When thinking back to the US invasion of Iraq 20 years ago, it was former US president George W Bush’s words that stuck with Qahtan al-Khafaji.

Mr Bush said he was on a mission from God to “end the tyranny in Iraq”, to free its people and root out weapons of mass destruction. His forces unleashed blistering airstrikes in the capital city Baghdad on 19 March 2003 that would change the lives of millions of ordinary Iraqis.

“The invading forces said it was a victory. They were misleading people in Iraq, saying the country was liberated,” said Dr al-Khafaji, a retired lecturer of political science at Al-Nahrain University in Baghdad.

“Before 2003, Iraq was at least secure: we had a good system for education, health, architecture and industries. Now our resources have been robbed from us.”

Having previously worked as an officer in the Iraqi army, Dr al-Khafaji had just started his career at the university when war arrived in his city.

FILE - President George W. Bush speaks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast on May 1, 2003. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Former US President George Bush speaks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May, 2003 (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Al-Nahrain University, then known as the Saddam University, is close to the Republican Palace, which is said to have been Saddam Hussein’s favourite residence to host foreign dignitaries. The palace was spared from the “shock and awe” bombing campaign and would later be occupied by American forces.

Dr al-Khafaji’s family left Baghdad and moved to the countryside while he slept in the university along with several of his colleagues, determined to save the lecture halls and libraries from the invading forces. The city was captured by coalition forces after only 20 days on 9 April.

While victory was swift for the US and coalition forces, the greatest loss of life came in the days, months and years that followed. An estimated 300,000 Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2019, according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, and the country has been beset by high unemployment, violence and terrorism, and years without reliable electricity or other public services.

FILE PHOTO: An Iraqi man holds up wood in the midst of goods looted from a government building in Baghdad, Iraq April 9, 2003. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo
Thousands went on a looting rampage as US troops moved into the Iraqi capital on 9 April, 2003 (Photo: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

When Dr al-Khafaji and his family returned to their home in central Baghdad, they despaired at the destruction wrought on the city.

“I witnessed lots of damage, and robberies happening in front of my own eyes,” he said.

“I couldn’t bear this happening to my country. It was really sad to see.

“I felt a strong feeling of pain and sorrow, not just for me and my family, but for the people of Iraq.

“I was thinking how we were we going to rebuild our city after this chaos?”

In the following months, paranoia spread across Baghdad as rampant crime gripped the city. Food shortages forced some people to turn to crime in order to survive. Families were too afraid to go out and bought guns to protect themselves and their homes, Dr al-Khafaji said.

The lasting impact of the invasion and the subsequent attempts to govern a new Iraq has divided the country into three regions on sectarian and ethnic lines: Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs in the west, and Shia in the south.

Sherwan Ameen lives in the city of Duhok in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where life has improved dramatically compared with the terror that immediately followed the US invasion.

Mr Ameen said there has been a real push to construct more modern cities in the last decade, with high rise apartment buildings, shopping centres and international schools.

But he said discrimination against the Kurdish ethnic group still persists, and this has been made worse by “corrupt governments” in the divided regions. Election years have seen demonstrations, mostly led by younger people, take over cities, which have been met by brutal and sometimes deadly crackdowns by authorities.

“People started to be more open-minded but still there are so many cultural disparities among different parts of Iraq,” Mr Ameen said.

“There’s a lot of hatred. The country has become more divided.”

FILE - A portrait of Saddam Hussein still hangs on the burning Ministry of Transport and Communication building in Baghdad, April 9, 2003. Thousands went on a looting rampage as U.S. troops moved into the Iraqi capital. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)
A portrait of Saddam Hussein on the burning transport and communication ministry building in Baghdad (Photo: Jerome Delay/AP)

Mr Ameen said he remembers being woken up by his father on the day US troops crossed the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border and entered the country through Basra. Having witnessed the preceding wars that marred the country, his father knew what would follow.

“We were expecting this invasion to happen,” Mr Ameen said.

“I remember I was in my home in Duhok, it was early morning, and my father was watching the news. He said wake up, we need to prepare because soon after there will be civil war.”

Just days after Hussein’s government was toppled, the CIA’s chief weapons inspector reported no stockpiles of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons were ever found.

“It wasn’t fair how the US and UK invaded Iraq for the claim of weapons of mass destruction. It was a disaster,” said Mr Ameen.

“When we returned home after about 20 days, the next six months it was like a jungle – the country was so unstable. There were killings and robberies.

“It’s been 20 years, but we are still trying to rebuild Iraq.”

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