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The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq brought terrorism to my country, Iraqi author says

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Many Americans regard the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a costly foreign policy mistake. But for Iraqis, that so-called mistake meant a war and occupation that brought one tragedy after the next, the consequences of which they still live with today. Iraqi poet and novelist Sinan Antoon has written extensively about the invasion 20 years ago that changed so many lives. I started by asking him about the war's legacy.

SINAN ANTOON: The legacy, to me, is massive destruction of human life and of the human spaces. That is the legacy of the invasion and of the occupation. Of course, some of that was caused by al-Qaida and by ISIS, but we did not have terrorism in Iraq before 2003. Yes, we did have a dictatorship that I wrote against and stood against. But the legacy of 2003 invasion is that it actually brought terrorism to Iraq, and Iraqis had to pay a very high price for the war on terrorism that was fought in their cities and on their land and left its scars and traces in their daily life and in their future.

FADEL: You called it American terrorism in an article you recently wrote on the anniversary - the 20th anniversary - of the U.S. invasion. When you say American terrorism, is that what you're referring to?

ANTOON: If you take the definitions of terrorism, it's about acquiring political objectives by violence against innocent civilians. And that's what happened in Iraq - because if we go back to the rationale, you know, the initial phase of the war was supposedly about weapons of mass destruction, right? But it's important for listeners to understand that in 2002, it was obvious, and it was confirmed that there were no weapons of mass destruction. So the war basically was waged based on a lie. And then when there were no weapons of mass destruction, there was a shift in the discourse saying, well, this is about democracy and about building a new country.

Using depleted uranium weapons back in 1991 in the first Gulf War and then using them again in 2003 - and the research is all out there for listeners to go and look into it - what depleted uranium does to the bodies of Iraqi infants and men and women and how children are born in Fallujah with birth defects because of the illegal weapons that were used there. And yet there is no accountability. There is no acknowledgement. And this, to my mind, amounts to terrorism.

FADEL: It's been over a year now since Russia invaded Ukraine in that large-scale invasion. And much of the rhetoric was, this is unprecedented since World War II, to invade a sovereign nation like this, including from people who were involved in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And I wondered what you thought. I mean, I'll play you a clip from Biden on this issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The idea that over 100,000 forces would invade another country after a war - since World War II - nothing like that has happened.

FADEL: Nothing like that has happened. I just wondered what you were thinking when you heard these types of things being said by U.S. officials not even 20 years after that invasion.

ANTOON: With the Russia and Ukraine issue, of course, there is the - you know, the narrative of the Cold War is playing in the background, and it makes it so easy for so many Americans - irrespective of moral or ethical concerns, it's very easy to condemn Russia. But I think it says something also about the hypocrisy and the double standard of the politicians and the elite.

FADEL: You mention the word accountability, and I do wonder what you would want to see. It's been 20 years. You describe this moment as a time of lack of reflection when looking back on what happened and what was done. What does accountability look like?

ANTOON: It looks like the folks who planned this war and who pushed for it and who later benefited from it have to stand up, or they have to be, you know, taken to court, or they have to answer for what they did. Listeners should realize that there was a consensus in this country between right and left and that so many of the liberal outlets also supported the war. So I guess there should be a question that a lot of American citizens have to think about, is that, why was the country so easily led to this war, and why were all those lies disseminated so easily through the media? These are questions that we have to confront.

FADEL: Now, Sinan, you are of both of these places. You are American. You are also Iraqi. So you come from the country that was invaded, but also, you come from the country that was the invader. What is it like to be of both of those places as you think about the last 20 years and the legacy of both of these countries?

ANTOON: Well, it's painful because, frankly, being in this country - and in 2002, I went around the East Coast with a group of an Afghani American woman, a Hiroshima survivor and two relatives of 9/11 victims, speaking at synagogues and churches and universities and saying why there shouldn't be a war and yet seeing the war take place and the apathy of fellow citizens as to what was happening abroad in their name and with their tax dollars. And it's a catastrophe that's ongoing. And, you know, as a citizen here, I always think that someone should be responsible, wherever they live, to what is being done in their name and with their resources. Yet we live in a country where the infrastructure is crumbling; the education is suffering. And so one has to think about this war culture.

And lastly, I'm sure you read in the news that the Navy decided to name its new warrior ship Fallujah, after the city where some of the war's crimes took place. But then again, going back to this country's history - and now I am a citizen of this country - a lot of the weapons and the fighters are named after the Native American tribes that were decimated in the history of this country. So it's, you know, being haunted by the ghosts of the past.

And who pays the cost for empire? Who pays the costs? Whose lives are devalued so that other lives are valued and to continue? It's a global question. But I think in this country, it's a very serious, very important question.

FADEL: Sinan Antoon, poet, novelist. Thank you for taking the time and joining us.

ANTOON: Thank you for inviting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAHIM ALHAJ'S "QASSAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.