In Iraq, Remembering a Day That Changed Two Countries Forever

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Though abhorring the September 11 attacks, many Iraqis recall it as an event used to justify the disastrous invasion of their country

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A girl looks on at a refugee camp near Qandil mountain, a border zone in northeastern Iraq / Reuters

BAGHDAD -- The tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks has sparked round-the-clock television coverage in the U.S and reams of front-page stories detailing the feelings of sadness, horror, and rage Americans continue to feel about the deadliest strike to ever occur on their soil. Here in Iraq, by contrast, it has barely rated a mention.

The Iraqi government made no official comment about the anniversary of the attacks, and Iraq's main television news channels focused on anti-corruption protests in the southern city of Basra and the murder of a prominent Iraqi journalist. Azzaman, Iraq's best-selling newspaper, didn't devote a single article to the attacks, instead devoting much of its front page to coverage of an escalating feud between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the former head of the country's Public Integrity Commission. Both for members of Parliament and ordinary Iraqis in the streets of Baghdad, Sept. 11, 2011, is just another wearying day in a country beset by violence, political paralysis, and a deep, lingering sense that conditions aren't likely to improve anytime soon.

None of which is to suggest that Iraqis are ignorant of what took place in New York City, Washington, and Shanksville, Pa., 10 years ago Sunday.  Millions of Iraqis saw the attacks on live television and are deeply familiar with the details of what took place. But they have strong and conflicted feelings about the strikes themselves. Many ordinary Iraqis go out of their way to speak of their revulsion at the deaths of so many innocents at the hands of their fellow Muslims. At the same time, they believe the attacks were used to justify the 2003 American invasion of their country and the bloody civil war which followed.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, embodies those contradictions. Othman speaks fluent English and is a secular politician who frequently argues for the rights of women and Iraq's ethnic and religious minorities. Like most Kurdish politicians, he is openly and staunchly pro-American. But Othman argues that the American focus on the 9/11 attacks obscures the fact that tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed in terrorist attacks within Iraq in the eight years since the U.S invasion.

"September 11 was a terrible crime that killed 3,000 innocent people," Othman said in an interview. "But the number of people killed in Iraq since September 11 is much, much bigger than the number of Americans who died.  And no one in the world seems to know or care."

Ahmad Abdulhussein is the cultural editor of Al-Sabaah, a large government-owned newspaper. A poet, he was in Toronto on Sept. 11, 2001, and he says he still remembers the "panic and terror" he saw on the faces of Americans in the city. Abdulhussein also remembers moments of anti-Islamic ugliness in the immediate aftermath of the attack, including seeing an American man physically shove a young Muslim woman in a burqa away from a city bus. 

He was so shaken that he wrote a poem days after the attack called "Eye for an Eye." Written in English and sardonically dedicated to both Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush, the work was a full-throated condemnation of both the attacks and the paranoia that followed. "We slaughtered each other, in order not to awaken the universe," he wrote.

"The attack was all I could think about for months," Abdulhussein said in an interview at his cigarette-smoke-filled office here. "I knew the world had changed."

Ten years later, Abdulhussein says ordinary Iraqis -- preoccupied with the violence and daily challenges of life here -- simply don't have the mental or psychological energy to pay much attention to events that occurred so far away and so long ago. 

"They have their own suffering to deal with, and that's all they can think about," he said. "America had one attack. We have attacks every day, and we as journalists focus on the daily attacks which take place here."

9/11 has long been seen differently in the two countries that American forces invaded after the terror attacks. Afghanistan is a largely illiterate country where few ordinary Afghans have any connection to the outside world, so many people there literally didn't know the strikes took place, let alone that they were planned by terrorists operating within the country's borders. Most Iraqis know about the attacks, but their views of the strikes -- like so much else here -- frequently break down along sectarian and religious lines. 

Kurds have always been critical of the attacks and publicly sympathetic to American suffering that day. Shiites, who bore the brunt of Sunni militants' years-long terror campaign here, share the American desire to crush al-Qaida but believe their own subsequent suffering dwarfs that of America. Hussein Shahristani, a prominent Shiite lawmaker, has regularly argued that the 2006 destruction of a revered, centuries-old Shiite shrine in Samarra was their version of September 11, in part because so many thousands of Shiite civilians died in the resulting civil war. 

Sunnis, meanwhile, see September 11 solely through the prism of the subsequent American invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein but also brought a violent end to decades of Sunni dominance over the country. Sunni extremists have spent the past eight years fighting the American military here, and the ferocity of that fight led many Sunnis to openly express admiration for al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks themselves.

For most Iraqis of all backgrounds, however, Sept. 11 is remembered as a day that ultimately impacted their country just as much as it impacted the U.S.. Saddam Hussein's regime may have had no connection to the attacks, but the American-led war the Bush administration launched as part of its response to the terrorist strikes upended the old order here and left in its place a new country still beset by chronic violence and instability. 

Mohammed Ayoub, an employee of the Population Ministry, said Iraq, under Hussein, never experienced the type of unrelenting carnage which has been a hallmark of the post-war period here. The country's violence is down sharply from its peak in 2007 and 2008, but Ayoub noted that dozens of Iraqis continue to be killed every month in bombings, shootings, and other attacks.  In an interview at a restaurant in downtown Baghdad, Ayoub said "explosions and dead people" had become a grim part of everyday life here.

"How could any Iraqi forget Sept. 11?" Ayoub said, lighting a cigarette. "It's the day our world changed too."

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Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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