As Americans went about their daily lives through the 1990s, few imagined what Iraqi men and women faced under the brutal sanctions declared by the UN and strictly enforced by the United States. It lasted 13 years. 

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a frequent visitor to Iraq through that period, saw first-hand what life was like for Iraqis completely cut off and shunned by the world.

Swimming up The Tigris reveals the power of Aziz’s combined skills in journalism and anthropology. Through her first-hand accounts, ordinary Iraqis speak directly to us. We learn of the breakdown of Iraq’s fine administrative and educational institutions, of needless deaths resulting from the embargo-ravaged once exemplary healthcare system, of the brain drain of its highly skilled professional class. We hear of deprivations, aerial bombardments, and local efforts to fight the wide-ranging embargo with no outside help whatsoever.

Drawing on intimate sources inside Iraq, the author reveals disparities between news reports of unfolding events and what Iraqi men and women were actually experiencing in the months preceding the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

By revisiting this critical period, Aziz sheds light on illegal, cruel tactics used by the United States to destroy Iraq through sanctions well before the WMD ruse for all out occupation. This book offers an essential context for others to appreciate early opposition to U.S. policies, to understand embargo as the ‘real’ weapon of mass destruction, the rise of ISIS, and the disastrous American occupation of the nation.



Chapter 4: ” Mehdi—Iraqi Foreign Service Officer

January 17, 1991, 7:00 pm, New York time: the American led assault began. 

In their office Iraqi embassy at the U. N. Mission staff huddled together, smoking nervously, tapping their feet on the parquet floor, while they stared at the television, stunned and helpless as their nation was being bombarded. The most painful sigHt for Mehdi was the collapse of brides over this land’s great ricers. He stared at replays of the bombing of Jisr Muallaq…. Nasiriya Bridge was in tatters too. After a few days, his wife Suha was able to phone from Baghdad: “Keep the boys with you as long as you can”.

Mehdi’s boys survived the animosity of classmates and the setbacks to their household budget. Khalid, seventeen and Mahmoud, twelve, were sophisticated lads, modest and thoroughly trained in diplomatic protocol. They concentrated on their schoolwork and stayed close to home. “people will try to provide you. Be prepared. Be polite. Walk away. Keep your passport with you and don’t volunteer any information about yourself,” Mehdi cautioned them.

Even when Khalid was apprehended and held in the NY police jail for a night, his father was sympathetic. The problem had erupted on a quiet summer night when Khalid was having a soda with boys from his building at a nearby corner store….

Chapter 15: “HIM”

Iraq is not a large country. Yet within three generations it became highly modernized with a skilled, educated and forward thinking middle class. I met so many defined people in Iraq who cared about their country, who worked tirelessly to raise their children and to hold on to their dignity. Iraqis proved to be perceptive, ready and capable. They had much to contribute to the development of a strong civil society.

Seeing this professionalism and noting the basic goodness of the majority, one could not help asking: “Did no one listen? The reply was swift and unequivocal. “No did didn’t listen; he just did not listen to anyone.”

How could that be? He held council; he invited delegations; he made himself accessible to a wide representation of citizens; he took pride in reaching out to the common man and woman.

“He only seemed to listen,” declared Iman despondently. Iman is one of those ordinary Iraqis who met the president face to face and spoke with the leader privately. 

Iman was a dedicated Iraqi nationalist, although not a Bath Party member. She was convinced that Iraq could achieve much, much more. She used opportunities with her president to speak candidly about some of Iraq’s domestic problems. “He paid close attention to what I said. But he didn’t listen…to anyone.


In my opinion, [Swimming Up The Tigris] is the single most informative book, article, or report I have ever read about Iraq. It is gripping, depressing, anger-provoking… a roller-coaster ride of emotions which, in the end, left me feeling embarrassed to be an American.

Aziz does away with the mind-numbing and confusing statistics that form the core of nearly every other writer’s work on recent Iraqi history. She doesn’t count the bodies; she doesn’t dissect the Iraqi society by religion or clan as many self-styled Mideast “experts” do. What she does is provide a sweeping portrait of Iraqi society from the late 80’s to 2003 through the eyes, ears, and voices of Iraqis who lived through these turbulent times. She lets the Iraqis—farmers, diplomats, mothers, students, military, etc—tell it like it was and is. She presents a devastating portrait of what it is actually like to live in a state of war in an internationally isolated country under relentless attack.

J.P. Marra

 If you believe, as I do, that the war against Iraq is one of the most important issues facing people in the US and world-wide, then you must read this book.

Independent journalist Barbara Nimri Aziz traveled throughout Iraq, beginning in 1989 in the days after the end of the Iran/Iraq war and up until the most recent disastrous invasion and brutal occupation. Her quest as an anthropologist was to document Iraqi society. She became a reluctant war correspondent.

