US occupation politics and cultural heritage in Iraq

We often think of the destruction of cultural heritage, whether tangible or otherwise, as pertaining to acts of violence perpetuated by individuals or groups. No less is this the case than in Mosul, whose rich cultural diversity and social groups, such as the Yezidis and Christians, as well as the physical monuments of this region bore the brunt of Islamic State destruction. Yet, the destruction of cultural heritage of the scale witnessed in recent years started long before these ‘acts of violence’ by extremist Islamic groups. Writing before the onslaught of the Islamic State in Iraq, renowned British archaeologist Professor Roger Matthews and Iraqi archaeologist Dr Abbas al Hussainy, the former chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, assert that Iraq has not witnessed this level of heritage destruction since the Mongol armies of Hulagu invaded Baghdad in 1258. Instead of viewing cultural destruction in Iraq as a set of violent acts – something that British and Western media has continued to promote – any thinking on heritage in Iraq must seriously engage with this destruction as a process tied to politics, not least of course, the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In the early years of the occupation, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), whose many laws are now part of Iraqi state canon, had a deep unease about Iraq’s existing civil society. It felt that civil society could potentially be an anti-occupation force and possibly threaten US plans of making Iraq a client state. Iraqi civil society was a threat and Order 45 was Iraq’s first post-2003 law governing civil society and the newly emerging NGO sector. Written by a US general, Order 45 was designed to strictly monitor and regulate nonstate activity.

Funding at this stage to the emerging Iraqi NGO sector, particularly in 2003 and 2004, was deliberately scarce. The US ensured that civil society was beholden to US plans in the country, and no streams of funding outside its control could have the potential to upset its occupation politics. It was only after the forced collapse of the Iraqi state and US occupation policies to unravel institutions that civil society was supported, albeit as a way to substitute for the wreaked state. Heritage too, particularly Iraq’s national treasures – museums, libraries, monuments, cultural sites – were also treated suspiciously, and like civil society, considered to be a threat to the invasion itself.

For the invaders, not only had civil society to be closely monitored for any potential anti-occupation activity, but heritage – which connects Iraqis to their past and the land in which this history was made, as well as a source of knowledge and national pride – was deliberately left unprotected. The looting of the Iraqi Museum in 2003 was a remarkable example of US occupation policy of the attempt to wipe Iraq clean of its past by not providing any protection to it.

Like civil society and heritage, the Iraqi state too was under attack by the US occupation. Another destructive policy of the CPA was the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, police and all security apparatus. Again, the same mindset was at play here; ensuring Iraq was now a client state of the US and resistance would not emerge to threaten its plans. Security would be provided by the US military and it would rebuild the country’s security services in an image of its choosing.

Perhaps just as destructive to Iraq and its cultural heritage has been the US instituted sectarian political system that has sown massive social discord in the country. This system, which is designed to represent competing political parties and factions, is perhaps unique in its ineffectiveness. It is not designed to govern, but rather, to appease the interests of sectarian political parties. It is a system that was designed and instituted in the early years of the occupation whilst the project of making Iraq a client start was active.

Iraq’s political system allocates state institutions to competing political parties; Ministers are held accountable to their political parties rather than to a central executive. The US and its elite allies deliberately ensured that the system would benefit a handful of sectarian political parties; for the US, these leaders were the ones chosen prior to 2003, and who currently dominate Iraqi state institutions and the significant oil wealth vested in them. It should not surprise us that after 15 years since the occupation, no national or social development plans have been implemented and many Iraqis still live in dire poverty and without adequate services.

The growing disconnect between an elitist, artificial and sectarian political system and the wider population is a direct outcome of occupation policy to subdue Iraq under US patronage. A lasting impact of such interventions has been to dislocate Iraqis from their history and social environment, which was for the US occupation a necessary condition to create a client state in Iraq.

A direct outcome of Iraq’s sectarian political system has meant that Iraq’s cultural heritage continues to be under threat – it is neither a priority for Iraqi statebuilding nor sectarian political parties.

If we do not understand the politics of the past and the massive damage committed by the US occupation and the legacies it has given rise to, then it will be difficult to appreciate how the international community, academics and those interested in saving Iraq’s heritage can move forward.

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About Mehiyar

Dr Mehiyar Kathem is Research Associate and Nahrein Network Coordinator. As part of his role, Mehiyar works on the Visiting Scholarship Scheme where he assists Iraqi academics and professionals during their stay in the UK. His role includes supporting the Nahrein Network team to develop partnerships and communication with Iraqi Government institutions, domestic NGOs and academics. He is also responsible for the social media affairs of the Nahrein Network. Mehiyar completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he researched peacebuilding interventions and the formation of Iraq’s domestic NGO sector after the 2003 War. During this research, he looked at the gradual evolution of Iraq from totalitarian dictatorship through the country’s emerging domestic organisations. His research interests include statebuilding, civil society peacebuilding and the ways in which development, politics and money interact at a local level. In 2012 and 2013, Mehiyar conducted field research in Iraq for his PhD programme, spending a year meeting with and interviewing domestic NGO actors, political parties, government officials and international donors. Previously, Mehiyar worked on a number of grassroots programmes geared to build the capacity of civil society organisations and continues to advise international donors on the effective design and delivery of projects in Iraq. He tweets at @mehiyar

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