thugs, or baltageya, who immediately charged at the demonstrators to beat them with fists and wooden staffs. Perhaps recognizing the well-known protester in their midst, the goons soon fell on Laila.
“Well, this was something new,” she said, “for them to punch a middle-aged woman, and when my son saw that, he jumped in to help me.” For his trouble, Alaa was beaten up as well. “He had some toes broken, so we went to hospital, and it was only later that we discovered we were the lucky ones. After we left, the baltageya began pulling the clothes off women and beating them in their underwear. This was something they did a lot later on, to humiliate, but that was when it began and when Alaa joined the protests. The girls became involved later — Mona got pulled in with the judges’ independence movement, and then for Sanaa it was the revolution — but for Alaa, it started in 2005.”
Laila Soueif is a tough, unsentimental woman, and if she harbored any pride — or, in light of what was to come, regret — over her children’s turn to activism, she didn’t let on. “I never tried to dissuade them. Even if I had wanted to — and I probably did at times — I didn’t. That kind of thing is useless. They’re not going to listen to you anyway, so you just get into fights.”
Portfolio: Lebabon 2006
9. Majdi el-Mangoush (Libya)
It was around this time that Majdi el-Mangoush joined onlookers on a sidewalk in his hometown, Misurata, to witness an incredible sight.
Along Tripoli Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, a municipal work crew with a cherry-picker was methodically taking down the posters of Muammar el-Qaddafi that hung from every lamppost.
It was part of an attempt by the Libyan dictator to put a kinder, gentler face on his government. While ostensibly directed at the Libyan people, the campaign was really meant for Western consumption.
In the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq, there had been talk in President George W. Bush’s inner circle that once Saddam Hussein was dispensed with, the troublesome Qaddafi would be next. Once the Iraq invasion began in March 2003, the Libyan dictator hurried to make amends with the Americans. He offered a settlement over his country’s role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland — without explicitly admitting guilt, the Libyan government agreed to set aside $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the 270 victims — and began quietly dismantling his nation’s fledgling program for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Even more quietly, Libyan intelligence agents shared dossiers with their American counterparts on suspected Al Qaeda operatives and other Islamic fundamentalists in the region. On the home front, the goal was to create at least the illusion of political liberalization, and one aspect was to remove some of the tens of thousands of posters and billboards of “the Leader” that wallpapered the nation.
Qaddafi soon thought better of the whole egalitarian makeover. By 2006, the United States had restored full diplomatic relations with his government; while officially a response to the abandonment of the Libyan unconventional-weapons program, certainly a contributing factor was that, amid the deepening quagmire of the Iraqi misadventure, there was not going to be any grand American crusade against the region’s other dictators. Which also meant that Qaddafi could quietly abandon his reform drive. “It was just a bit of theater,” Majdi said. “Nothing really changed, and after a few months, I don’t think anyone even remembered it.”
But that day hadn’t yet arrived when the cherry-picker made its way down Misurata’s Tripoli Street. Majdi was still observing the spectacle when an elderly man emerged from a nearby alley.
For a long moment, the old man stared slack-jawed in amazement at the sight before him. He then rushed over to one of the discarded posters, removed a shoe and — in a gesture of insult common throughout the Arab world — began beating it against Qaddafi’s likeness amid a torrent of curses.
A municipal worker came over to ask what he was doing.
“The bastard’s gone at last, no?” the old man asked. “There’s been a coup?”
When the worker set him straight, the man stammered out an explanation for his behavior — he’d been very ill lately, given to fits of lunacy — and then hurried away.
10. Khulood al-Zaidi (Jordan • United States • Iraq)
Khulood did not flee Iraq alone. She crossed back into Jordan with her next-eldest sister, Sahar, and they were joined in Amman a few months later by their father and oldest sister, Teamim. Choosing to stay on in Iraq were Khulood’s three brothers, along with her mother, Aziza. By summer 2007, Khulood was especially worried about Wisam, her youngest brother. “The war then was at its worst,” she said, “and young men were just being taken from the streets. I called Wisam all the time. I told him there was no future for him in Iraq, that he had to come out, but he was very softhearted and said that he needed to stay to take care of our mother.”
