Back on the Playground: Returning to Iraq, Eight Years Later


Revisiting the location of significant moments in your life unleashes a flow of memories. Walking the halls of your high school, you recall your glory days. But you also see how the place has changed. The trophy case of state championships has been moved. Mrs. Johnson has retired, and her venerated classroom is now occupied by someone else. At once memories long buried are unearthed. You are disoriented by how different things seem from what you remembered.

Sundry memories flooded through my mind as the Qatar Airways flight landed at Baghdad International Airport — BIAP, as I had known it. I’d never been to the terminal. My only other visits to BIAP had been on a helicopter, after which I dragged my seabag to a plywood shack known as the APOE (aerial port of embarkation), where a salty sergeant first class directed people to the tents they would sleep in. This time, I walked out on a jet bridge into the terminal and had to negotiate the customs process. No seabag to drag, but luggage that appeared on a carousel in front of a duty-free shop.

I just returned from five days in Iraq, a place where I previously spent over three years during a career in the Marine Corps, either flying over its airspace or patrolling its streets and conducting counterinsurgency operations. This trip, however, could not have been more different. I joined a delegation of national security experts convened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on a fact-finding endeavor to gain deeper insight into Iraq’s strategic situation and the UNHCR’s activities there. I experienced many of the same places, but it felt like an entirely new country.

We piled into a convoy of white Toyota Land Cruisers to drive to our hotel. As we left the airport confines, I looked out my window and saw the Al Faw Palace, one of Saddam Hussein’s residences. Old habits kicked in, and immediately I began scanning for IEDs. I didn’t feel threatened; it just seemed to be the thing to do. As I looked around, I noticed one big difference – the presence of guard rails. We had taken all those down in 2003 and 2004 to prevent IEDs from being lodged in them. I wondered, when did they put them back up? I was wearing khakis and a collared shirt, and suddenly became aware that my shoulders felt light without the weight of a flak jacket, and that my hands were empty without an M-16 rifle held between my legs. When was the last time it felt normal to be wearing that gear? How does the mind work to trigger such synapses?

Looking out the eighth-floor hotel room window, the skyline of Baghdad hadn’t changed much. The terrain, with the Tigris wending its way through the city, was familiar. I thought through the key places I remembered: Forward Operating Base Loyalty, Forward Operation Base Justice, Sadr City. Those forward operating bases no longer exist, but I suspected that the neighborhoods of Sadr City weren’t much different. To be sure, one aspect of Iraq was exactly the same. Being outside was like living in a hair dryer — sweating, and sweating, and sweating.


We met with government officials in Baghdad — Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jafaari, UNCHR officials, and senior military officials. It was like the dozens of meetings I attended years ago: Then and now, the military situation dominated the discussion. This time, it was the offensive against the Islamic State (ISIL), the recent liberation of Mosul, the new offensive in Tal Afar. Ten years ago, most of the fighting was done by PSFs — Provincial Security Forces — Sunni militias that the United States was training and supporting to fight al Qaeda. Today, it’s PMFs — Popular Mobilization Forces — which are Shiite militias, many supported by Iran. The acronyms are only slightly different. Iraq continues to struggle to develop a military that is competent and ultimately loyal to the nation. In 2007, the question was whether the PSF militia would be loyal to Baghdad. Today the PMF are beholden not to Baghdad but to Tehran. What is especially concerning is that the PMF are the most competent military forces, save the Iraqi Army’s Counterterrorism Forces, who only number about 10,000. Not a great deal has changed. The military forces in Iraq are still a hodgepodge of militias, regular army, and special forces, all with different loyalties. The fundamental sectarian challenges remain.

We traveled next to Irbil, conducting more meetings with Kurdish government officials and others, then visiting camps of Internally Displaced Persons, eastern Mosul and several villages destroyed by ISIL.