This book documents the terrible years of grinding deprivation that was Iraq under the deadly US/UN sanctions. Why look at that period? Because everything that is happening today is rooted in the merciless sanctions period where more than 1.5 million people perished unnecessarily.

Every family in Iraq was touched. Everybody there would never be the same. Aziz writes brilliantly and compassionately about the people of Iraq, the ones we never hear from. The ones whose destiny is tied up with ours so completely.

Deirdre S.

Barbara Aziz’s recent book Swimming Up the Tigris is an important addition to the scholarly analysis of the Iraq War, its origins, conduct, and uncertain aftermath. Most Americans assume that the days of colonialism are over, leading them to overlook the quite traditional colonial basis for the invasion of Iraq, to secure its natural resources and control its almost limitless commercial potential.

Barbara Aziz’s exhaustive research and in-depth interviews with Iraqi people break through the clichés and illusions common to the mass media. Her warmth and compassion bring us face-to-face with the reality of modern warfare and the inevitable price paid by ordinary people in Iraq and other trouble spots around the world. Great powers may continue to intrude on vulnerable nations like Iraq, but the work of journalists like Barbara Aziz will make it difficult for them to win the hearts and minds of the world community. In the absence of popular support, aggression is unlikely to prevail.

Karen F.

The writer William Gass once described a book as “so good you don’t judge it, it judges you.” Swimming Up The Tigris by Barbara Nimri Aziz is that kind of book. Like most other writers on the Middle East I have focused so intently on America’s two military invasions of Iraq that I misjudged the near-fatal impact of the economic sanctions on the Iraqi people.

Aziz resembles the Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison in her refusal to accept the obvious answer to any question. (Has anyone but Aziz argued that the sanctions and embargoes hurt Iraq more than the bombs?) Another thing Aziz has in common with the magnificent Ms. Morrison is her uncanny ability to find the truth in terms of what is not there. Example: One of the most beautiful and harrowing chapters in the book is Aziz’s observation that the defining characteristic of Iraq’s playgrounds is the absence of children. (Just silence.)

Swimming Up The Tigris is required reading if we want to avoid the same mistakes with Iran we made with Iraq.

Ron David

As a social anthropologist, Barbara Nimri Aziz does not write a political diatribe. A keen observer of human societies, she examines, for example, how important education is to Iraqis, what role women play in Iraqi society, what kind of medical system is available to Iraqi citizens, how Iraqis coped with twelve years of devastating sanctions, how they are affected by the American occupation of Iraq.

Included in her role as social anthropologist is not just observation but participation. With a gift for friendship and an ear for story, Aziz empathetically introduces her readers to individual Iraqis whose afterimages have “staying power.” For those of us who have not traveled to Iraq, Aziz succeeds in giving her readers the haunting vicarious experience of having seen the tragic destruction of this ancient society as if with their own eyes.

Suzy Kane

Selected Articles

Where should Palestinians Search for Justice?


Gaza Children’s Art Removed from London Hospital by BNimri Aziz, March 8, 2023 (see also Counterpunch) A London hospital removes Palestinian children’s art because it upset some patients. Meanwhile, seemingly unassociated, far away in The West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians men, women and children are being ‘removed’ from their homes through a daily sustained process of genocidal cleansing.             So abundant are the grievances of Palestinians, so relentless the attacks on their bodies, their voices, their land and the very idea of Palestine, that any record or explanation of these erasures becomes buried behind the latest onslaught.             Crippling economic sanctions on Gazans have been underway for years. Life there is simple endurance. Military occupation of the entire West Bank never eases; Israeli forces enter at will to raid, threaten, arrest, maraud, plunder, wound and kill. The killing of 64 Palestinians by Israeli soldiers in first two months of this year were so ‘routine’ that outside agencies–neither politicians, nor human rights officials, nor news outlets barely noted them. It matters not if those targeted are children, stone throwers, armed fighters or bystanders. The February 6th murder of five is one…

Menacing Winter Wonder


by BNimri Aziz Feb 5, 2023 Counterpunch Those images from the December blizzard engulfing Buffalo in upstate New York were shocking. Hard to grasp the reality. That ghostliness was not only from the icy, white shroud covering everything. There were also the deaths of citizens who ventured outside, or who simply couldn’t get back home. That calamity was especially unsettling for those of us who live hardly four hours’ drive from there. By contrast. Her in Delaware and Sullivan counties we were covered by an appealing two inch layer of snow. Whatever cold reached us from Buffalo was discomfitingly bearable. We carried on with our daily affairs, simply taking care to cover up with an extra layer of wool and ensuring we had a good supply of heating oil.          Yet, we were aware that, notwithstanding the unpredictability of global climate changes, our Catskill winter had hardly begun. We faced another two months of below zero temperatures, frozen pavements, the toil of clearing our driveways, and costly fuel bills.          About this past weekend freeze, we luckily had been forewarned. Media and utility companies sent out bulletins: stock up on…

