Emma Sky: The Unravelling of Iraq

May 21, 2015

By Alexandra Sarabia

Emma Sky event

On Wednesday 20 May, a conversation between Emma Sky and The Guardian’s Middle East editor, Ian Black, drew a packed house to the Frontline Club. Interested audience members and former colleagues of Sky were present to listen to the highly-regarded Iraq expert, and to celebrate and discuss her latest book, The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq.

Black was struck by a headline from The Sunday Times describing Sky as “the petite British peacenik who tamed America’s Ghengis Khan,” referring to General Raymond T. Odierno, and asked her if that was an apt description. She laughingly responded, “I don’t think I’m petite. I think I’m average height for Europe.”

Sky did however vocalise her admiration for General Odierno, who she believed “learned and changed during the Iraq War – like many of us.”

Sky spoke briefly about how she achieved her position as Governorate Coordinator of Kirkuk, a city north of Baghdad with a large natural supply of oil. In 2003, the British government requested volunteers to travel to Iraq and administer the country before handing it back to the Iraqi people. Sky thought, “Here’s my opportunity to go out to Iraq to apologise for the war.” What was intended to be just a three-month stint became a decade.

Black mentioned the frequent comparison of Sky to the illustrious Gertrude Bell, best known for her part in the founding of the country of Iraq. The comparison, however, remained a double-edged sword for Sky.

“For Iraqis, Gertrude Bell is probably the only name they remember from the British era, and they remember her with fondness… But when I went up to speak to [former President of Iraq] Jalal Talabani, he was like, ‘They call you Miss Bell.’ Eventually I said to Jalal Talabani, “I would like to apologise on behalf of the British government for creating the state of Iraq and putting the Kurds in it. He said, ‘Thank you very much.’”

Despite her anti-war stance, Sky developed a mutual respect for the American military with whom she worked so closely. Black commented: “She came to admire them greatly, especially General Odierno.”

Sky said, “I have to understand these guys as they see themselves, their own perceptions… So many of them saw themselves as protectors, not of America but protectors of all the poor and marginalised people around the world… As time went on, for many it became about giving the Iraqi people better hope for the future. To see how dedicated these soldiers were was quite extraordinary.”

A member of the audience asked Sky whether she saw a future for functioning democracy in Iraq.

Sky said, “It’s very difficult to have a system of government that Iraqis are happy with. Democracy can work if the people there want it to work… But Iraq has shown that democracy cannot be produced overnight. Democracy requires political parties and Iraq didn’t have political parties. It had groups with their militias, but it didn’t have what we would recognise as political parties with platforms. But don’t give up on Iraq.”

Click here for more information on The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq.