Tracing Iraq's Painful Arc, From the Past to the Future

A Professor's Life Is Bound in the Fortunes, Frustrations of His Country

By Anthony Shadid

Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 12, 2005

BAGHDAD -- The doors of Wamidh Nadhme's stately house along the Tigris River open to the discord of today's Iraq. In his neighborhood of Adhamiyah, a campaign poster for Ahmed Chalabi, the often-reinvented U.S. ally, proclaims, "We liberated Iraq." Another slogan declares a vote in Thursday's election "a nail in the coffin of the occupation." Congesting the streets are the other promises for a country on a precipice: prosperity, security, stability or, in the simple words of one, "a better life." "In the past, I used to see things more clearly," said Nadhme, a burly, 64-year-old professor of political science with short-cropped gray hair and a cough from a lifelong cigarette habit, as he sat at his home. "But now I'm getting confused."


Nadhme is a Sunni Muslim, though he would identify himself as such only after a series of insistent qualifications. He is an Arab, but he eschews the chauvinism that colors Arab culture's most nationalist currents. He is an Iraqi first and foremost, he likes to say. He utters the word with pride, as though it justifies a lifetime of sacrifices, challenges and compromises: the torture he endured as a young activist, years of sometimes lonely exile in Egypt, a precarious, admittedly odd protection under Saddam Hussein that allowed him to speak out at the height of the Baath Party's tyranny, and a determination since then to salvage his country's future.

In three years of conversations, beginning before the U.S. invasion of March 2003, Nadhme has gone from hope, underlined by suspicion, to anger, resignation and, often these days, despair. It would probably go too far to call his beliefs representative of all Sunnis' opinions ahead of this week's vote to choose a new parliament. His words are too careful -- sometimes soulful, always precise, delivered in the didactic cadence of a teacher. His feelings are too conflicted, often too nuanced. But in his sentiments is a tale of the fortunes, frustrations and sense of siege of his community, forced these days, sometimes reluctantly, to organize itself solely around the axis of sect, in a country whose borders between Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurd are ever hardening.

Nadhme laments that future. He still chafes at the U.S. occupation. He dismisses the prospect of the coming election as a force for reconciliation. And he cringes at the prospect, however remote, of an eventual victory by insurgents.

To make sense of it all, he recalls a line he has uttered often these years: "Wrong beginnings tend to lead to wrong ends." And he falls back on the hope that springs from his identity as an Iraqi: reconciliation that will create a homeland for all, rather than a country in name only. In his house, as the sound of occasional gunfire and the melancholy call to prayer drift through an open door, he pondered that fading hope. Even he wonders whether his words are a relic of the past or a voice for the future.

Nadhme paused, letting the silence accent his uncertainty. He sat back in his chair, his moustache melting into a beard of a few days. He was tired, recovering from a hospital stay this fall. His doctor had told him to quit smoking; he had cut down from two packs to 15 cigarettes a day. The doctor had told him to exercise -- a daily walk, perhaps -- but it was too dangerous to stroll through the streets.

In all, the professor admitted feeling glum. "It is partly because of the heart attack," he said, relishing one of the cigarettes that his children were rationing, "but more than that, I'm depressed because I can't find a way out, an exit, from this whole problem."

A Political Life

The son of a government official and member of parliament, Nadhme entered politics young. He was drawn to communism and nationalism, ideologies shaped less by sect and ethnicity than by the currents redefining the Third World at the time: class and colonialism. In 1956, at age 15, he joined the party that would one day become Hussein's, the Baath Party. The party was radical, secular and modernizing, and its platform stood on two pillars: Arab unity and socialism, seen by some as a way to redistribute the oil wealth transforming the Middle East. In those days, the party had yet to be corrupted by time in power.

Nadhme endured the consequences of his activism. At age 20, imprisoned on suspicion of subversion, he was tortured so badly that, on his release, he began carrying a gun. He vowed never to be taken alive again. He went underground. In time, he chose exile in Egypt, beginning an academic career that culminated with his dissertation on the 1920 revolt against the British, a revolt that has emerged as the modern country's founding myth. He returned permanently to Iraq in 1974.

