An Interview on Iraq with Chris Walker

Chris Walker is a retired planning expert and civil engineer from Scotland who worked in Iraq in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. He's an opponent of the Iraq war who is well known to readers of the Herald newspaper (a Scottish newspaper based in Glasgow) for his letters on Iraq.In the past he was a Labour party candidate but the Iraq war has made him a supporter of independence for Scotland. I asked him some questions on Iraq - these and his answers are below.

Some of the answers have been edited to make them shorter. If you want the full transcript you can read it on this link

(If you'd like to ask Chris further questions then ask them in the comments box at the bottom of the page and send me an email at at so i can let him know so he can reply)


I know you were in Iraq in the 1980s (during the Iran-Iraq war?). Which years were you there and for how long?

I was in Iraq from late 1984 to spring 1987; the Iran/Iraq war was "ongoing" and framed my entire period there. It was sometimes referred to as the "War of the Cities" and I was at the wrong end of many missile attacks, usually Russian-built 500 lb scuds, always delivered at night. (I lived in Baghdad at the time, first in Haifa St, on the edge of what is now called the Green Zone in the city centre, then in a place called Finn Village about 8 miles from the c.c.) These missiles could do a lot of damage; the worst involving a missile that hit Rashid St in the city centre when several hundred people were killed. They were said to have been Egyptian migrant workers of whom there were about a million in Baghdad doing menial jobs eg driving taxis and running kebab shops.

Casualty figures were never issued in order to avoid damaging morale. One heard through embassy sources and the usual Chinese whispers. Incidentally, nearly twenty years later, when 'shock and awe' began (2003) there was a conspiracy of silence as to Iraqi deaths - the coalition wished to pretend that the pyrotechnics over Baghdad weren't killing anybody, being clean missiles and bombs [sic], while the Iraqis were agreeing that casualtes were few to sustain civilian morale as before. I recall telling Helen Lidell, our cabinet spokesperson, this in the Herald at the time, when after a particularly hellish night, she speculated that only three people had died. The truth was that it was probably many hundreds or even more. Not counting Iraqi deaths realistically has gone on ever since. Who cares?


And you were working on Iraq’s water supply system?

It was a helluva lot more than "water supply" critical though that always is. I worked for the "Aminat al-Assima" - the Mayoralty of Baghdad. The British firm I was working with wasn't just planning and constructing water supplies but also electricity, reservoirs, sewerage, telecom and solid waste management.We were working on the biggest urban planning project in the world at that time. Arabs love to speculate that projects are the "biggest in the world" etc but were probably right here.

You'll often find that only the Brits are daft enough to take on this level of work - the Americans would have one guy per utility. I am/was a chartered civil engineer with a post-grad qualification in urban and regional planning from Strathclyde University. I was in permanent residence in Baghdad.

After a year I was also appointed the Metropolitan Structure Plan Leader for all planning aspects, not just infrastructure...Solid waste management although not "sexy" was the sector which gave me the greatest insight into Iraqi culture and politics and the most lasting and deepest memories. There were never more than about 20 foreigners working on the entire project, but with injections of other expat expertise on a regular basis. at "optimum production periods" expat staff might rise to forty.

There were very few westerners on this project, or any other projects in Iraq, because most of the city's planning in modern times was done by Soviet bloc planners until about 1982 after which, led by the French, Iraq began to turn to western (incl Japan) for technical assistance. It was a "received assumption" on our project that it was a "front" at the geo-political level for the exchange of Japanese hardware especially motor cars for Middle East/Iraqi oil, the Japanese being world leaders in the former but totally short of the latter. I think this is probably an (important) half-truth - certainly all Bagdadi taxis - the principal form of public transport - were Nissans and privately owned prestige-cars were Toyotas.

In producing the Structure Plan the importance of Baghdad itself was the dominant theme. Baghdad dwarfs all other Iraqi cities including Basra and is the economic, political and cultural driver of any conceivable Iraq. We looked at three options, the first reflecting what I've just said; call it giving Baghdad its head, as it were, which would have meant the creation of a Megalopolis reflecting the reality of what is happening now all over the world especially in the early 20th century in China with cities of populations of 20 million or even more.