Syria Held Hostage


by B Nimri Aziz, Feb 12, 2023 Counterpunch Perhaps the most agonizing experience for a family, for any bystander, even for humanitarian professionals, is a double tragedy—a death or calamity where they are refused access, where they are forced to helplessly witness suffering, unable to offer succor. This is surely what faces millions of able-bodied Syrians today. It affects Syrians within the stricken nation along with their faraway relatives and friends. Anyone seeing suffering is involuntarily driven forward– to assist. Yet Syrians globally, those most affected by the agonizing images and stories emerging from the earthquake sites, feel both immobilized and shy behind their tears and frustrations. It’s not any threat of personal danger in a war zone that inhibits them from joining the rescue. It’s the international embargo against Syria. Given the strict measures imposed by the U.S. and its allies on the Syrian government, even those eager to arrange help are hesitant to gather urgent support at such a critical time. This includes me, unable during the past decade to even send a gift to my close friends. From my longtime association with Syria, and from regular talks…

What Was That Biden Said About Ending the War?

What Was That Biden Said About Ending the War?

Vietnam era anti-war poster by Barbara Nimri Aziz, Jan 30, 2023. Counterpunch Commentators speculate how the American president’s promise – endorsed by the country as enthusiastically as Zelensky himself– of M1 Abram tanks to Ukraine will affect the war that grinds on in Ukraine. Many assume that gifts of fighter jets will follow shortly. What disturbs me is the semantics of Biden’s announcement of the gift, rationalized and neatly summed up, by “We all want an end to this war.” I wonder if Joe Biden is aware that his statement comes in the very week that marks 50 years since the inglorious end of the U.S. war in Vietnam, (noted more widely in the foreign press than in the U.S.) How many times and for how many years did Americans and perhaps their Vietnamese quislings hear that kind of heroic talk about victory there? Similar assurances from military leaders and politicians were offered in subsequent wars. Remember Afghanistan where American military forces likewise abandoned their noble cause, although that took two decades to prove unworkable, and humiliating as well.          How can one answer Biden’s noble declaration—”We want to end…

Treachery or Opportunism: Horse-trading in the US Congress

Treachery or Opportunism: Horse-trading in the US Congress

‘He still needs 3 votes’: Image from US House of Representatives Jan 2023 by Barbara Nimri Aziz January 15, 2023           Jacobin author Neal Meyer has pointed out what I too was thinking. The Left, indeed all of today’s Democrats, would do well to view as a lesson in politics, the successful far-right GOP strategy to bend House-Speaker-in-waiting McCarthy to their will. Liberal commentators watching the horse-trading on the House floor earlier this month, suggested their side could never stoop so low. But, if Democrats might not cheer that process, at least they ought not to regard it as unreasonable or irrational. As Meyer advises, “the Left should take note” and understand that this is politics and is neither illegal nor immoral. A “carnival of folly,” a “theater of the absurd”, cries our respected colleague Chris Hedges commenting on the Freedom Caucus’  withholding votes for McCarthy until its demands were met. Why such rancor from him and other liberal commentators? However eloquent Hedges’ indignation, that raucous lobbying we witnessed on the Hill is a display of a legitimate process. Vote-trading usually happens less publicly within a party. If conducted between…

My 2023 New Year Resolution—Liberty for Julian Assange

My 2023 New Year Resolution—Liberty for Julian Assange

BNimri Aziz 01.02.2023 London Rally in Support of Julian Assange, 2021 Counterpunch 01.05.23 WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s vindication seems– maybe, perhaps, imaginably—achievable. It’s enough for me to publish my singular New Year resolution– not a wish, but a firm resolution– to more actively contribute to growing pressure to free Julian Assange, the mistreated, vilified and imprisoned, brave and brilliant founder of WikiLeaks. It’s a finite issue, unlike negotiations to end a raging war or a global agreement on climate controls. Yet freeing Assange had appeared almost insurmountable not long ago. Whereas, given the painstaking pursuit to free Assange by a pitifully small coterie of determined supporters, some success may be at hand. Their movement’s goal is clear: the U.S. government must drop its extradition order. Then, Assange should be released from Britian’s notorious Belmarsh prison, where he’s held only on a charge of dodging a bail hearing. Then, if faced with further legal action, his lawyers argue, he should be detained in his own country, Australia. During these four years in Belmarsh, Assange’s situation looked bleak. Particularly because his struggle for justice was essentially ignored by the press and thereby…