There’s a common joke Iraqis repeat as of late. It goes something like this: “Iran is fighting to get the U.S. out of Iraq. The U.S. is fighting to get Iran out of Iraq. How about we Iraqis get out of our country and leave you to it?”
It’s an example of the fatalistic humor people have used here in recent days as the U.S. and Iran’s saber-rattling gave way to attacks aimed at each other but which mostly put Iraqis in harm’s way. Yet behind the jokes is the very serious fear of an all-out war breaking out between Washington and Tehran, with Iraq as its chessboard, and Iraqis — yet again — its pawns, if not its casualties.
For anyone visiting Baghdad, which was dubbed the “City of Peace” by its founders but which has seen little of it since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and even before, signs of that fear are inescapable.
They show up in the whir of helicopter rotors and drones, now a fixture in the soundtrack of the capital’s daily life. Or in the traffic, with streets normally snarled with cars well into the night relatively clear once the workday is done. Cafes, restaurants, even supermarkets stand half-deserted.
In a makeup shop on the ground floor of Diamond Mall, a seven-story shopping center in the heart of Baghdad’s shopping district, Ali Ismail sat alone amid neat rows of lipstick tubes and makeup kits.
Diamond Mall opened its doors for the first time on Thursday. It had been a success, Ismail said. He and three other workers could barely keep up with customers. But the day after, an American MQ-9 Reaper drone killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi Muhandis.
“We’ve had a quarter of the business ever since. I’ve called our other branches and it’s the same. Places that were always full are now empty,” Ismail said.
“People here are just tired,” said Ghaith Fadhel, who manages a women’s clothing store next door.
Fadhel spoke of the Taefiyah, the term Iraqis use when discussing the horrific sectarian cleansing that had pitted the country’s Sunnis and Shiites against each other; of Islamic State and the hordes of extremists who almost overran Baghdad. Even in those times, he said, Iraqis seemed less frightened.
Compounding their fears was the specter of sanctions which President Trump had vowed to impose on Iraq earlier this week if Baghdad sought to expel the approximately 5,200 U.S. troops stationed the country.
“If they do ask us to leave — if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis — we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before,” Trump said Monday. “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
For many, Trump’s threat brought back haunting memories of near-total embargo the U.S. and other countries imposed on Iraq during the reign of longtime dictator Saddam Hussein. It left the country paralyzed and all but isolated from the world. People across Iraq starved; estimates of deaths caused by the sanctions vary widely but range from the tens to the hundreds of thousands.
“At least Saddam was able to buy medicine and food with the oil during the sanctions,” said Ghazwan Mohammad, a shop owner on Rashid Street. “Our current leaders? They’ll do nothing and we’ll still get sanctions.”
Other merchants were girding themselves for lean times.
“I’m selling half the amount I usually do, but I’ve had to buy twice the usual supply because I’m afraid the sanctions will cut us off,” said Hassan Hamoodi, a distributor of a European brand of engine oil. “We just expect things to be worse this year.”
The sense of helplessness, of being ensnared by forces beyond control, has also afflicted the country’s leaders.
“The situation is sensitive. It’s not simple. … What is happening is big, bigger than any of the nations of the area,” said Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in a televised speech on Tuesday evening. “No major nation is able on its own to control or specify the directions: not America, not Europe, nor the nations of the region, not Iran, not us.”
Hours later, Iran hurled ballistic missiles at U.S. forces bunkered in bases in western and northern Iraq.
Abdul Mahdi and other politicians condemned the attack on its territories, even as they pleaded with both sides to keep Iraq out of their fight.
“Iraq rejects any violation of its sovereignty. The prime minister is holding internal and external calls necessary in an attempt to contain the situation and not enter into an open war that will have Iraq as one of its first victims,” said a statement from Abdul Mahdi on Wednesday.
Yet many here consider there has already been one victim of the tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and Iran: the months-long protests demanding reform.
For more than 12 weeks, Iraqis by the tens of thousands had massed in the streets demanding an end to the kleptocratic behavior of their leaders and a full change of the political order they had endured since 2003. More than 500 protesters were killed and more than 19,000 wounded, the U.N. said.
The violence didn’t deter the demonstrators, but the prospect of war between the U.S. and Iran has all but undercut their bid for change.
“We’ve become the site of a boxing match where we, the spectators, are getting hurt, no one else,” said Nizar Mohammad, a nursing student involved in the protests since they began in October.
He and others had volunteered at the protests, giving medical treatment to those who were wounded in clashes with security forces while using donations to buy medicine and other supplies. But the support had dried up; he and others would soon have to leave, he said.
“We’re against Iran. We’re against the U.S. And we’re against the government, but no one is paying attention to us now,” he said. “It’s simple: No voice is louder than the sound of battle.”