The second option was to look at realistic means of constraining Baghdd's growth. We had a model termed "dispersed settlements", a bit like the British New Towns configuration, but again this was more of a physical phenomenon than anything else. Not adopted. The third and last option was theoretically more robust; called "growth poles", designed to keep Bghdad's hegemony in check. One of these was around Falluja/Ramadi where there was some evidence of industrial incipient potential, the other agro-industry based on the Kebala/Najaf area. both options were rejected after much analysis, much of it done by me. but it meant that i became familia with both areas which is why Igot to know them so well.

Baghdad as the engine of Iraq's economic development remained unassailable. Although Iraq is an economy dominated by oil it has huge potential to diversify. Indeed it will have to. Butmuch of this rhetoric is twenty years old. Iraq has been degradedin that time, first by sanctions then by war. In a real sense it has been a failed state for these 20 years. but this does not alter the underlying truth of the analysis above. it's one of the reasons why I cannot see hw partition will work. (more of this later).

Water resources, delivery and supply are a large question always. In Iraq they were issues of opportunity (unlike Saudi where they were hugely problematic). This is the Land of the Two Rivers after all. Baghdad's water systems were at world's best standards measured in terms of sophistication, quality and sheer engineering genius. They supplied 4.5 million people from their headworks at Rasafa and Karkh to the north of the city on the Tigris. The Euphrates had no inputs. Mainly of French design, Binnie's of Paisley had contributed from the early 80's. My job was to plan the new systems as the population options were plotted to demographics of doubling or even trebling that population by 2020. I did not anticipate either sanctions or invasion. Sometimes i think we haven't the faintest idea of what we have done to Iraq and it is so facile to get caught up in the ridiculous discussions of whether things are better now than they were then, or that water is unimportant to quality of life.

My work has already been destroyed by sanctions then war.


What were your impressions of life under Saddam and of Iraqis in general?

The majority of Iraqis had a very good life under Saddam by any normal standards, including our own. That he himself was an absolute bastard there is no doubt and the large minority of Iraqis who suffered under him suffered terribly. Those who opposed him at a political level often paid with their lives, as they have done in Iraq since time began. Churchill, voted greatest British person of the 20th century" for last year, asked in 1921 after he had gassed the Kurds of Iraq, "what all the fuss was about". Saddam's position and that of the Baath was that in order to have a secularist Iraq he had to have a policy of brutal repression, not least of those we might now call Islamists, especially but not exclusively Shia religionists. However those religious people who did not challenge hiss political hegemony such as the Christians of Iraq wre left largely to their own devices. The Christians of Baghdad represented the largest Christian community in the Middle East. If you looked across the skyline of Baghdad you could see as many Christian symbols as Islamic.

Even with the austerities of war (with Iran), for an Iraqi living his daily life was good. Medical services were the best in the region and free. Education was also free and to Western standards. Utilities were very good, especially water. Standard of living generally would be at the level of an Eastern European country at the same time (i.e 1980s) and alcohol freely available at corner shops. They even manufactured their own beer (Ferido). Middle-class people enjoyed a life-style as good as blue collar workers here. Her daily life was different from that of his, in as much as religious mores kicked in. But if she was from a non-religious background, at least in emphasis, these differences were small. She could drive, shop and conduct her daily life in a normal way, although life in tearooms and waterpipe cafes were exclusively men venues, not so different from pubs here 20 years ago. drinking would be mainly a "home" activity. Although 50% of all marriages were mixed - Sunni and Shi'ite - there is no doubt that Sunnis were the ones who enjoyed the more privileged existence, and while middle class Shia did exist in numbers, middle class tended to connote Sunni middle-class. The poorest tended to be overwhelmingly Shia.