In Egypt, he had made an acquaintance that shadowed his later years. In October 1959, a group of young Baathists -- Hussein among them -- ambushed the car of Iraq's leader. The assassination attempt in Baghdad failed, but some of the assailants escaped and eventually made their way to Cairo. Nadhme met their bus coming from the Cairo airport and brought Hussein and another conspirator to his modest apartment. Hussein stayed three nights, then went off on his own, but he and Nadhme remained acquaintances.

In 1960, when Hussein had his tonsils taken out at Cairo's Kasr al-Aini hospital, Nadhme thought it proper to pay his fellow Iraqi a visit. He was the only one to do so, and he stayed until Hussein awoke from the anesthesia. Nadhme's face was the first he saw. Hussein apparently remembered the gesture, even after Nadhme left the party, disillusioned, in 1961.

"It was really accidental," Nadhme recalled. "I usually don't like waking up early in the morning. But I thought, you know, he's by himself, so I went to the hospital. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Saddam did not cut off my head."

On the Eve of War

Nadhme wonders if he was somehow protected by the experience and credits it with his own willingness to speak openly, sometimes startlingly so, in those days before the U.S. invasion. One such conversation took place after Hussein freed all prisoners on Oct. 20, 2002. The amnesty unleashed its own dynamic: Two days later, a protest erupted in Baghdad, organized by relatives of prisoners who never emerged and who had probably been killed in custody.

The defiance was unprecedented. "I have never heard of it," an excited Nadhme kept repeating then, shaking his head at the idea of a protest. The events seemed to embolden him. The government, Nadhme went on, was "utterly unpopular." He was tired of wars for "dignity, pride and conceit."

"I have always thought that one day people will have their say, and I hoped I would live to see people force their will on these regimes," he said. "What I hope is that it will be civilized, rational and will not lead to civil war and unnecessary violence."

In those days, the U.S. invasion was imminent, as was its consequence -- Hussein's fall and an eventual occupation. Haggard already, Baghdad was becoming accustomed to war -- with Iran, the United States and against its own people. Nadhme's hope for change notwithstanding, he was suspicious of American intentions, fearful of the conflict's aftermath.

"I won't hide my feelings -- the American invasion has nothing to do with democracy and human rights. It is basically an angry response to the survival of Saddam Hussein, and it has something to do with oil interests in the area," he said then. "It will bring more destruction, more civil war, and a nationalist war against American intervention in the internal affairs of Iraqis."

"This is not politics," he said. "This is a circus."

An Occupation

Baghdad's fall on April 9, 2003, shamed Nadhme. A capital that embodied a country, a country that represented his identity, had fallen to foreigners with barely a fight. His words echoed sentiments some Arabs express about the brief 1967 war with Israel: humiliation at their own weakness.

"I prefer to be shot than to cooperate with the invaders," he said in those days.

He looked out his window as a haze of pollution and shimmering heat settled over the river. Looting engulfed the capital, exacting far more damage than the invasion did. U.S. soldiers in armor barreled through his neighborhood of Adhamiyah, the last to surrender. For the first time since his activist youth, he was carrying a pistol. It was not bravado; he felt he had to defend himself.

"How did we allow such a perversion to come and why couldn't the country reform the regime of Saddam or put an end to it except by the coming of foreign troops?" he said. "It's a very sad situation in Iraq. Really."

An Elusive Unity

As the months passed in 2003 and into 2004, Nadhme's anger faded. He resigned himself to the reality of the U.S. presence. He became the leader of the Arab Nationalist Trend and served as a spokesman for a coalition of Sunni and Shiite groups opposed to the occupation. He worked as the editor in chief of a weekly newspaper. But in those months, what had replaced his fury was a gloomier sentiment. His anger had turned to grief, and his grief was reflective.

"The Americans have opened a Pandora's box," he said.

Even before the war, Nadhme held Hussein responsible for the wreckage of Iraq's body politic. Its destruction, he feared, meant that people were speaking not in the interests of the country, but rather on behalf of their communities. Compromise was a foreign word, the culture too brutalized to embrace it; everything, to him, seemed a zero-sum game.

When people criticize Hussein, Nadhme said in the spring of 2004, they are accused of being American apologists. When people criticize the occupation, he said, they are called puppets of Hussein. 

