BAGHDAD – When he heard on the news that Donald Rumsfeld had died, Ali Ridha al-Tamimi and his wife sat down with their four children and told them: “This is the person who ruined our country.”
“He destroyed many families. And did it under the cover of liberation,” Tamimi later told The Associated Press. “I will never forgive him for the pain he caused us.”
The heated emotions are shared by many in Iraq, where the name Rumsfeld is synonymous with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein — and deaths, arrests and torture that followed. The dark chapter in Iraq’s history still echoes in the daily lives of Iraqis today.
Rumsfeld, the defense secretary for President George W. Bush, was one of the architects of the invasion that ousted Saddam on what turned out to be baseless accusations he was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Americans and their allies failed to plan much for what came next, and disbanded Iraqi security forces as one of their first steps — leading Iraqis to hold Rumsfeld and other American leaders responsible for years of unremitting sectarian bloodletting, extremist attacks and endless car bombings.
Rumsfeld is also linked to the abuse and torture of detainees in U.S. custody in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad — an episode Rumsfeld later referred to as his darkest hour as defense secretary.
The prison was known during Saddam’s rule as one of the main facilities for jailing and executing his opponents. After Saddam, Abu Ghraib became notorious once again, for the 2004 scandal over shocking abuses of detainees by American guards.
When news broke of Rumsfeld’s death in the United States on Wednesday at 88, many Iraqis took to social media to express lingering anger and bitterness. They aired memories of the dark era in Iraq that Bush and Rumsfeld represent.
Some tweeted: “Rot in Hell." Others described Rumsfeld as a war criminal.
Al-Tamimi said he holds Rumsfeld personally responsible for his own detention in 2006, on suspicion of undertaking in anti-U.S. activities, including, he said, allegations of inciting against the U.S. presence in Iraq. Speaking to the AP over the phone on Thursday, he would not elaborate.
He was held in Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq for two years without a conviction. His son was just over a month old when he was detained. “He killed me while I was alive," al-Tamimi said of Rumsfeld.
Al-Tamimi's son was growing up for those two years “not knowing he had a father or where he was,” he said. Al-Tamimi was later found innocent by an Iraqi court and freed in 2008.
On social media, Iraqis shared stories of what Americans called a war of liberation gone horribly wrong for their country.
Muntader al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist known for throwing his shoes at Bush during a 2008 news conference to vent his outrage at the U.S.-led invasion, tweeted: “He is gone and Baghdad remains.”
In Washington, Rumsfeld's former colleagues remembered him as simultaneously smart and combative, patriotic and politically cunning, with a career under four presidents that was tainted by the disastrous invasion of Iraq, for which Rumsfeld served as one of the most visible and vocal supporters.
Bush on Wednesday hailed Rumsfeld’s “steady service as a wartime secretary of defense — a duty he carried out with strength, skill, and honor.”
But the memories of those whose lives and nation were changed by the U.S. administration's actions could not have been more different.
“Rumsfeld was a black mark on the history of Iraq. He brought the corrupt politicians that now control Iraq,” said Ihsan Alshamary, an Iraqi researcher in political affairs. He said Rumsfeld is responsible not just for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but for decisions that had calamitous effects on Iraq’s future.
“As an Iraqi, I am relieved that one of the people responsible for the deaths of thousands, if not tens of thousands of Iraqis, is now dead. He will face his maker and have to answer for his transgressions in this life,” said Jawad al-Tai, a 45-year-old living in Baghdad.
“He didn’t liberate us. This is a myth. He killed us and told us to thank him for it," al-Tai said.
In the wake of the invasion, many Iraqis were grateful to have Saddam removed by the Americans, and initially hopeful for their country's future.
But that changed as it became clear that the Americans were unsure how to proceed after gutting the Iraqi government and security forces — or how to deal with the violent Sunni extremist groups, militants and and Shiite militias, some backed by neighboring Iran, that sprang up in the resulting security vacuum.
Sajad al-Rikabi, a 38-year-old Iraqi activist who participated in mass protests against government corruption in 2019, said he holds the U.S. responsible for the broken country that is Iraq today, and the post-war political class that now rules the land.
“The only way I will say “Rest in Peace” for him, is if the U.S. comes in and dismantles the system he created,” al-Rikabi said of Rumsfeld. “All that we are protesting now came because of his policies.”
Associated Press writer Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed to this report.