The Vicar of Baghdad’s Memoirs of the USA Legacy in Iraq

At 9pm UK time and 12 am Iraqi time at the beginning of the fall September 1st 2010, Barack Obama marked the  official departure of  US combat troops in Iraq. More than 7 years since the invasion the people have democracy yet the country is extremely unstable. Violence is on the increase again, the danger from insurgency bombers and rockets is worse. In addition there is scarce efficiency of basic amenities like electricity for the innocent civilians.

Although the US has ended its military authority, the army’s presence is still at large. Around 50,000 troops remain for security, diplomacy and reconstruction – without this help exists a high risk of an eruption into civil war. Vice – President Joe Biden stated the formal departure as a “change of mission”. One priest from a sleepy Hampshire village of Liphook, England helps in this mission to make the country secure and fit for its people.

Donning a bullet proof-jacket and dog collar, Canon Andrew White has lived through the war with the Iraqis. The married father of two reveals a story of  traumatic work in his quest for reconciliation and peace  – proving war really is insane.

White who has the degenerative disease Multiple Sclerosis,  has negotiated with desperate gunmen and distinguished Middle-Eastern politicians. He’s brought Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s Deputy Prime Minister, bottles of his favourite HP brown sauce and  reluctantly dined with Saddam’s sons. He’s held a meeting with Tony Blair and even Prince Philip of England and has often been summoned to the Vatican by the Pope.

During his ground work in the Iraqi war zone he has experienced beloved friends hacked to death, blown up or taken hostage and executed. Frequently dodging death himself, he has been beaten, held at gunpoint, had his face plastered on “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters,  shoved in rat-infested cells and:

“On one occasion, I was even locked in a room littered with fingers and toes. I didn’t know I was next to be maimed – fortunately I was not.”

Through all these nightmarish experiences White known as “The Vicar of Baghdad”,  remains the official Chaplain for the Christians of Iraq and a peace-maker between the people fighting for power. He has extensive experience as a shrewd conflict mediator amongst senior religious leaders  in Iraq, Palestine, Israel and Western international figures from America and Europe. White’s insistence that he strives to create peaceful dialogue between all faiths and is not on a mission to convert, has earned him respect and confidences with friends in high places. He states:

“They ask how can my most vital allies be followers of other faiths. I reply the God I serve is not Christian either. He is the God of  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

He leads the only Anglican church in the country and is the CEO of the Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRME). White travels with an entourage of 20 armored vehicles to get to his loyal congregation of 4000 people at  St Georges  church in Baghdad. It’s surrounded by tanks, concrete blocks and razor wire but inside as well as serving up spirituality the community has food, medical care and even has a dentist.

Chaperoned by bodyguards wherever he goes, the vicar leads a precarious existence in his mission for peace, as well as coping with physical disability from the MS such as fatigue, poor eye-sight and slurred speech . But despite all this, when we met in Starbucks in Portsmouth, near the FRME HQ in Petersfield, on a recent trip to the UK with some children from St Georges, he gave the impression of kindness and good humour. His  enthusiastic demeanour has no doubt has kept him in good stead all these years.

The memoirs in his book “The Vicar of Baghdad Fighting for Peace in the Middle East”,  account a life devoted to reconciliation amidst unrelenting sectarian conflict in the Middle East and reveals the many complications behind the protracted Iraq war. The story is of White and his team in their fight for peace amongst daily slaughter,  political divisions in government and public distrust. Though written in 2009 it has never been more relevant to the situation in Iraq today.

The Journey to Becoming Abouna Andrew White

In the book we learn that Saddam was indeed a megalomaniac running a barbaric regime. White was a hospital doctor in London before becoming a priest, in 1999 he witnessed himself in Iraqi hospitals how the country was crippled by UN sanctions and peoples’ health still reeling from the depleted uranium used by the Allies in the 1991 Gulf War. He says:  

“I was taken to a hospital where ward after ward was full of children dying either from malnutrition or from malignancies caused by uranium dust. It was a very disturbing experience.”

White then made regular visits to Iraq before taking permanent residence in 2002, attempting at diplomatic talks with the then deputy PM Tariq Aziz ‘to open up channels of communication’  and relieve suffering. Mr Aziz wanted White and his bishops to take a delegation of Iraqi religious leaders to the UK and USA. But this was to no avail after the 9/11 attacks,  White remembers:

“ Aziz said to me ‘ Abuna Andrew, tell them we had nothing to do with it.'” I replied without thinking: “Your Excellency, it doesn’t matter whether you are terrorists or revolutionaries, they are still coming to get you. ”

White states he is certain the WMDs existed, he states:

“Suddenly, the CIA wanted to talk to me about Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, I assured them that they existed. /They were never found because they were moved out of the country before the UN’s weapons inspectors arrived. “

Canon White refers to Christian Iraqi General Georges Sada’s book, ‘Saddam’s Secrets’, which  has more explicit details about the  WMDs.  The Canon also says he believed the Ba’thist regime had to be removed stating: “Everywhere people would tell me that someone had to set them free from Saddam’s tyranny.” White recalls many people telling him how the dictatorship’s Mukhabarat regime had imprisoned, tortured, raped and murdered.

The People Needed Freedom they got Disaster

The fall of the Ba’thist regime was quick and what Canon witnessed as the disaster unfolded was due to the military’s lack of planning, to summarize there were 3 main elements to the downward spiral.

