Imagine it is February 5, 2003. The US secretary of state is speaking in front of the United Nations, holding your work in his hands, as he calls for a war on another sovereign nation. How would you feel? Well, it happened to me, and I felt shocked. That night I was visiting my parents’ home in Monterey, California, watching Colin Powell present the UN with a montage of satellite photographs supposedly showing weapons of mass destruction, the intercepted calls of an Iraqi officer who was allegedly hiding them and claims that Iraq could weaponise anthrax to carry out a terrorist attack.
Finally, Powell said, “I would call my colleagues’ attention to the fine paper that the United Kingdom distributed yesterday, which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities.” I almost jumped off the velour sectional in my parents’ living room. “Mom, that’s my work he is holding in his hands!” I shouted.
“Uh huh,” she said, fixated on the TV, perhaps not hearing what I had just said. A day earlier, I had been informed by a Cambridge University scholar that an article based on a chapter of my PhD dissertation I had published online had been plagiarised in an “intelligence dossier”. The British government was brandishing this document in an effort to rally public support at home for an attack on Iraq. It was also apparently passed on to the Americans.
I went to sleep that evening wondering how, if my mom was not even convinced, would the world ever know about my plagiarised research. I was woken up at dawn the following day by a phone call from a CNN journalist in London asking, “How does it feel to know that the British government plagiarised your research?”
To a young, struggling Iraqi-American PhD student at Oxford University, it felt surreal. The news had broken in London while I was asleep in California in my childhood bed, lying at a diagonal so that my legs wouldn’t dangle off the edge. I stared at the model airplanes I built as a teenager, hanging from the ceiling. The real-life versions of those planes would in a few weeks bomb Iraq, and I was unwillingly made part of it.
The article the British government had plagiarised focused on Iraq’s security sector – the complicated, confusing and convoluted network of secret police, spy agencies and military units that propped up Saddam Hussein’s rule and his “republic of fear”. My research, which focused on Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait leading up to the 1990 Gulf War, illustrated the brutality of Saddam’s regime. Perhaps that’s why it was plagiarised by the Brits. But it in no way argued for the invasion of the country by foreign powers.
The authors of the “intelligence dossier” had changed key words from my article to suggest that Iraq had supported al-Qaeda and then padded the plagiarised material with their own pages that argued for military action. This act of plagiarism by the British government would propel me on a trajectory of fame and infamy. British media would use my work to point to the flawed intelligence the US and the UK had presented ahead of the invasion. And months later, I would testify before a parliamentary inquiry into the actions of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government.
I would be interchangeably presented by the media as a champion of truth, helping expose US and UK government lies, and as a person who supposedly encouraged the invasion. Some went as far as branding me the “man who started the war”, as a result of which I experienced a fair share of hostility in my personal and public life. Indeed, I opposed Saddam’s regime and its brutality but did not wish for war.
Today, reflecting back on what happened 20 years ago, I feel bitter and traumatised. Studying Saddam’s Iraq was not easy, but neither was researching the outcome of his removal. It has been deeply distressing documenting what happened to Iraqis over the past 20 years. In that regard, I also regret that I did not use the media attention I enjoyed in 2003 to offer a stark warning about the chaos the invasion was bound to unleash.
The security services I studied projected fear into the lives of most Iraqis. They were also a huge job provider for those loyal to Saddam. It was clear to me after the 2003 invasion that if the hundreds of thousands of men employed by those security services were not rehabilitated and reintegrated into Iraqi society, they would employ violence to undermine the new state. Of course, the Coalition Provisional Authority did not have that foresight. It dissolved the security services as well as the entire Iraqi army, which was already estranged from the security sector guarding Saddam.
That decision freed up thousands of Iraqi men, proficient in the use of arms, to join the various insurgencies and armed groups, which wreaked havoc in the country over the following two decades. Today, the Iraqi state remains weak and does not have a monopoly on the use of force. Despite extensive training and financial support from the US, security forces in Iraq are not as effective as their predecessors in maintaining order, preventing criminal violence against civilians or stopping terrorist attacks. Worse still, they have joined myriad other actors – gangs, armed groups, militias, tribes, etc – in inflicting brutal violence on Iraqis. In October 2019, mass protests broke out in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities. They reflected the society-wide drive and desire for a change of the status quo established by the US after 2003. They demanded not just security, proper services, a dignified life and an end to corruption, but also an Iraqi state that serves Iraqis, not foreign powers.
The protests were brutally suppressed by paramilitary forces, which for months on end continued to threaten, kidnap and kill people associated with this movement for change. Indeed, Iraq remains a republic of anarchy.
In research articles I published after the invasion, I argued that security sector reform and a truth and reconciliation process would have been a more sustainable way of achieving disarmament and reintegration of the members of the Saddam-era agencies, but neither was ever pursued in Iraq. I would have been happy if those papers were plagiarised, given a wide audience at the UN and ultimately implemented. Alas, they weren’t.