June 24, 2014

Some North Texas Iraqis believe surge must end before Baghdad

Displaced Iraqis watch militant fighters gain power as they march through their homeland.

Nada Shabout hopes that the militant march on Baghdad will end soon.

She said she has to believe — watching from the other side of the world as Islamic militants take control of town after town in Iraq — that they will be stopped before capturing the capital city.

“I can’t imagine the world will let ISIS take over Baghdad because that’s another game,” said Shabout, a Keller woman and professor of art history at the University of North Texas who grew up in Iraq.

She is among the thousands of Iraqis who relocated to North Texas and are watching, along with the rest of the world, as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Sunni militant group claimed control of much of war-torn Iraq.

Their forces are gradually closing in on Baghdad, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s military is trying to stand strong.

“If they get there, the game gets much bigger and the world will have to interfere,” said Shabout, also the director of UNT’s Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute. “It will not be peaceful.

“There will be a lot more bloodshed, a lot more violence.”

Some blame the United States for today’s situation.

They maintain that what’s going on today wouldn’t have occurred had then-President George W. Bush not announced in 2003 that war against Iraq had begun to “disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”

Yes, some say, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was removed from power, convicted of crimes against humanity and executed by hanging in 2006.

But “when America occupied Iraq, the first thing they did that was really bad for Iraq was that they dismissed the Iraqi army,” said Muhsen Shabout, a former Iraqi diplomat who now lives in North Richland Hills. “You can’t help the Iraqi people by dismissing the Army and leaving a weak country.”

He said he hopes Iraq’s military forces — which have been described as ineffective in combat — can stop the surge.

“I don’t think they’ll take Baghdad,” he said. “I think that Iraqis won’t let it happen. … Baghdad is not going to be easy.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said removing Hussein from power contributed to this current crisis, but he also said if the 2003 invasion didn’t occur, the Iraqi people likely would have had an “Arab Spring” uprising against the former dictator

He also wrote in the Financial Times that “non-intervention is also a decision with consequences.”

Fleeing to Texas

Many Iraqis have fled the country as they could in recent decades, including Muhsen Shabout and his family.

Texas has been a popular place for many to relocate.

Some estimates show as many as 5,500 Iraqis may have relocated in the Fort Worth-Dallas region; another 5,000 may have made their home in Houston.

“There are over five million Iraqis outside of Iraq,” Muhsen Shabout said. “I am one of them.”

His daughter, Nada Shabout, is as well.

Born in Scotland, she was raised in Iraq from the age of six until she graduated from high school. Since leaving for college in the United States in 1980, she has only returned for two brief trips.

During one of those trips in 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion had begun, she said she found that the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art, as well as key archaeological sites, had been looted and mostly destroyed.

“The arts are gone,” she said. “There’s nothing left to lose.”

Through the years, as violence escalated — leading to the kidnappings and the deaths of many — more and more of her family members and friends packed up and left Iraq.

“If they could, they have left,” she said. “No one who is able to make a life somewhere else has stayed in Iraq. Only those who can’t leave are still there.

“They learn when to go out, when not to go out,” she said. “They deal with it … You never know what to expect, if they will have electricity or water or if the roads will be closed because there was an explosion.”

She worries about the lives of so many — as well as traditions, infrastructure, archaeological sites, even the arts — that are gone.

“There are moments when you get depressed and can’t see any hope,” she said. “There are other moments when you are numb and worry about people there dying.

“Given all the developments in the region, I’ve seen people optimistically fool themselves into thinking things were getting better,” she said. “But they weren’t. The problems were still there.”

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