The foregoing is best conceived as a snapshot of Baghdad. The best suburb eg Mansur was predominantly Sunni and the worst Saddam (now Sadr) City on the city's eastern flank and containing 1.5 million Shia many recent immigrants from the south of Iraq. The Shia also dominated a nice area Karrada in inner Baghdad but most areas were mixed. (The recent Petraeus surge has changed permanently this configuration and demographic profile.) Within all this the 500,000 Christian community in Baghdad lived largely in one area whose name I have now forgotten. Paradoxically they too will forget since most have left for Syria and Jordan, unlikely to return. When I was there the Christians of many varieties - they had been there for 2000 years - provided a highly educated class, not unlike the role of Jews historically in Europe or the Asians in East Africa.

The Shia community in Baghdad was the poorest section concentrated in Saddam City (now Sadr City) a giant slum on the city's eastern flank and numbering 1.5-2million people mainly recent immigrants from the south whose religion was barely one generation from superstition. There was a middle class Shia community ina district called Karrada where I did most of my shopping and Qadamiya where there is a sacred mosque which i managed to enter once with a Shia friend touching the great catafalque in the centre. The Sunnis were mainly in the west of the city in didtricts such as Mansur which is here Ken Bigley lived (and beheaded). This is but a snapshot of life which i feel i haven't portrayed very well. When I was there there was a war on with all tht means for occasional austerity - shortage of butter, or sugar or toilet rolls, all made worse because it was a socialist economy.

When I talk of "normal" and "standards" one has to remember that 5-10% of denizens who languished under Saddam for taking an interest in politics, trade unionism. These include both Sunni and Shia. While it was the Sunni who dominated the Ba'ath Shia also were in the Ba'ath and (Army) and they too enjoyed privileges bestowed by Saddam. If you remember the famous pack-of-cards issued just after the invasion of 2003, the majority being sought and never found were Shia. However there can be no doubt of the Sunnis hegemonic role in Iraq.

Outside Baghdad, in many towns the size of Edinburgh, religious affiliations were mixed, in the main, although those in the western provinces such as Fallujah would be Sunni (majority) towns and those in the south Shia. It is often overlooked that in the south especially, religion is one generation from superstition and magic. Also it should also be remembered that tribal affiliation is hugely important and overarches religious categorisatio. This is also true in the cities and towns even Baghdad itself. The role of "sheikhs" is deeply embedded in all Arab societies, and daft as it sounds is similar to the role of tribal leaders in 18th century Scotland. It is still important today in Iraq. His clan may contain Protestant and Catholic strands.

For what it's worth my own life in Iraq was very rich and privileged. I was treated well by all sections and classes, most empathetically by the Christians. I felt a greater warmth for the Shia because I sensed they were the underdogs.

I attended a Muslim (Sunni) wedding, a Sunnni funeral and an Armenian Wedding where I was an usher, the groom being an American friend. These gave me insights into the gregariousness and inclusivity of Arab/Iraqi life. I also visisted the Kadimiya Mosque in Baghdad (Shia) and touched the great catafalque in its centre. This was strictly speaking off-limits, but two Shia pals helped me in, posing as an Yugoslavian Muslim. For the expat and the Iraqi sophisticates there were also dozens of museums, chamber orchestras, London Street Shakespeare Co It's crucial to grasp that in a neofascist state, and Ba'athism has fascistic overtones, freedom of movement was harder for Iraqis than for yours truly. I can only say however, that I had little sense of secret police or knocks on the door after midnight. (A decade later in Saudi I had a strong sense of insecurity, by way of contrast.) Iraqis love the alfresco lifestyle and the streets are buoyant with life and bustle after dark. They are football daft. At weekends families visit zoos and carnivals in great numbers. I walker all over Baghdad, often alone and after dark, without any sense of danger. Compare that with now. Iraq is a land replete with wonders to visit from Babylon to Ur and vestiges of ancient civilizations goinfg back 6000 years. I visited many and worked with Arabs searching/restoring many. The invasion and occupation have seen the destruction of more sites of interest (overwhelmingly) in these four years than at any other time. bBabylon being only the more notorious.