Firstly they let the infrastructure of Iraqi society be torn apart, White states:

” Troops stood by when all the buildings (except for the Ministry of Oil) shops, universities and hospitals were looted.

Secondly, the devastation caused by the invasion left thousands of young men jobless, plus the unilateral decision was made to sack every last man in the Iraqi army and police, suddenly they were willing to hire out their services as fighters.  This combined with the military’s failure to secure the country’s borders, soon it was becoming infiltrated by militant Shia from Iran and Syria and al-Qa’ida. White recalls the procedure when travelling from Amman to Baghdad:

“The Border Control consisted of  one American soldier chewing gum and smiling at us saying: ‘Where you guys from?’  “

Thirdly, the allies underestimated how important religion is to Iraqi culture and ignored Canon White’s pleas to engage with Iraq’s religious and tribal leaders to prevent sectarian conflict. He received a letter from the Home Office in 2003 replying that religious issues would have to wait until the water and electricity were sorted out. Today they are still not fixed. Canon White was also shocked especially by the Americans’ ignorance of Iraqi culture, planning to set up a national religious council with not one cleric :

“They had no real understanding of Iraqi society and assured me that it was essentially secular.”

In 2006  12 million voted in Iraq’s new Parliament despite threats from insurgents who increased violence for a time. Things started to improve from 2007 onwards, the military became focused with General David Petraeus in charge. Together they formed The High Council of Religious Leaders and united a range of delegates from religious groups to work for reconciliation.  He says: “Iraq may have seemed secular but that was because of its evil dictatorship.” Slowly and surely things had been improving leaps and bounds by 2009, thanks to strategies explained in more detail in the book. Canon Andrew White today insists that despite the heinous loss of a million Iraqi lives from the conflict, the American military are very much needed now and the Iraqi Christians are scared of them going:

“They have done an incredible job training Iraqi police and the armed forces and so many other support roles. We are not anti-American whatsoever. /I don’t believe Iraq is yet ready to stand on its own. “

Canon White also looks after the American Embassy Chapel, he recalls that one of his sermons he was talking about how God is Love :

‘I looked down from the altar I could see military soldiers, with their guns besides them, in tears. Tough men with big tears. They said they had felt the glory of God in the service.’

When people turn round and say to Andrew White that being a priest he can’t see that religion is the cause of conflict he refutes this. “I say yes religion is terrible but it’s not going away. If religion is part of the problem it has also got to be part of the cure.” White has sat in despair but his faith has underpinned the strength in all the good work he does quoting  Psalm 62:

‘He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be greatly shaken.’ and says:

‘In this spirit I continue to fight for peace in the Middle East, and I will go on doing so until my Lord tells me to stop.’

Today his room in St Georges is closely guarded by 35 soldiers and he cannot walk anywhere without protection. But he insists there isn’t anywhere else he’d rather be, his people love him he loves them. He has never forgotten the words of former archbishop of canterbury Donald Coggan’s motto to him: “Don’t take care, take risks!”  The Vicar of Baghdad accepts his role with grace and courage then gets on with work: “I live with a price on my head…The kind of people that I spend my time engaging with are usually not very nice. On the whole nice people do not start wars.”

8 Responses to “The Vicar of Baghdad’s Memoirs of the USA Legacy in Iraq”
  1. Nevile says:

    Good article, quite a lot of detail on what life is like there from his perspective. Pretty nice!

  2. I am thankful to you for giving such a brief but very explanatory and expressive details about brother Canon Andrew White.
    It was good to listen to his interview on CNN day before yesterday.
    This present article has much to tell about brother Andrew White’s life in Baghdad since 2002. Before reading this article I did not know that brother Andrew was present in Iraq since 2002.
    I am also grateful to you for telling about little of bio of brother White.
    People brother brother Andrew take birth once in centuries.
    We all Good Shepherd Ministry in Pakistan are praying for you, brother. May God bless you and all of yours! May He smile for you and shine His face upon you! May His light keep burning in your heart!

  3. El Capitano M says:

    Another excellent article. A good illustration of the mess left behind by the allied invasion and occupation of Iraq, a large part of it being due to the failure to understand the culture and history of the country. Saddam’s regime was undoubtedly a vile, murderous one, but at least there was a working infrastructure and some form of law and order that allowed people to go about their daily business without the constant risk of being blown to bits. I dare say many people in Iraq now feel that life was better before the West marched into their country as supposed “liberators”.

  4. Robert Otule says:

    Thanks for a very concise piece about Canon Andrew white. I hope that with clear writing such as this the conflict in Iraq may be reported with balance unbiased perspective and give credit to the quiet and tireless efforts of such a great human being. An example for us all. Well done!

  5. Really impressive it is. The people like brother Canon Andrew White do need encouragement and appreciation, so that others out there may get inspiration to follow in his foot steps.

  6. Paul Bristow says:

    Excellent article concerning Vicar of Baghdad ‘s work with amazing insights into the issues within Iraq. I have the most respect for Canon’s White’s work, particularly with the children of Baghdad.

  7. Mils says:

    Hey this is a really good article! sure deserves a lot of credits! & you sure done a lot of research to support your statements! well done! 🙂

  8. Claudio says:

    Interesting read, thanks for sharing!!

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