“What I did not understand was how much damage had been done to the minds of Iraqi people. I was naive.”
In Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, 2003-2009, Mithal Al-Alusi describes his return to Iraq after nearly thirty years in exile. Upon coming back, he frequently spoke out against sectarianism earning him many enemies and become the target of assassination attempts. (To read more excerpts from Voices from Iraq.)
Coming back, how can I describe the feeling? I had not been in Iraq since 1976. I felt delirious. I felt nervous. Being in Baghdad again was a chance to begin realizing our dreams, wishes, and goals. But we were still so far from our dreams even being back in Baghdad. I began to understand this in the weeks after returning. Even with Saddam gone there were many big dangers. Iran is not a joke. Saudi Arabia is not a joke. Syria is not a joke. The remnants of the old system are not a joke. The damage done to the society by the years of oppression is not a joke. You begin to feel very small against such big, dangerous waves.
I was politically active from the first moment I returned. I spent most of my early days back just connecting with old friends. Iraq had changed more than I could have imagined. Saddam once said that if he had to leave Iraq he would leave it as a house on fire. That’s what he did. The country was like a house gutted by fire. I used to think that whatever damage Saddam did to Iraq we could fix in a few years. We could fix the economy. We could fix the infrastructure. What I did not understand was how much damage had been done to the minds of Iraqi people. I was naive.
The first assassination attempt against me came in the fall of 2004. I was living in a small house in western Baghdad. It was at night. I heard a small sound, a thump. I had a dog at that time, and I thought it was him bumping something outside. I went to check and found a bomb had been tossed into my garden but had not gone off for some reason. I told my wife and my two sons to go to the second floor of the house. I armed myself with a Kalashnikov and went looking around the outside. I saw two armed men. They clearly had thrown the bomb and were waiting around to make sure it killed me after going off. I jumped out at them from a dark corner and opened fire. They had the advantage in numbers, but I had surprised them. I must have shot fifty or sixty rounds at them, and they shot back at least as much. I know I managed to injure one of them before they fled. The police came about an hour later and examined the bomb. When they threw the explosive into my yard, one of the wires dangling from it snagged on the fence and disconnected. That’s why it did not go off. We were so lucky that night.
Some time after that they tried again, but I was lucky that night too. I was in the upstairs bedroom. I had gathered up some things to take downstairs and just walked out the door into the hall. I left the light on, so I reached around backward to flip the switch. That’s when they tossed another bomb through the window. This one went off. Only being on the other side of the wall saved me. If the bomb had come a few seconds earlier, I would be dead. There were other assassination attempts in those days, maybe fifteen or sixteen in all. Most were people shooting from a distance and not much of a concern. But those two and the one roughly a year later were the most serious.
I had an appointment in the Green Zone the day of the third big attempt on me. It was supposed to be at eleven in the morning. I got a call asking if we could make it at one-thirty. I said sure, and as the time approached we prepared to leave. I didn’t travel with a proper armored convoy or anything. I just had two regular cars. My two sons and my bodyguard jumped in the first car, and I got in the second. The lead vehicle moved onto the street and rounded the corner, getting maybe sixty meters. That’s when they opened fire. We learned later that at least a dozen of them had come to set an ambush for me, and they unloaded into the first car because they thought I was in it. I knew what was happening as soon as I heard the gunfire, and I ran with my Kalashnikov to try to help. But I was too late. The whole thing was over by the time I reached the car. The shooting had stopped, and I saw my sons and my bodyguard dead where they sat.