I have tried to convey some sense of light and shade here. It is a million miles away from the Baghdad/Iraq of today and from that represented here before the war. But the Land of the Two Rivers has been destroyed as "freedom and democracy" have been introduced by philistines.

I know you made many friends among ordinary Iraqis when you worked there. Did you keep in contact with any of them? And what’s happened to them since?

I did make many friends as touched on earlier; some of them seemed profound at the time, three in particular - my friend William a Christian, Asia, my counterpart Iraqi, a Shia girl who lived in Karrada (Baghdad) and another young fellow who was Sunni. But things pass, especially anent Iraq. Keeeping in touch was all but impossible. Even when I was there mail was opened - there was a war on at the time - and there was no sensible/practical means of keeping in touch. I'm not sure that I would have wanted to since after 2.5 years I was glad to come home to family. However, one step removed, I continued to hear something of what was going on. American friends remain in touch with an Iraqi architect, Nadia, who has lived in Canada since the 80's. During the "long war" of sanctions (Clinton) things got worse and "in communicado" deepened. More about sanctions later. I did hear in Saudi a decade later of what Iraq was like from 87-90 first hand from a close colleague who stayed on (in my home) and became a gueat of Saddam prior to the Gulf War. He was well treated by the Iraqis but life became increasingly tougher as austerity bit after the Iran war.

I have little idea as to what has happened to them but I would guess that William is dead since he would be over 80 now. The others, God only knows!

And what are their opinions of the invasion, the occupation and the insurgency/resistance/militias?

Iraqi opinions on invasion etc? I have no direct knowledge of these as I've lost contact with my Iraqi friends. All the evidence that I know of confirms wide scale opposition although this tells you little ; It's the detailed data that matters here. And that changes over time. I suspect that the vast majority of Iraqis will disapprove of the war if only because of the death and suffering it has engendered, even those who suffered the most under Saddam. The 3 million displaced externally and internally will hardly agree either. Of this I am sure: you would have to be criminally insane to believe that life is "better" now than in the period I lived there. Such people, however exist, Labour cabinet members and occasional Herald letter writers among them.

Some people (not including myself or probably yourself?) think the invasion of Iraq was justified as it got rid of a brutal dictator who killed and tortured his own people. What would you say to them?

My own view is and was always how did you do this, even if you agreed with it, without great loss of life? And if this were inevitable was it still worth it? I think these questions are to do with the nature of war. Not a single member of Blair's war cabinet, nor any Labour MP had any knowledge of war. Living in Iraq inter alia gave me such experience. I knew that Iraq would fight and that great loss of life was inevitable. Besides, I knew that we placed little value on Iraqi life. Sanctions taught me that. Also Saddam posed us no threat. I also knew that our ignorance of Iraq and the propaganda that accompanied this ignorance totally distorted the realities of Iraqi life even under a brutal dictator. For all these reasons and more i would have argued gainst invasion and did so. Recently I read that most British MPs and many American counter-terrorism officials questioned by journalists thought that al-Qaeda was a Shiite organisation and Hezbollah a Sunni one, yet another example of the bag of ignorance we wore over our heads (Al-Qaeda are of course extremists who consider themselves Sunnis - though most sunnis would disagree) . It was this ignorance that has proved to be our undoing. "Ignorance is strength" was apt for 1984 not for the reality of Iraq.

Then there are some people who opposed the invasion but now think we have a duty to keep troops in Iraq to prevent massacres or civil war. What’s your opinion on that?

Should be keep troops etc to prevent civil war? A quick clearly signalled exodus from Iraq would be the best way of reducing violence. This won't happen and Brown will procrastinate as always. On top of which the Americans will be a long time in Iraq as Bush pursues contradictory goals - threatening Iran while depending on them to underpin the fragile Shia dominated government. There will be some reductions in the carnage as the Americans also seek accommodation with the Baath and the tribes in the western provinces, while isolating the alQaeda insurgents. "Democracy" will comprise a Shia theocracy and the opposite of that which Wolfowitz and Cheney had in mind originally. The Badr brigade will represent Iranian (al Sistani) interests while Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi army will be happy to sit tight for a while and let the Americans extripate the al Qaeda faction. So peace in any meanjingful sense will not happen but a reduction in violence will.

