10 years later, Detroit-area Iraqi Americans feel gratitude, regret over war

By Niraj Warikoo
10 years after the invasion: The head of the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, Imam Husham Al-Husainy, talks about the challenges that Iraq faces.

Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
In Dearborn: Imam Husham Al-Husainy leads prayer Friday at the Karbalaa Islamic center. “We thank the almighty God for the removal of Saddam (Hussein) and the liberation of Iraq,” he said. / Jarrad Henderson/Detroit Free Press
Joseph Kassab, founder and president of Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield
This soldier with a company from Ft. Benning, Ga., is among the first to set foot in Iraq as U.S. ground forces move across the border from Kuwait on March 20, 2003. / David P. Gilkey/Detroit Free Press


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Ten years ago, Iraqi Americans stayed up late in a Dearborn mosque to cheer as the first U.S. bombs landed in Baghdad, marking the beginning of the American-led invasion of Iraq under dictator Saddam Hussein.

“I want America to kill Saddam,” Sada Al-Jebury of Dearborn said on the night of March 19, 2003, as he watched the explosions in the Iraqi capital on an Arabic-language TV channel.

A decade later, the mood at the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center — named after a city in Iraq — is more somber as Iraqi Americans see their native land ravaged by violence and division.

“We thank the almighty God for the removal of Saddam and the liberation of Iraq,” the center’s leader, Imam Husham Al-Husainy, said in a sermon Friday to his congregation of Iraqi-American Shi’as. “A world without Saddam is much better. Iraq without Saddam is much safer. We thank everyone who helped us to get rid of this dictator.”

But, he added, “after 10 years, we’re still looking for peace and stability. … Socially and politically, it’s the worst since the liberation.” That point was underscored Tuesday when bombs ripped through Shi’a areas in Iraq, killing at least 65 people.

Al-Husainy’s views are echoed by other Iraqi Americans in Michigan, some of whom opposed Hussein and were initially supportive of the war. Although some still say the war was worth it, others now regret supporting it, echoing the views of a majority of Americans, according to surveys.

There are 64,000 Iraqi Americans in Michigan, and their views are diverse, reflecting the splits in their native land along religious and sectarian lines. Shi’as, who make up a majority in Iraq and were brutally repressed under Hussein, generally see the war as a positive, but many minority Christians and Sunnis don’t. They question the necessity of a war whose cost estimates range from $850 billion to more than $3 trillion, and which caused nearly 4,500 American deaths and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, and left up to 1 million Iraqi children as orphans.

“Getting rid of Saddam was a good thing, but sadly, it was the only good thing,” said Nabil Roumayah, head of the Southfield-based Iraqi Democratic Union. “Ten years later, Iraq is divided, the fabric of the society is really weak. … The 10-year anniversary is not a good one.”

Roumayah’s group is one of several Iraqi-American groups in metro Detroit set up to help remove Hussein and bring democracy. In the run-up to the start of the 2003 war, the Bush administration tapped Iraqi Americans in Michigan to help advise it and lead ministries in Iraq after Hussein’s government was removed.

Emad Dhia of Plymouth headed the Iraq Reconstruction and Development Council, a group set up by the U.S. to help run Iraq. Adnan Alzurufi of Detroit, who later became governor in the Najaf province of Iraq, worked with the Pentagon, as did other Iraqi Americans. And many Iraqi Americans worked with defense contractors who used them as translators and for logistical help.

Their assistance also was a valuable public relations tool for the Bush administration. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz visited Dearborn a month before the invasion at a pro-war rally attended mainly by Iraqi-American Shi’as. And President George W. Bush spoke at a lively pro-war rally in Dearborn the month after the invasion, telling the Iraqi-American crowd that Iraq was now free.

But those close relations frayed over time as some Iraqi Americans realized their advice wasn’t being listened to. For months, the State Department had worked with Iraqi Americans on what was called a Future of Iraq project to map out a post-Hussein Iraq, but after the war started, the program was scrapped and suggestions never carried out.

