At 3.30am last Saturday, I was abruptly woken by the phone ringing. My heart sank. By the time I reached the phone, I was already imagining bodies of relatives and friends, killed and mutilated.
It was 6.30am in Baghdad and I thought of the last time I spoke to my sister. She was on the roof of her house trying to get a better signal on her mobile phone, but had to end the call as an American helicopter started hovering above. Iraqis know it is within the US “rules of engagement” to shoot at them when using mobiles, and that US troops enjoy impunity whatever they do. But the call was from a Turkish TV station asking for comments on Saddam’s execution. I drew a deep sigh of relief, not for the execution, but because I did not know personally anyone killed that day.
Death is now so commonplace in Iraq that we end up ranking it in these personal terms. Last month, I attended the a’azas (remembrance events) of three people whose work I highly respected. One was for Dr Essam al-Rawi, head of the university professors’ union who documented the assassination of academics. A week before his killing his office at Baghdad University had been ransacked and documents confiscated by US troops. The others were for Dr Ali Hussain Mukhif, an academic and literary critic, and Saad Shlash, professor of journalism in Baghdad University and editor of the weekly journal Rayet Al Arab, who insisted on resisting occupation peacefully – offering writers, including myself, a space to criticise the occupation and its crimes, despite all the risks involved.