A McClatchy reporter reflects on what war brought to Iraq

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 4, 2009 

WASHINGTON — I picked up a daily habit in Iraq. Every morning, before I left the office, I'd savor that moment — the moment before. