In a week when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that a long-demanded independent inquiry into the Iraq war is to be held, BBC TV screened a powerful three-part drama mini-series on British involvement in Iraq entitled simply “Occupation”.
Both events attest to the lasting impact of the Iraq war on British political and cultural life. With the British operation in Iraq having officially ended at a ceremony in Basra at the end of April, there are renewed calls for a full disclosure of the reasons for, and conduct of, a war in which 179 Britons died and many more were badly injured.
It is not certain that the inquiry will fully dispel public distrust in the government over Iraq. Another way in which the issues around the Iraq war are being explored is through works of art, including drama. “Occupation” is the first BBC drama mini-series on the Iraq war, and it highlights the human complexities, confusion and moral ambiguities of the six-year engagement.
“Occupation” was broadcast in three one-hour episodes on successive nights from last Tuesday. It was filmed in Morocco and one member of the cast is Moroccan: actress Lubna Azabal, who plays Iraqi medical doctor Aliyah Nabil.
The mini-series packs an emotional punch which owes much to the consistently strong performances. The three central characters are British soldiers. Long-serving Sergeant Mike Swift is played with intensity by the Northern Irish actor James Nesbitt. Corporal Danny Peterson (Stephen Graham) is a restless, talkative risk-taker. Baby-faced innocent Lance Corporal Lee Hibbs (Warren Brown), known as Hibbsy, faces constant jibes from his anti-war sister when back in the UK.
The writer of “Occupation”, Peter Bowker, wanted to give the points of view of both Iraqi and British characters. A key element in the drama is the love that Mike, the apparently happily married father of two teenage children, develops for Dr Aliyah Nabil. A relationship seems impossible in the circumstances, and at one point she quotes to him lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh, including “what you seek you will never find”. Gilgamesh becomes a recurring motif of the series. Mike’s obsession with the Iraqi doctor leads his wife to divorce him.
We first see the three British soldiers inside a Warrior troop carrier in Basra in April 2003. When they take up position in a corridor of a block of flats a grenade is thrown at them. Mike saves a young girl whose leg is badly injured in the blast, carrying her in his arms to hospital.
It is here that Mike first encounters the petite, determined, chain-smoking Dr Aliyah. She tells him it will be impossible to operate on the girl’s leg as the hospital has neither the surgeons nor the equipment required.
Mike arranges for the girl to be airlifted from the hospital and flown with Dr Aliyah to a hospital in England. He becomes increasingly drawn to Aliyah, but on going to the hospital one day he finds that she and the girl have abruptly left for Iraq.
Mike, Danny and Hibbsy eventually return to Iraq. Mike wants to go back because he has been unable to get Aliyah out of his mind. Danny has been persuaded by burly, charismatic American ex-marine Lester (Nonso Anozie) to join him in setting up a private security firm. Hibbsy, who has been given a medical discharge from the army, decides to work for the firm. Lester and Danny engage gleefully with the web of corruption and fraud under which many billions of dollars disappeared in Iraq and are still unaccounted for.
When Mike tracks Aliyah down, he learns that she is married. She tells him that her husband, the director of the hospital in Basra, had been imprisoned by Saddam two years earlier and that she had been wrongly informed that he was dead. Her husband Dr Sadiq Alasadi , played by the Arabic-speaking Israeli actor of Iraqi Jewish origin Igal Naor, is a dedicated doctor who is sickened by Danny and Lester’s scamming of the hospital through their crooked construction contracts.
“Occupation” captures the sense of danger and suspicion on every corner, the increasing pressures on women, and the high price sometimes paid by Iraqis who work with the British and are seen as collaborators. Hibbsy strikes up a close friendship with a young Iraqi man, Yunis (Lewis Alsamari). When Yunis leaves his job with the security contractors he uses his money to fulfill his dream of setting up a pizzeria.
But when Hibbsy goes to visit Yunis in his new pizza business, Yunis is gunned down by two members of the Iraqi police whom Hibbsy had helped to train. Hibbsy is so traumatized that Danny asks Mike to take him back to England.
Hibbsy is haunted by the murder of Yunis and returns to Iraq to visit Yunis’s widow and children and give them all the money he has made. On leaving their house he is seized by a gang including the two policemen who killed Yunis and taken to the basement of a police station where he is dressed in an orange jump suit and prepared for execution by beheading. Danny stages a daring rescue to buy his freedom.
The script treats Hibbsy’s abductors not as blind fanatics but as men who are deeply angered by what has happened to their country. The lead captor asks Hibbsy: “Do you know how many Iraqis your bombs killed? Half a million.”
Mike goes out to Iraq for a third time in June 2007 with his son Richard, who has joined the army and admits to Mike how terrified he is. Aliyah’s husband has disappeared, and Mike offers to help find him. When he discovers who was behind Dr Alasadi’s abduction, he is filled with disbelief and disgust.
The action builds to an inevitably violent and tragic climax when the various fuses placed along the storyline are ignited and explode. In the final scene the three main characters are back in England trying to come to terms with their experiences. Mike, appalled by Danny’s greed and irresponsibility, asks what happened to him. Danny replies: “I went to Iraq. What happened to you?”