Much of the focus in the latter years of the U.S. occupation was on trying to rebuild Iraqi military capabilities, in anticipation of eventually handing security responsibilities off to them. But so often, Iraqi military and government officials demanded that we give them this or that, or that we do this or that. It never felt like the Iraqis were in the lead. We had created a culture of dependency, and they were perfectly willing to allow us to do the heavy lifting, and the fighting.

This time felt different. Iraqis are clearly in the lead. The U.S. military changed the tide of the battles for Irbil and Mosul by providing weapons and aerial support, but the forces on the ground were Iraqis, who undertook the incredibly long and arduous fight often in dense, urban terrain. But in general these were not formal Iraqi military forces; rather they were militias. The efforts to formalize a government-backed army in the style of a western military have not completely materialized. On this visit, without a hint of vacillation, Iraqis stated again and again that they wanted us here, unlike last time when the feeling was that Americans were occupiers who treated them with disrespect and considered them subjects. Now, they feared we would leave again.

There continues to be a tragic sensibility about Iraq. The ill-fated invasion and occupation that had so many unintended consequences and cost so much continues to haunt me and my fellow veterans, who spent so much of ourselves in that endeavor. It is gratifying to see Iraqis taking the lead, but also sad, because they continue to rely on U.S. advisors and assistance — something they aren’t supposed to need anymore. And the fact remains that they are still fighting each other.

Iraq continues to be a cautionary tale about the limits of U.S. occupations and the ability of an outside force to make a lasting positive impact. America cannot claim Iraq as a victory. Victory is a process, not an event, which has at its core political rather than military goals. And transforming Iraqi politics is beyond the reach of American power alone.


We spent several days visiting with locals, from those in Internally Displaced Persons camps to Iraqis who had recently returned to their villages or to east Mosul and were beginning the long process of rebuilding. The destruction that ISIL had wrought was almost beyond words. Their depravity is unlike anything I have witnessed. The Christian village of Bartella, just east of Mosul, used to have 25,000 residents; all fled west toward Irbil in the summer of 2014. The village was liberated last October. ISIL razed buildings and burned both churches in the village. In Bakhtida, another predominantly Christian village that previously had 44,000 residents, only a handful of people had returned, many only within the past few weeks, to a town of mostly rubble with little electricity or running water. Speaking to some of these residents, I was struck by their deep sense of place and home, and their strongly expressed hope that both the Iraqi government and the United States would provide assistance to help them rebuild their lives.

The destruction in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, reminded me of Fallujah after the two epic battles there in 2004 — with one telling exception. In Fallujah, a city of 200,000 known as the “city of mosques,” the mosques, hospitals, and other public structures were preserved. American forces went to great lengths to avoid any damage to them. In Mosul, we walked through the campus of the University of Mosul, which used to be the country’s second-largest university, with 26 colleges, 132 departments, and 45,000 students. ISIL damaged every one of the 154 buildings; some were completely destroyed. The library, which once held over two million volumes, including some ancient texts over 2,000 years old, was set afire. Now, all that remains is a blackened skeleton of charred metal. Across the city, the Al Salam Teaching Hospital is also a hulk of burned-out buildings. The Mosque of Jonah, one of the most famous and beautiful mosques of Mosul built in the 12th century, was completely leveled.

The citizens of Mosul and the central government in Baghdad now face the daunting challenge of rebuilding after such wholesale destruction. I pondered the tasks that lay ahead. Among the first is to get electricity and potable water flowing into homes and other structures. Next, the buildings, streets, and other infrastructure must be repaired. This all must happen while simultaneously providing medical services, ensuring that security is maintained, and assisting people as they return to their homes. And funds must be raised to pay for this effort. Unlike in a functioning democracy, the financial situation in Iraq is a strange and inadequate tangle. From the central government in Baghdad to the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations, Iraq has a hodgepodge of funding sources, and none of it is certain or enough. Many Iraqis emphasized to me that with Mosul liberated, they fear their country will garner less attention when it’s needed most — in the process of rebuilding. They implored us not to forget.

I read the news from America while I was overseas, and I considered the similarities to the people of Houston and now Florida who face the prospect of a massive rebuilding effort of their own. The U.S. federal government passed funding measures to pay for the reconstruction in Houston and will likely do the same for Florida. The community-mindedness of Americans will shine through. Neighbor will help neighbor. The National Guard will assist the local police to ensure that law and order is maintained, not to mention assist with the unromantic work of construction, replacing transformers, repairing potholes, and gutting homes. When people decide to return, they probably won’t find another family who has moved into their home and claims it as their own, nor will anyone be hesitant to return because of his or her ethnicity or religion.

In Bartella, we were told people are reluctant to come home because they have lost faith in those who were supposed to provide security for them. Moreover, Bartella is surrounded by 16 Shabak villages, who are Shiite and strongly influenced by Iran. Popular Mobilization Forces have taken over as the de facto security forces in Bartella. The sectarian tensions between the protectors and the protected are preventing true security from being achieved. I could feel my blood pressure rise as I listened. I recalled similar conversations from a decade ago. The Iraqis complained about each other’s sects, they insisted on American largesse, and they were unwilling to find workable solutions and live together peaceably. This has been the nature of the U.S. role since 2003. Now, as then, I refuse to believe it’s hopeless, but I recognize that that role must be limited, and that progress will be imperfect.

In Bakhtida, we met with a family of six who had returned only ten days prior, having fled to Irbil during ISIL’s occupation of their village. The patriarch of the family had served in the Iraqi Army as a helicopter mechanic. Now retired, he lives with his daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren. When Bakhtida was liberated, they came back to their home, to find it severely damaged. Why did they return? Primarily out of a sense of community responsibility. The son-in-law is a civil engineer who worked for Iraq’s Department of Public Energy. He was asked to return to help get the village’s power grid functioning again. He couldn’t say no, though he did admit that he considered taking his family out of Iraq altogether. All five of his siblings have left the country, four of them living in Australia and one in the United Kingdom.

He impressed me with his commitment to his community and to the human dignity of those around him, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or party. It was a trait I didn’t see enough in Iraq, but one that other Iraqis must exhibit if the country is to succeed after ISIL.


Since I retired from the Marine Corps, I’ve spent many evenings drinking beer and reminiscing with my fellow veterans about our experiences in Iraq. Nearly every person is proud to have served, and when recalling moments of pride, they almost always point to a time they assisted others — drilling a well for an Iraqi family, restoring a village’s power for a few more hours each day, helping a child get the medical attention she needed. The people I came to know on this recent visit — from UN workers, to ordinary Iraqis rebuilding their communities, to aid workers toiling for a veritable alphabet soup of NGOs, to the majority of the Iraqi government officials — are cut from the same cloth. They’re rugged altruists who are passionate, motivated, and wholly committed to improving the lives of those in need. They have the same genes that a schoolteacher, a volunteer at a soup kitchen, or an AmeriCorps leader has. Indeed, they are the same genes I saw in the young marines I led.

Iraq continues to face challenges after a tragic 14 years. I was frustrated that all our work building an Iraqi army fell apart in 2014, and that those efforts continue to have mixed results. But I was heartened to witness pockets of common purpose among Iraqis. History shows that in times of crisis and rebuilding, neighbors set aside politics, religious and race identity and work together in service to the larger community. America can help Iraq in that endeavor, just as it did for the many years of occupation, and U.S. assistance is still valuable. But Americans should not fool themselves into thinking that all will be well once ISIL is defeated, power restored, and libraries opened. The challenge is for Iraqis from disparate communities, religions and sects to hold fast to the unity they share during moments of cooperation, and to remember that to do otherwise will have dire consequences. Americans must recognize that being an effective partner means not departing rashly. It also means recognizing the limits of their influence, and exercising that influence effectively and in good faith.


Scott Cooper is a retired Marine Corps officer who now serves as the National Security Outreach Director at Human Rights First. He founded and leads their project, Veterans for American Ideals.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David Strayer