I came to Iraq as an idealist volunteer and nearly got killed my first week

Twenty years ago, in the spring of 2003, when I responded to an email from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking for volunteers to go to Iraq to run the country, I didn’t know what to expect. I was told to go to RAF Brize Norton and get on a military plane to Basra, and on arrival I would be met by someone holding a sign with my name on it and taken to a nearby hotel. The British Council, my employer at the time, assisted me to the Foreign Office and I flew on, purple knapsack on my back and in my hands a three-month contract to be part of the British contribution to the Coalition Provisional Authority.

I had never been to Iraq before and knew very little about the country, being under sanctions and cut off from the rest of the world. But I am passionate about the Middle East and have worked in Israel and Palestine for most of the 1990s in support of the peace process. I have skills and experience that I believe will be useful. I am ready to apologize to Iraqis for the war and help rebuild the country. And I don’t want the only Westerner they ever meet to be a gunman.

[See also: The A-Z of the Iraq War]

I arrived in Basra to find no sign with my name on it. I spent my first night sleeping in the corridors of the airport, in 50°C, surrounded by British soldiers in only their underwear. The next day, I boarded a military plane to Baghdad, found my way to the Republican Palace, which is the headquarters of the coalition, and announced that I was “Emma from England, come to volunteer.”

I was told that there were enough people in Baghdad and I should try to head north. In Kirkuk, I was told that I was now in charge of the province and reporting directly to Paul Bremer, the US diplomat who was head of the coalition in Baghdad. I’ve never managed a city in my own country, let alone a province in someone else’s country.

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I realized the Iraqis took my role seriously when insurgents tried to kill me in my first week in Kirkuk. Fighters approached my house in the middle of the night and fired five rockets at it. One of the rockets reached the room I was sleeping in, but its explosion was absorbed by the walls and floor. When the rebels tried to storm their residence, they were prevented from doing so by the guards – although after the attack was over, my guards withdrew, saying it was too dangerous to protect me.

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I quickly discovered that multicultural Kirkuk is home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, Christians, Kakai, Yezidis. It was in Kirkuk that oil was first discovered in Iraq in the 1920s. The Baath Party has “Arabized” the province by expelling Kurds and importing Arabs from the south. Following the overthrow of Saddam’s regime there was a struggle for control of the province, with the Kurds seeking to annex it to Kurdistan.

I started meeting with local leaders and quickly learned that none of them were interested in my apology for the war; they were happy to be rid of Saddam, and they had high hopes that the coalition could fix things very quickly. After all, the US has put a man on the moon, says an Iraqi. But the de-Baathification order issued by the coalition meant that we had hospitals without doctors and schools without teachers – because, under the previous regime, to hold senior office, one had to be a member of the party. The coalition’s sacking of the old Iraqi army left many people angry – and armed. In the resulting power vacuum, Iraqis formed gangs to protect themselves, and insurgencies and militias flourished as the country plunged into civil war.

[See also: The road to war in Iraq]

I returned to Iraq in 2007 as a political adviser to senior American general Raymond T Odierno during the troop surge ordered by the Bush administration, and was there until 2010 and the US troop withdrawal.

My experience in Iraq changed my life in many ways. I fell in love with the place and the people, the history and the culture. Working there, I feel a strong sense of purpose, friendship, responsibility. But I also carry the burden of being part of something that brought devastation to the Iraqi people, that destabilized the Middle East and contributed to a loss of faith in governments in the US and UK.

The 20th anniversary of the invasion is a moment to remember the lives lost, and acknowledge the mistakes we made. Many of the students I teach today were not born in 2003. Some people have asked me why I went to Iraq, or why I didn’t come home when no one met me at the airport, or after I was attacked. .

I tell them about the post-Cold War era when I was growing up: The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and President George HW Bush declared a “new world order”; launching of the Middle East peace process; the end of apartheid; and the Good Friday Agreement. I told them about the period of EU expansion and NATO expansion; the growth of the United Nations and a new international norm of “responsibility to protect” to hold dictators accountable for the killing of their citizens. About Tony Blair championing “Cool Britannia” and New Labor’s “ethical foreign policy”.

Then I told my students about the 9/11 attacks; on how fear, power, and hubris – but also ideology and delusion – led to the invasion of Iraq; and how war ended America’s global hegemony.

My students grew up in a very different world: one changed by the events of 2003, when as an idealistic volunteer I went to Iraq after the invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein.

Emma Sky, director of the Yale Center for International Leadership, is the author of “The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq” (Atlantic)

[See also: The bonfire of the Middle East]

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