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Originally published March 19, 2013 at 8:12 PM | Page modified March 19, 2013 at 8:12 PM

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Iraqi immigrant battles with war’s legacy

When it comes to sizing up the legacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an Iraqi immigrant has no simple answers.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Ten years later, was the Iraq war worth it?

When I ask this of Muhamed Qatrani, he doesn’t answer at first. I figure he’s mulling what to say. But it turns out he’s trying to choose who should speak: the Iraqi or the American.

Because they do not come to the same conclusion.

If all the contradictions and fog of war can be reflected back at us in a single person, it might be Qatrani. He’s an Iraqi immigrant who now lives in SeaTac with his wife and four kids. I first met him eight years ago when he was headed off, full of pride and promise, to vote in Iraq’s first national election after decades of brutal dictatorship.

I caught up with him again, 10 years after the start of a U.S. occupation that is now widely regarded in this country as a mistake. If not a historic folly.

Was it worth it?

“If I look at it as an Iraqi, I think so,” Qatrani finally says. “It was worth it. But when I look at it as an American, it wasn’t. That’s where I’ve ended up.”

Qatrani, 43, escaped Sad-dam Hussein’s dictatorship in the 1990s, fleeing to a refugee camp. He lived in the camp, in Saudi Arabia, for more than two years before arriving in Seattle with nothing but a bedroll of clothes.

By 2003, he wanted the U.S. to invade his home country. He urged it even though he suspected that the Bush administration story line that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction was bogus.

“Unless you are Iraqi and saw the conditions we were living under with that regime, and then imagined another 50 years, with Saddam’s sons taking over, you can’t comprehend,” Qatrani says. “Something had to be done.”

Qatrani, who has six siblings living in Basra, in southern Iraq, says he remains “thankful every day” to the troops who died or were injured, and to his adopted country.

“All the blood and money wasn’t for nothing,” he says. “Remember that Iraq is now free.”

But Qatrani also became conflicted soon after the war started. As head of the Iraqi Community Center of Seattle, he was questioned by the FBI in his home as part of an “intelligence-gathering” operation that mostly served to terrify local Iraqis. Later, when he saw how U.S. troops had tortured and killed prisoners at Abu Ghraib, his reaction, quoted in this newspaper in 2004, captured the growing American regret with what we had wrought:

“We thought it was just Saddam Hussein who does these things,” Qatrani said.

In 2008, Qatrani, by then an American citizen, went to visit Iraq and found “a bombed-out, shellshocked war zone.”

“I fully understand now why so many Americans became angry,” he says. “There were very dark moments for this country.”

Moments that have never been truly vetted. Most of our institutions had shameful failures along the way, from Congress to the military to the press. And don’t forget Dick Cheney, who still seems to believe it was all a smashing success.

But Qatrani insists good can bloom even in the rubble. He went back for two more months in 2011 and found Iraq improving, if also struggling with new bouts of political corruption and violence.

I decided to take a different tack. I asked: Did this war have a winner?

I don’t know if it was the long-suffering Iraqi or the newly chastened American who answered, but he did so without hesitating this time:

“Probably Iran.”

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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