It was once a well-kept memorial for hundreds of Iraqi civilians who were killed by American bombs while they slept, a powerful symbol of suffering embraced by a dictator’s propaganda machine. The destruction of the Amiriya bomb shelter, in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood, on Feb. 13, 1991, at the outset of the Persian Gulf war, killed some 408 civilians in the worst way possible: Most were burned alive.
It stands as the deadliest episode of civilian casualties in the painful history, now a quarter-century long, of the United States in Iraq. For years, Saddam Hussein ensured that the event remained etched in the Iraqi collective memory, recalled in movies, songs, poems and ceremonies. The shelter was a required stop for visiting dignitaries and foreign correspondents in Mr. Hussein’s tightly controlled Iraq.
This week, 25 years later, the anniversary passed with almost no notice. An Iraqi Army unit now occupies the grounds of the shelter. The site is no longer open to the public, although the occasional survivors or family members of the dead are welcomed by soldiers and given tours. A few days ago, on the anniversary, two men from the neighborhood, now in their 60s, greeted a reporter and spoke about their memories.
Each had lost several family members in the attack, and each had helped pile the charred bodies on trucks. One of the men, Hussein Abdella, 63, a retired truck driver, pointed to the neglected gravestones, chipped and overgrown with weeds and wildflowers, and said: “These are just names. There are no bodies buried here. They were all burnt. You could not recognize the bodies.”
Shorn of its political purpose, the building itself is now a sad and neglected time capsule. The structure remains just as the American bunker-busting bombs left it, a scar on a cityscape that remains disfigured, too, by strikes from the opening of the 2003 war. There is a giant hole in the roof, a giant crater in the earth and a gnarled mess of wires and protruding steel rods.
In dark corners down below are the dusty remnants of what the place once meant — and still does to some degree — to the Iraqi nation: black-and-white photos of the victims, arranged by family, fastened to poster boards but no longer hanging from the walls. Many of those pictured are small children: Hussein Alaa Ibrahim and his sister, Samah; Faras Khadim Abbas and his brother Amjid; Karrar Talib and his sister Hadeel.
There is a tattered poster from the second anniversary of the bombing, bearing Mr. Hussein’s face and the words, “Allegiance and Challenge: The Second Anniversary of the Immortal Mother of Battles.”
For the two neighborhood men, the anniversary of the shelter bombing was an occasion for reflection on a stark milestone: The gulf war began in January 1991, and so by now the United States has been using its military to shape events in Iraq for more than a quarter-century. And there is no end in sight: The next American president will almost surely be the fifth in succession to order airstrikes in Iraq.
There have been many rationales: driving Mr. Hussein’s army from Kuwait; containing his unconventional-weapons programs; protecting the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south; undertaking a full-scale invasion and occupation to depose Mr. Hussein and establish a democracy in the heart of the Middle East; and now, fighting the militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
And there have been many enemies: the Iraqi state, Shiite militias, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State. Muhammed Jamal, 60, a retired teacher, likened the long American entanglement in Iraq to a television series, absorbed one episode after another. “I am afraid for what comes next,” he said. “Maybe the future will be even worse. Maybe America will create something new that will be even worse than now.”
In considering the American legacy here, Iraqis weigh the benefits of being relieved of a cruel dictator against the seemingly unending costs, in destruction and death. For many Iraqis it seems a saga without end, especially now, as they see images on their television screens of the near-complete destruction of Ramadi, a city in western Anbar Province from which the Islamic State was recently driven by American airstrikes and Iraqi ground forces.
“We had been Sunni and Shiite living together, and they divided us,” Mr. Jamal said about the 2003 invasion. “They divided the people. They destroyed the cities.” Mr. Abdella recalled the euphoria of 2003, when many Iraqis greeted the Americans as liberators and were grateful to see Mr. Hussein’s demise. Iraqis, only half-jokingly, said they expected their country to become the 51st state.
Now, though, “we’ve lost our hope with the Americans,” he said. “This is our experience, over 25 years, from 1991 until now.” Most of the victims of the Amiriya shelter bombing were Sunnis, the sect that held power under Mr. Hussein. That the anniversary has been uncelebrated in recent times is a source of grievance to Sunnis, who believe their suffering does not matter to the Shiite-led government.
Col. Faras Hassan, in charge of the Iraqi Army unit at the shelter, had a simpler explanation: “Iraqi blood is very cheap.” The anniversary was recalled in smaller ways, though, in online writings and in emotional postings on social media. One writer, a man named Ali Hashim, wrote on Facebook: “We used to remember this crime before the invasion, but now it has been forgotten because of the daily massacres and killing. May God bless Iraq’s martyrs.”
Also on Facebook, Lamees al-Joubouri wrote: “I still remember that day as I remember how much we cried when we saw the charred, dead people. America has destroyed us, and is continuing to destroy us. May God take revenge for us.”
In the aftermath of the 1991 bombing, as images of the civilian catastrophe were broadcast to the world by the few foreign correspondents in Baghdad, the Pentagon initially defended the attack, saying intelligence showed the bunker was a command-and-control center for the Iraqi Army. There were reports that Mr. Hussein himself had visited the shelter.
Later the episode was determined to have been a tragic mistake; Mr. Hussein was not using civilians as human shields, as had been alleged. It was also not an important military facility, though some Iraqi intelligence officials had been there.
“It was clear that the bombing of the facility was an intelligence failure,” Michael R. Gordon, a New York Times reporter, and Bernard E. Trainor, a retired Marine Corps general, wrote in their book, “The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf.”
One of the soldiers now stationed at the site, Taiseer Mahdi, 31, has become the unofficial tour guide for the few people these days who come to see the bunker. He remembers the event, from when he was a young boy, and he said his father had told him the whole story. “I want to serve the families,” he said, speaking of the survivors he has met.
As a soldier, he has had his share of encounters with Americans, having trained side by side with them. As many Iraqis do, he separates his warm feelings for the personal relationships he has established from his conviction that American policy in Iraq has led his country to ruin. “They helped us get rid of Saddam Hussein,” he said, “but they brought us a thousand Saddam Husseins.”
By Tim Arango