One evening that September, as Wisam and a friend walked along a Kut street, someone with an assault rifle killed them both in a burst of gunfire. “He was 25,” Khulood said softly. “Some people say he was killed because of the work I was doing, but I hope that isn’t true.”
A few months after Wisam’s murder, Khulood faced a new ordeal when, working for an NGO, she rebuffed the demands of a corrupt but well-placed Jordanian businessman looking for kickbacks. He was the wrong person to cross. Shortly after, she was ordered to leave Jordan. Facing almost-certain death if forced to return to Iraq, Khulood turned to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for emergency resettlement in a third country.
Among the more unlikely possibilities for resettlement was the United States. In 2008, American troops were still embroiled in an Iraqi civil war, and the Bush administration had strict caps in place (albeit recently loosened) on the number of Iraqis to be given refuge; to let in all those who had fled the country — and there were an estimated half-million displaced Iraqis in Jordan alone — would belie its talking point that the corner had finally been turned in the war. In light of the grave danger Khulood faced, however, the U.N.H.C.R. placed her in its own special program, reserved for only the most vulnerable of refugees, and for those in this pool, the Americans had a spot available. In July 2008, Khulood boarded a plane bound for San Francisco.
It’s hard to imagine a more extreme transition, from the cramped, tumbledown apartment she shared with her father and two sisters in Amman to a pleasant one-bedroom in San Francisco, and Khulood reveled in her new life. “Just to have the freedom to go wherever I wanted, and to not think something bad might happen to me. And I don’t mean just the war. For a woman to travel alone in Iraq — maybe it happened in Baghdad, but never in Kut, and so some days I would just take a bus or the metro for hours. It was something I had never really imagined before.”
Her career prospects were also much improved. In Iraq, Khulood studied English because it seemed to offer the greatest chance at future freedom for a young woman, but in the United States the opportunities were endless. “After one year, I would get my green card, and then I could apply for scholarships to study whatever I wanted. I became very ambitious.”
The one continuing source of worry was for her divided family back in Iraq and Jordan. While she knew those in Kut wouldn’t leave, Khulood was desperate to release her father and sisters from their limbo existence in Amman and, soon after reaching San Francisco, she started the paperwork to have them join her.
Three months later, Khulood received both good and bad news. Her two sisters were approved for resettlement. Their father, however, was rejected. The sisters remained in Jordan while the family appealed the decision, but Ali al-Zaidi was rejected again.
By February 2009, seven months after Khulood’s arrival in San Francisco, there was still no progress in the effort to resettle her father. It was then she made a fateful decision: She would return to Jordan and work on his case there.
“My friends in San Francisco couldn’t understand it,” she recalled. “Why, when you have a new life here, why would you ever go back?” Khulood grew thoughtful for a moment, as if still struggling for an answer. “But how to explain my culture to them? In Iraq, family is the most important thing, you can never turn away from it, so how could I and my sisters enjoy this nice life in America but leave our father behind? We could never live with the shame of that. So I went back.”
In Amman, Khulood tirelessly pursued any angle she could think of to win her father’s exit, petitioning for settlement not just in the United States but also in a half-dozen European nations. Nothing worked.
Worse, Khulood had walked herself into legal limbo. As she was warned before leaving San Francisco, under the stipulations of American immigration law, refugees awaiting the permanent status of a green card cannot leave the country for longer than six months. By returning — and staying — in Jordan, Khulood had lost her refugee classification. Now, along with the part of her family that she had brought out of Iraq, Khulood was stranded. She could not go home or to a third country, hostage to the whim of a state — Jordan — that was anxious to shed her.
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