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20 years after Gulf War, Iraqis prefer to forget

by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) Jan 15, 2011
Twenty years after bombs were dropped on Baghdad to force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait, many Iraqis see the anniversary simply as a time stamp of their prolonged suffering.

At a small market in central Baghdad's Tahrir (Freedom) Square, vendors dressed in many layers of clothes and black caps to protect them from the biting cold confessed to having forgotten about the January 17, 1991 bombardment, which followed Saddam's invasion of the neighbouring emirate.

"The big tragedies make you forget the smaller ones," said Sabah Hamid, a CD and DVD salesman.

"And in 2003, the bombardment was much heavier than in 1991," the 43-year-old said, referring to the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam.

"Today, the only thing we want is to live in peace."

Peace has been brief and sporadic for Iraqis in recent decades. The 1991 Gulf War came just three years after Iraq's prolonged 1980-1988 war with Iran.

The six-week-long "Operation Desert Storm", which was launched five months after Iraq invaded Kuwait, left between 130,000 and 180,000 Iraqi casualties

And even after coalition troops expelled Saddam's army from Kuwait, Iraqis were subject to 12 years of crippling sanctions, some of which remain in force today, that crippled the country's economy.

Iraqis then lived through the 2003 war, which was followed by years of vicious communal bloodshed and instability that has left tens of thousands more people dead.

Mirroring the public mood over the 1991 conflict, no official commemoration is being planned by Iraqi authorities, and the anniversary has garnered little mention in local media.

"To be honest with you, if you had not said the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the bombings was in a few days, I would not have even remembered," said shoe salesman Karim Hussein.

"No one thinks about the Gulf War any more," Hussein noted, as a small crowd shuffled through the small market where he sold his wares.

But Hussein can vividly recall a string of evenings in January 1991 when he wrapped his three children in his arms in hope of protecting them from any bombs.

"We do not want to remember this war, because we are tired after 20 years of suffering," he said.

Symbols of the war remain but are often cloistered in inaccessible parts of the capital.

Among the most notorious is the bomb shelter in the west Baghdad neighbourhood of Al-Amriyah that had been built for civilians.

An air strike in February 1991 badly damaged it, killing several hundred civilians. Saddam opened the shelter to the public in the aftermath of the war in a bid to highlight "the extent of the tyrants' barbarity".

Today, the shelter is inside an Iraqi military base in the neighbourhood, regarded as a radical Sunni Arab bastion. A memorial, a statue of a woman covered in flames, is inaccessible but can be seen over the walls of the base compound.

"Iraqis have lived through so many wars, so many battles, that they have lost the sense of symbolic commemoration," said political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari.

The Gulf War is particularly hard to look back upon because, in his words, it was "the result of a crazy man's crazy dream," a reference to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait.

"Invading Kuwait was a huge mistake," said 45-year-old Abu Shalash, who sells remote controls in the market. "That's the reason for the tragic life we have lived since then."

The anniversary is also unlikely to be marked officially, because the current government, led mostly by Shiites and Kurds, consists largely of opponents of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, according to a leading historian.

"Since 2003, the victims of the time, the Shiites and Kurds, have come to power thanks to the US invasion and may not want to portray American forces in a negative light," said Pierre-Jean Luizard of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France's main public research institute.

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