“The Bush administration had no idea about the society of Iraq,” said Roumayah. The U.S. set up and sustained factional and sectarian governments that divided the country, he said.

“The election system was designed by the Americans to be sectarian,” he said. “It’s designed to accommodate the large factional parties.”

As a result, one of the biggest losers in Iraq has been its minorities. Iraqi Christians — known as Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs — have been hit hard, say local leaders.

The Christian population in Iraq has dropped from about 1.4 million to 300,000, as Christians fled to other countries to avoid the violence in their homeland, said Joseph Kassab, founder and president of Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield.

There are about 38,000 Iraqi-American Christians in Michigan, according to U.S. census figures, a number that is growing as refugees flock here. The U.S. war was supposed to stop Iraq’s refugee program by creating a stable, democratic Iraq, but the number of people fleeing Iraq has actually grown over the past 10 years.

On the other side, Iraqi Shi’as now have a religious freedom inside Iraq that was unavailable to them under Hussein, a secular Sunni who banned several Shi’a festivals.

Many Iraqi-American Shia’s in Dearborn were tortured by Hussein’s forces, and their family members killed by them. They rose up to challenge Hussein’s government in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, but were crushed; thousands ended up in Michigan on a refugee program.

Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, religious leader of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, the biggest mosque in Michigan, said 15 members of his family were killed by Hussein, including his grandfather.

But after the war, his family members were able to return, and his father is now the imam of the shrine of Imam Hussain in Karbalaa, one of the most important centers for Shia’s in the world. Over the past 10 years, Al-Qazwini has helped his father build a hospital and orphanage in Karbalaa.

When Bush made his speech in Dearborn in April 2003, Al-Qazwini embraced him afterward, thanking him for his efforts.

“I have … conflicted feelings toward the situation in Iraq” now, he said.

“I’m happy to see the dictator removed and … no longer persecuting millions of Iraqi people. And I’m happy to see a democratic process in Iraq, in which free elections were held … for the first time.”

But at the same time, “Iraq is still struggling and has not achieved full-fledged peace,” he said.

There is corruption, terrorism and a lack of basic services, such as regular electricity, he said. Like Al-Husainy and others, Al-Qazwini believes that the rulers of some of Iraq’s neighboring non-democratic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are causing problems in Iraq because they fear that a successful democracy would threaten their power.

Baker Al-Bajj, 48, of Dearborn was in Iraq a month ago and said that there are still major political divisions.

“But even with all the problems, it was worth it to get rid of Saddam,” he said from the Karbalaa Center. “People have the freedom to speak out, to protest, to travel, to go out of the country. Ten years ago, the country was locked up. You were afraid to talk even among their own families.”

After services Friday at the Karbalaa Center, a group of Iraqi-American men shared their stories of suffering under Hussein. One man’s brother was killed in 1980; another said four of his relatives were killed, and a third said his sister was killed in 2006 by remnants of the regime. They said the war was justified.

Dr. Jacoub Mansour, a Chaldean leader from West Bloomfield was opposed to Hussein, but said the Iraq war was a disaster for the Chaldean community, which was generally protected from sectarian violence under Hussein’s secular rule. “We don’t have any protection.”

Roumayah, who is a Christian, echoes that: “Religious groups are ruling the country. Islamic parties imposing their rules on the people. Minorities are leaving left and right.”

What consoles Roumayah is that 10 years is just a blip in the long history of Iraq, whose civilization stretches back thousands of years. Still, for those of his generation, the horrors experienced under Hussein, coupled with the disappointment of a post-Hussein Iraq, create “a sad situation.”

“This generation waited so long for change, to get rid of the dictatorship,” said Roumayah, 58, of Troy. “But now, we’ve had another 10 years of nothing. It’s very hard for this generation to go through.”

Contact Niraj Warikoo: 313-223-4792 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            313-223-4792      end_of_the_skype_highlighting or nwarikoo@freepress.com