Can the civil war in Iraq be ended now or is it too late?

civil war - can it be ended? There is no civil war in Iraq and never has been except, in my view for a very short period immediately after February 2006 when the Askiri mosque in Samarra was attacked and badly damaged. What there has been and is is a state of anarchy. This is not quibbling. There are too many rational actors involved and too few uniformed people fitgting for fixed positions that characterise civil war. The anarchy can be ended and I believe is ending. It will be the beginning of the end when the Coalition leaves or begins to withdraw troops in great numbers, a process in respect of the Uk already well underway (from 40,000 to 4000 currently). The war cannot be won by the Iraqis either in the sense of defeating the Americans a la Vietnam. So it will be stalemate. But the war has been lost by the USA in terms of its stated objectives - " Democracy" meaning a western type democracy as defined by the neocons in Washington and a big thank you to Uncle Sam by the rest of the world will never happen. But a vestigial semblance of a theocratic Iraq Shia dominated and operating under sharia law will emerg, as will "enduring bases" and all the rest of it.

Do you think that Iraq could stay one country now ? Is partition inevitable as people like former US diplomat Peter Galbraith say ? Or could it be avoided and if so how?

Of course Iraq can stay as one country ; and no, partition is not inevitable. Perhaps that's the only thing I agree with Bush on, that Iraq should be one country. For, as Naomi Klein argues, otherwise the disaster of the war will become a permanent and total catstrophe - the emasculation of Iraq. For me that is what partition means. What kind of governance this means for an integral Iraq has many options, but one with Baghdad as its capital is vital.

"Partition" is also about securing Westren interests not Iraqi interests. There is no serious political party or body of political theory in the US - other than some wildly ideological academics - which thinks otherwise.

Some people say Iraq shows the Middle East isn't ready for democracy. What do you think about that?

In my view it is, overwhelmngly, although just how we define this state of affairs (democracy) is complex, and it will only come about in a variety of ways and at different speeds. Sharia has long since been a bulwark against tyranny rather than a prerequisite of good governance. For many countries whether we like it or not it will remain central to any Islamic template of democracy. Islam has not had its Protestant reformation never mind Enlightenment phases, although it does have intrinsic merits of its own. This fusion of religion and politics is even more likely to obtain for Iraq as a result of the invasion. So any separation of religion and politics will not happen. However, Iraq's history of secularism however perverse (Saddam et al) should ensure that pluralism in some form will also be a component of governance. Political parties in the western sense, fundamental to democracy, are damn near inimical to Arab loyalties to tribe, sheikhs and all the rest and I find it impossible to think they will ever emerge in the Middle East.

A key question is whether Iraq's Sunnis will prevail against Iraq's Shiites. It's too difficult to say. But it's a lot more difficut than it was 4 years ago. Curiously but significantly, Israel, often said to be "democratic", is thirled to the notion of a Jewish state, and this offers a parallel to Islam especially Shiite Islam, logically. What the Middle East cries out for is the systematic defeat of oligarchies and dictatorships, most of them set up by the west and sustained by us to serve our interest and not those of the people of the region. To that extent the neocons in a ridiculous kind of way were right - deriving from their theoretical notions of democratic justice - but these were never viable and totally incompatible with their other objectives of US hegemony, securing oil and defending Israel at all costs, while arming that facist state to the teeth. Sadda offerd tthe greatest threat here; hence regime change. Israel will continue to act as its Zionist founders wished - a colonial power embedded in the region and acting as a catspaw for western imperialist interests. The hatred of Israel in the region is visceral and will defeat every effort to build up institutions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab street to serious challenge that reality. Egypt, Jordan and the Emirates will of course provide quiescent Arab states which do as they are told.