Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East
Among the many consequences of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the plight of millions of Iraqi refugees is seldom mentioned. The stories of such people as Burhan Abdulnour, whom we met in Sweden in 2008, have hardly been told. Abdulnour, a doctor, was director of a Baghdad hospital for chest diseases. His wife, Sahar, also a physician, was teaching physiology at Baghdad University’s medical school. They lived in al-Riyadh, a mixed neighborhood in central Baghdad, with their three children. “We had jobs, we had homes, we had cars, we had normal lives,” Abdulnour recalled. They were members of Iraq’s Christian minority. Although life under the Baathist dictatorship had been tolerable for them, they assumed that the arrival of the Americans would bring new freedoms and much-needed economic development. “We were expecting to have new devices, new equipment for the labs, X-rays, operations, everything,” Abdulnour said.
The new technology never arrived. Instead, Iraq descended into horrific violence; Christians were among those targeted by armed gangs and Islamic militias. By 2006, there were frequent attacks near their house. That spring, their twelve-year-old son was home alone when a car bomb exploded so close that it broke the windows. Then came the death threats. “My wife was threatened in her medical school—they were threatened, the dean of the college, the head of the department also. One of her colleagues was killed in his own clinic,” Abdulnour said. That August, he moved his wife and children to Jordan. He returned to his job in Baghdad, where he had only a few months left until he could claim his pension. But before he could finish, armed men came looking for him. He fled too. Today, Abdulnour and his family have settled in Sweden; their lives in Iraq are over.
Following Iraq’s parliamentary election this March, much attention was devoted to the large turnout, the relatively orderly voting process (despite multiple attacks), the participation of Sunnis, and the apparent progress—after years of setbacks—toward a working political system in a still bitterly divided country. Widely forgotten in this analysis, however, are the two million Iraqis who remain in exile abroad. Most have ended up in the Middle East and Europe; a small number have been resettled in the United States and elsewhere.
Before the US invasion, many of them were, like the Abdulnours, the bedrock of Iraq’s college-educated and largely secular middle class. But as grandiose plans for a new democratic order were quickly pushed aside by sectarian groups vying for power, these…
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