Advocating a War in Iraq, and Offering an Apology for What Came After

The Saturday Profile – By TIM ARANGO MAY 13, 2016 –  THE NEW ORK TIMES  – BAGHDAD — To document the crimes of Saddam Hussein, Kanan Makiya studied thousands of documents smuggled out of Iraq, and years later his findings helped the United States make the case for war. He became famous as the foremost Arab intellectual to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and on the day Baghdad fell to American forces, he was in the Oval Office watching the news with President George W. Bush.

For years afterward, as Iraq fell apart, Mr. Makiya’s pen went silent while he struggled to make sense of what happened and his own role in the catastrophe.As a Middle East scholar at Brandeis University, Mr. Makiya is a man of facts and history. Ultimately, though, he decided the best way to express what he felt became of Iraq was to write fiction. Only with a novel, he says, could he access “the larger meanings and deeper truths about what went wrong post-2003.”

The result is his recently published novel, “The Rope,” the title a reference to the hanging of Mr. Hussein. The book, in fictionalizing many of the familiar traumas and struggles of Iraq over the last decade, is at its broadest an indictment of the country’s Shiite leaders. These are the former exiles who were Mr. Makiya’s friends from their days working in opposition to Mr. Hussein, and who came to rule Iraq after the invasion and still largely do today, having driven the country to the edge of collapse with their scheming and corruption.

The book is also an apology, and represents a decade of introspection for a man whose life’s work was closely associated with a costly war that was justified by the false assertion that Mr. Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the United States.But Mr. Makiya, 66, is quick to say that he has no regrets for his earlier support of the war, which was based on Mr. Hussein’s crimes and not his weapons, nor for the influence he had over the Bush administration’s policy makers.

What he is sorry for, he says, is bestowing legitimacy on a group of men who have proved themselves incapable of ruling Iraq.

“The tyrant fell and the Americans handed the reins of power to the Arab Shiite leaders, and my books and political activity helped in convincing them to do so, and this is why I feel guilty today,” Mr. Makiya wrote in an extended personal essay that was published in Arabic to explain his reasons for writing the novel.Still, he says, “Iraqi mistakes are orders of magnitude more important to what has gone wrong in Iraq than American mistakes.”

Mr. Makiya, who grew up in Baghdad in the 1950s and 1960s before attending college in the United States and eventually becoming an American citizen, is writing for two audiences, his two selves: Iraqi and American.He said he has a greater responsibility to apologize to the Iraqi people, whose suffering seems endless, than he does to his American readers, arguing that removing Mr. Hussein from power was still morally correct.Still, he admitted, “I can’t look into the eyes of a woman, from Oklahoma or somewhere, who has lost her son and tell her that her son’s death was justified. I can’t do that.”

While Mr. Makiya’s novel concerns the past, it offers a way of understanding the political struggle the country is facing today, vividly demonstrated when angry supporters of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr stormed the Parliament building in Baghdad recently to demand an end to corruption. The book lands just as the Obama administration is deepening its military role in Iraq to fight the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State, whose rise is blamed on the sectarian policies of the leaders Mr. Makiya once supported.

The main character is a Shiite militiaman in his 20s who had “longed to be swept up in the storms of change rolling up young men like me all over Iraq.”The man joins a group of fighters led by Mr. Sadr and, as the story unfolds against the backdrop of Iraq’s chaos, seeks to unravel two mysteries: what happened to his father, who disappeared into Mr. Hussein’s gulag in the 1990s, and the story behind the real-life murder of a Shiite cleric in Najaf during the early days of the war in 2003. Lieutenants of Mr. Sadr were later blamed for the murder of the cleric, Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei, the son of a grand ayatollah who had lived in exile in London before returning after the American invasion. The killing was seen as a precursor of the violent power struggles within the Shiite community that would unfold in subsequent years. An arrest warrant was later issued for Mr. Sadr himself, but was ultimately quashed as Shiite leaders in Baghdad covered up the murder.

For Mr. Makiya, the episode became a symbol for all that went wrong.

Hayder al-Khoei, the son of the murdered cleric, who was 15 at the time of the killing and who now writes about Iraq as an analyst at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank based in London, said that at first he wondered if Mr. Makiya was making too much of his father’s murder.

“But reading the book cover to cover, I understand why,” Mr. Khoei said. Referring to the Shiites, he said, “if they can do this to one of their own, what chance does any ordinary Iraqi have?”

In retrospect, Mr. Makiya said it was naïve to believe that the Shiites, who had never ruled Iraq and whose culture embraces a deep sense of victimhood, could rise above their history and share power with Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds.“You have this moment,” he said, referring to 2003, “when the Shiites are put in this unique position that is contrary to their whole entire history. How do they handle it? They who had talked about rule of law, human rights abuses, dictatorship and tyranny and all of these things. They who had suffered so terribly in 1991 in the crushing of the uprising and had their leaders killed and butchered over the years, et cetera.” He continued, “What is the absolutely first thing they do? Cover up a murder of one of their own, by their own.” Looking back now, Mr. Makiya laughed at what he described as his naïveté in “hoping against hope that Iraqi leaders would behave more like Martin Luther King, more like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi.”

The title of the Arabic edition of his book is “Al Fitna,” a rich word without an exact translation in English. Sedition, strife, conflict and distress are approximate definitions, all of which can describe Iraq today. It also carries historical and religious undertones, and evokes the original schism between Sunnis and Shiites in the seventh century.

The book is for sale on Mutanabbi Street, the Baghdad street of booksellers named for a 10th-century Arab poet. Copies have slowly made their way to Iraq, because the typical land route from the publishing houses in Beirut to the bookshops of Baghdad are impassable because of the Islamic State, Mr. Makiya said.

In Iraq, Mr. Makiya became a controversial figure for his association with the Iraqi exiles, who are now widely despised, and for his role in encouraging the American invasion.

“Suspicion circled around him because he was among the first people to motivate the Americans to enter Iraq,” said Salman al-Khateeb, an Iraqi lawyer, who visited Mutanabbi Street on a recent Friday. “He must apologize to all of the Iraqi people. We all make mistakes.”Abdullah Mohammed, who owns a bookshop in Baghdad, said he sells about 10 copies of Mr. Makiya’s book every day. “I consider his apology accepted, and it is coming from a brave man,” he said.Others, though, say they need more than a novel as a form of apology. “Apologizing through a novel is considered elusive and unclean,” said a man who gave his name as Abu Hadeel, before derisively referring to the words Mr. Makiya once used to describe the bombs falling on Baghdad: “Music to my ears.”

Some said no apology was necessary. “He said nothing but the truth,” said Hassan Maliki, another man walking through the book stalls on Mutanabbi Street.

Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghda –