Voices From Iraq: A People’s History 2003-2009 – Mark Kukis


When the United States Armed Forces invaded the country of Iraq in March, 2003, I had a very uneasy feeling in my stomach with regards to the future of that Islamic Republic. Occupation by a foreign army is never a process that goes smoothly and even the best military commanders are unable to predict the final outcome.  Yes, Saddam Hussein (1937-2006) was removed from power, subsequently captured and forced to stand trial wherein he was convicted and sentenced to death.  And although he is gone from power in Iraq, his ghost continues to haunt the country and there are many Iraqis who continue to live with mental, emotional and physical scars from the days of his regime and memories of the invasion by American forces.  As a person who lives in the Western Hemisphere, there is much about the Middle East that I have still have yet to learn.  When I saw this book as a recommendation on Amazon, I immediately jumped at the chance to read it.  Mark Kukis covered the conflict from 2006 to 2009 as a correspondent for Time Magazine and saw firsthand the devastation from the invasion.  Appropriately titled Voices From Iraq, it provides readers with the opportunity to read the words spoken by Iraqis who survived one of history’s deadliest regimes and a military invasion by the United States of America.

Readers should be aware that the book is not for the faint at heart. Also, it is not a discussion focused on Hussein himself.  Some of the speakers do mention his name as they remember his reign of terror, but the focus remains on the aftermath of his removal from power.  Be prepared for a graphic descriptions of violence and tragic stories that involve murder, kidnapping and bombings that left paths of devastation in their wakes.  The men and women who sat for the interviews presented in the book are everyday people who had their entire lives turned upside down in a conflict that none of them asked for or desired.  Kukis provides a brief description of their lives and turns the floor over to them so they can tell us exactly what they remember from those dark times in their nation’s history.  And what will happen is that your emotions will embark on a roller coaster ride as you learn the truth about the “liberation” of Iraq.

I believe that it may be of some benefit to readers to learn the back-story of the conflict between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, which forms the basis for a lot of the sectarian violence that becomes commonplace without a centralized Iraqi government. In the wake of Hussein’s departure, the Shi’ites soon found themselves the targets of Sunnis who had formerly been party of the Baath party in the Hussein’s Administration.  The vengeance with which they go after the Shi’ites is both alarming and heartbreaking, and through the words of the speakers in the book we can see how many individuals were targeted by Sunni militias determined to eliminate those they determined to be enemies of true Islam under the Sunni ideology.

The rise in sectarian violence and sudden disappearances that occur throughout the book sent chills down my spine.  Nearly all of the victims are men, many of them husbands with large families at home.  Further, there is often no explanation given for their abductions and their families typically learn of their fates through third parties or unfortunately, a trip to the morgue. In some instances we do learn as to what exactly did happen but even then there are parts of the story that even the surviving family members have never figured out.   Some of the speakers became translators for American forces and had joined with them in order to eradicate the menace of al-Qaeda.  In a country where smaller cities are occupied by people of the same sects of Islam, keeping one’s identity secret was not always easy. The level of danger involved in this line of work is captured in their stories highlighting just how close some of them came to having in their lives taken from them because of their efforts to assist the Americans. But make no mistake, those who did help the Americans firmly believed in removing Al-Qaeda from Iraq’s soil. However, the American way and Iraqi way are fundamentally different as explained in this quote by Sheik Hamid al-Hais:

“If the Americans found people from al-Qaeda, they arrested them. We killed them. That’s the difference. That’s why we were able to start defeating al-Qaeda in a matter of months where the Americans had struggled to beat them for years. These people, al-Qaeda, are not human. ” – Sheik Hamid al-Hais

It should be noted that not all of the Iraqis interviewed were thrilled to see the Americans arrived and some picked up arms in defense of the country from those they saw as occupiers.  I think it is important for American readers to understand that there are many things we did not see on television here at home.  As I read through the stories, I began to form a more accurate picture in my mind of the daily reality of life in Iraq after Saddam Hussein.  The fallen dictator’s legacy is largely negative but some supporters did remain and in spite of the terror he inflicted upon Iraqis, he was seen by some as the lesser of two evils.  Azhar Abdul-Karim Abudl-Wahab is a former instructor who firmly believed in the American mission, yet his students offered varying views of the invasion.  He emphasizes that:

“Of course you cannot discuss Iraqi history without mentioning Saddam, whom I viewed as a kind of occupier. I tried to put it in those terms to my students. Saddam stole freedoms from Iraq. He stole money from Iraq. He brought wars on Iraq. All the bad things an occupier might do Saddam actually did. I told them this. For the most part their reply to me was the same. At least he was an Iraqi, they would say. At least he was an Iraqi ” – Azhar Abdul-Karim Abudl-Wahab

Other were more forceful in their views of the Americans whom they viewed with suspicion and in some cases anger.  Regardless of Hussein’s tyrannical reign, the country did have a central power structure. But with the tyrant gone, a free for all commenced during the development of a power vacuum.  And for the people of Iraq, the violence escalated to levels that none of them wanted or could have ever conceived.  Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha is quite blunt in his assessment of the American effort:

“Yes, they are to blame. The first thing the Americans did when they entered Iraq was to disband the Army. They opened up the borders and allowed people to come in. They did not work with us, the people, in the beginning. Al-Qaeda was able to come in and gain influence with the people instead. I don’t think there is any American who can deny that, because that’s the truth.” – Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha

If you have decided to pick up this book then I believe I do not have to tell you that there are no “happy endings”.  Every story is a tragedy on its own and will require sensitive readers to take a break while reading. I personally had to take moment to gather my thoughts while reading some of the stories.  The recollections presented show a lifestyle that is more than any person should bear.  Death lurks around the corner for everyone and even the suspicion of helping the Americans or not practicing what extremist call “true Islam” was an instant death sentence. Quite frankly, this book fully shows why war truly is hell. As an American, I was forced to ask myself: did we truly succeed in Iraq? And if so, at what cost was it to the Iraqi people?

The 2003 Iraq War has largely faded into distant memory for the average American.  Yet, it was less than twenty years ago that an entire country was destabilize in the name of democracy.  A brutal tyrant was removed from power but in the process, the people he left behind were forced to endure hell on earth.  These are the voices from Iraq that tell the truth about a war that continues to haunt two countries.  Highly recommended.


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