After More Than A Million Deaths, Iraqis Are Pushing to Expose U.S. War Atrocities

Saturday marked 13 years since the United States invaded Iraq, unleashing a brutal war and occupation that would go on to take the lives of over one million Iraqi people.

Meanwhile, another grimbut lesser-known anniversary passed last month: 25 years since the U.S. attacked a civilian bomb shelter in Baghdad’s Amiriyah neighborhood, killing more than 400 people, many of whom burned to death.

These historical events are important to keep alive in the public memory, as the Pentagon quietly deploys more troops to serve in yet another intervention in Iraq, where four consecutive U.S. presidents have waged military campaigns.

However, remembering is an ongoing action, in which we are challenged to look further than the media reports of displacement and carnage, and the ever-rising tally of lives lost, to listen to the Iraqi people who are still living with the consequences of U.S. actions while attempting to forge a better future.

A new organization called the Iraqi Transnational Collective is now sharing these stories of human resilience and agency. The group describes itself as “a transnational movement of Iraqis connecting our communities, working towards an equal and just Iraq and world free of oppression.”

Comprised of Iraqi people from across the globe, the group recently released a toolkit to commemorate the Al-Amiriyah bombing, in partnership with the digital Iraqi magazine shakomakoNET. The resource employs art, storytelling and research to tell Iraqis’ narratives about the attack and remember the people who were lost, all while foregrounding stories of perseverance and survival.

The resource declares that "we, the members of the Iraqi Transnational Collective, refuse to victimize Iraqis, and seek to hold accountable any and all entities which were and/or continue to be involved in Iraq's destruction: from European and American imperialism and colonialism to the Ba'ath regime and dictatorship; from interference and meddling by regional powers to the Iraqi government, including the Kurdish regional government, in place today; from individual acts to those of violent, organized groups.”

“In spite of this multitude of forces,” the toolkit adds, “we continue to witness the resilience and hope that Iraqis exude through community organizing, mobilization of actions, cultural preservation and art, and yearning for a just and better Iraq and world.”

I recently interviewed Shawk Al, a Canada-based member of the Iraqi Transnational Collective who contributed research to the toolkit. Shawk shared the goals and motives behind the undertaking, elaborated on the importance of listening to Iraq's global diaspora and highlighted other initiatives the nascent organization is pursuing.

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Sarah Lazare: Why do you think that the Al-Amiriyah resource guide is especially important right now, given the situation in Iraq and the ongoing role of the United States?

Shawk Al: Mainly, the goal of the toolkit is to educate people on the bombing of the Amiriyah shelter on Feb. 13, 1991, by American laser-guided bombs, which massacred over 400 Iraqi civilians, including mostly children and women. It puts the 2003 invasion and occupation into context, or at least it opens up that kind of conversation. 

Secondly, the toolkit can be a model for other campaigns, and I can think of many issues around Iraq that need to be brought into conversation in America.

And finally, it sets the tone for how the conversation should happen. A large portion of the toolkit is dedicated to naming every single person killed in Al-Amiriyah, and I think this sets the tone very powerfully in terms of humanizing and respecting the dignity of the people who pay the ultimate price for these destructive and reckless wars, which the aftermath, like you said, is the ongoing situation. 

The compilation of the toolkit was largely the effort of two of the collective's members, Amnah Almukhtar and Ahmed Habib. I'm very grateful to them for their work. 

SL: The resource puts an emphasis on Iraqi people telling their own stories. Why is this important? 

SA: The mainstream narrative surrounding Iraqis is either blatantly racist or a kind of victimizing narrative that is disempowering and patronizing. It was a conscious effort to portray the resilience, strength, power and perseverance that Iraqis have demonstrated in response to decades of colonialism, dictatorship, numerous wars and occupations, deadly sanctions and political repression.

It is absolutely imperative for justice and anti-oppression work to carve out space for people to tell their own history, after so many people have claimed authority over Iraqi stories, from state narratives to opportunist politicians.

SL: Why did you get involved and what is your own story about how you came into this work? 

SA: I’ve been involved in social justice organizing around Palestine, for environmental justice and in feminist circles for many years now. I was always frustrated that there wasn’t a similar space held for Iraq. Certainly because I am Iraqi and it taps into personal feelings of wanting to engage with parts of my identity, but also because what happened (and is happening) in Iraq is important in so many other contexts. Being specifically a diaspora Iraqi and hybrid/bicultural person, I found it very difficult to navigate political space while being accountable to my position as being outside of the nation state, yet still wanting to be somehow involved in it.

Something very unique and significant with the Iraqi Transnational Collective is that we aren't shying away from confronting the question on position (class, gender, generational, etc.), and it becomes an important layer of discussion and unpacking it an essential part of the process. 

SL: What is the collective planning for the future? How can people who aren't in the group be in solidarity with your mission and goals?

SA: There are quite a few projects and campaigns in the works and different committees that branch out from the main group, doing all sorts of work from political activism to literary cataloging.

One is the Diaspora to Iraq Committee where we are working to connect with and support grassroots organizations on the ground in Iraq. There is also the Iraqi Oral History project, where, with the help of Professor Ali Igmen from California State University Long Beach, we are currently being trained in conducting oral history interviews and will hopefully soon begin documenting stories. Our newest formed committee is the Arts and Artists Committee, which will accommodate the many creative and artistic minds we have among us.

In terms of solidarity I would say that it really depends on the campaign or project. Some of our work is solidarity work in itself, like the Amiriyah commemoration campaign, which was largely a social media awareness campaign, and people showed up for us by sharing posts online. In general, I would say to follow the collective on the different platforms we use.  

SL: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

SA: The Iraqi Transnational Collective is in its nascent stage, there's so much energy. Looking at the list of members right now, I see members from over 25 localities, from Brooklyn to Granada to Ramallah; people from diverse backgrounds who all came together with the willingness to confront differences critically and push through difficult conversations because it's necessary and worthwhile. It is a very exciting, and I am so inspired by the amazing people who I’ve met since joining the collective.

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