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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Remember the lives lost’: Spokane locals reflect on 20-year anniversary of Iraq War

An American airstrike hits a building on March 21, 2003, in Baghdad.  (Tyler Hicks/New York Times)
An American airstrike hits a building on March 21, 2003, in Baghdad. (Tyler Hicks/New York Times)

Haitham Dawoud was home in Baghdad, asleep in his bed, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq began.

The first bomb woke him up.

“I was really happy, honestly,” said Dawoud, who now lives in Spokane. “I was one of the first cheering for the Americans to come to Baghdad.”

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War.

It was a war justified by the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. None was found. The conflict ended a brutal dictatorship, but destabilized a region. It left about 4,600 American soldiers dead.

According to Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, between 275,000 and 306,000 civilians died “from direct war related violence caused by the U.S., its allies, the Iraqi military police, and opposition forces from the time of the invasion through October 2019.”

Today, some Iraqis resent the U.S. for its involvement, but Dawoud isn’t one of them. He said he was joyful when U.S. troops arrived in 2003 because it meant Saddam Hussein’s quarter-century reign had ended.

Iraqis lived in constant fear under Hussein, Dawoud said.

“You had to tie your tongue in an extreme way,” he said. “Not even in your own house could you say anything about a dictator. We say over there, ‘The walls have ears.’ The fear is so brutal it mentally affects you. It’s just hard to live like that.”

Dawoud, who had to flee the country after aiding U.S. troops and now works for the refugee resettlement organization World Relief, said Hussein deserves a place in history alongside Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Removing him from power liberated the Iraqi people, he said, even if the war was costly and the country is still recovering.

“We got rid of a dictatorship and a war criminal,” Dawoud said. “Everything comes with a price.”

‘Lies, deception and spin’

Albana Dwonch, an international studies professor at Gonzaga University, was a humanitarian aid worker in Iraq during the early years of the war.

Dwonch said being affiliated with an America-based organization – Mercy Corps – made her job difficult.

“Despite our best efforts as humanitarian workers to be neutral and impartial in a war zone, we were often perceived by the Iraqi people as another ‘unarmed presence’ of the U.S. Army in the country and that made our work with the Iraqi communities that much harder,” Dwonch said.

In hindsight, Dwonch said the invasion “proved to be disastrous in a lot of ways.”

Majid Sharifi, a professor and director of Eastern Washington University’s foreign affairs department, participated in anti-war protests 20 years ago.

Sharifi, who grew up in Iran, said anyone knowledgeable about Middle Eastern politics knew the war was a bad idea. He said President George W. Bush’s arguments in favor of the invasion were full of “lies, deception and spin.”

For instance, the White House’s claims that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction weren’t backed by evidence.

“People that knew, and that had followed close reports, they knew it was all spin,” Sharifi said.

America left behind a politically divided Iraq, Sharifi said. Despite the country’s vast oil fields, its government remains dysfunctional and corrupt.

Sharifi says Hussein was “evil,” but believes the war caused far more harm than good. It damaged America’s international credibility and influence without improving the lives of Iraqis, he said.

“The overall situation is not any better right now, 20 years later,” Sharifi said. “The U.S. is not better off.”

Right or wrong?

When the invasion began, Scott Dale was a 1st sergeant for Bravo Company in the Army Reserve’s 321st Engineer Battalion, based in Hayden Lake.

Dale, who served during Desert Storm, remembers feeling nervous both for himself and his soldiers.

“I kind of knew what that was all about,” said Dale, who retired as a command sergeant major. “To look at the faces of those young guys who had never been in those situations and try to prepare them for that …”

He remembers breaking the news of the invasion to his men and giving them “the dead, hard truth.”

“We train hard, we prepare and, at the end of the day, it may or may not make a difference,” he told them. “The enemy gets a vote whether you like it or not, and I can’t guarantee that everyone will come back.”

Dale landed in Iraq in October 2006. He spent a year there, clearing roadside bombs in Fallujah and Ramadi. Six soldiers in his battalion died.

“I worked with the most courageous, bravest soldiers that I could imagine,” Dale said. “To know every day when you strapped on your gear and rolled out the gate it might be the last was … we all knew that, we all accepted that.”

When he was on the ground in Iraq, Dale would sometimes think about whether the invasion had been the right decision.

“There were days you’d tend to question, ‘What are we doing here, why are we in this country?’ ” he said. “But then on the other hand, you’re like, ‘It’s not my position to question, as a soldier.’ So you get your stuff on and you go do your job, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Even with the benefit of hindsight, Dale said he’s unsure whether the war was worthwhile. Dwelling on it isn’t always healthy, he said.

“If you do that, it makes you nuts,” he said, “because then it seems like the work you did wasn’t worth the work you did.”

Brian Newberry, a retired colonel and former commander of Fairchild Air Force Base, had several roles during the war, including stints as a C-17 instructor pilot and squadron commander.

Newberry said he doesn’t want to judge whether the war was right or wrong, but he’s proud of the American military’s joint effort.

“It’s important for us to remember the lives lost,” he said. “This Sunday, Monday, is a time for us to pause and to thank those families that gave their all.”

S-R reporter James Hanlon contributed to this story.

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