"Both arguments are wrong," Nadhme said. "It is true some people came on top of American tanks. It is true that some people benefited from Saddam. But there are a lot of people who fit in neither category."

Nadhme was particularly grim on that spring day. A friend and former student of his, Abdel-Latif Mayah, a professor at Mustansariya University in Baghdad, had been assassinated a short time before. The killing was well planned. Eight people, their faces covered, stopped his car. They ordered Mayah into the street, then pumped 35 bullets into his body. No one knew why.


"I have stopped believing that Iraqis are capable of sorting out these problems," Nadhme said. "Fanatics are growing on every side -- Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Most of the problems are solvable. But we need political leaders of charisma, wise judgment, foresight and tolerance. Unfortunately, we don't have such leaders." He dragged on his cigarette, a long ash hanging precariously over his lap.

"Who is going to be the catalyst of this unity?" he asked.

A Vote for the Nation?

In the January election, hardly a campaign poster was visible in Nadhme's neighborhood. Few voted, for fear of reprisals or in adherence to a boycott called by Sunni Arab political figures and clerics. Nadhme stayed home.

Today, campaign posters blanket Adhamiyah -- on billboards, along lampposts, plastered over a statue in Antar Square and draped between palm trees. To the most optimistic in the country, they are a sign of the inclusion of Sunni Arabs in a political process still shadowed by the U.S. presence. Nadhme says he may vote this time.

But there is a desperate feel to the slogans, crafted as they are in an interim, between Hussein's fall and the future, that somehow feels permanent. "Vote for the unity of Iraq . . . its land, people and future," reads a yellow banner draped across the Abu Hanifa mosque.

Before the invasion, the world Nadhme had known for decades was crumbling. The prospect imbued him with hope and fear. In its aftermath, the presence of foreign troops in his city humiliated and bewildered him. Ahead of the election, his country's future is in all likelihood being written again; as he sat in his home, recuperating, he was simply unsure of what that history would say. "Perhaps I was never optimistic about the future," he said, sipping a small cup of coffee.

As for many in Baghdad, there is a menace to life. The danger lingers, shading routine. Mayah was among the first he knew to be killed. More than 100 have followed. He wonders about his own safety -- men of less history, of less stature have been killed.

"You just go down the drain, as you say it in America," Nadhme said.

As he talked, the weary generator gave out. Darkness cloaked the house. The conversation remained seamless."I fear for my children more than I fear for my life. I've had a long life, a risky and difficult one. Now, I would like to know who is going to kill me," he said. He laughed, then grinned. "At least to punish him in heaven or hell, or whatever it might be."

Nadhme remains a man of nuance, of the unexpected comment. He calls himself neutral about Hussein's trial in the U.S.-guarded Green Zone. The court itself is illegitimate, he said, formed under occupation. But the former Iraqi leader has to be held accountable for his crimes. Nadhme views insurgent attacks on U.S. troops as legitimate, what some Sunnis call "honorable resistance." But his greatest worry is an insurgent victory, a possibility dismissed less in Iraq than in the United States.

"My persistent fear is that the resistance will win," Nadhme said. "And at that time, I will be scared of the revenge they will take on the Shiites and the Kurds. This is going to lead us into a vicious circle -- of perhaps having a unified country, but not a homeland, in the sense of people existing together, tolerating each other, accepting each other."

A homeland -- the word sits at the intersection of Nadhme's views today. He never identifies himself as a Sunni Muslim. He is an Iraqi. And he bristles at the growing identification along communal lines. It is a process he believes was unleashed by the occupation and its import of formerly exiled parties. It is a process now being aggravated by the "political class" of each group. Shiite, Sunni, Kurd -- to him, the insistence on those terms is akin to reading American politics solely through the lens of race relations.

He struggles with questions: How can you accept diversity without division? How does citizenship transcend a narrower identity? He has no answers. He remains confused, eased only by the faith that somehow, sometime in the future, the country's cleavages will be bridged. "The idea of belonging to a sect without being sectarian is crucial to the survival of our society," he said.

He paused, taking a moment, as he often does, to formulate his thoughts. A jet droned overhead. Gunshots echoed again in the distance. The lights in his house finally returned, and he dragged on his Dunhill cigarette.

"We have to find a way to end this bloodshed," he said.

Courtesy of the Washington Post.



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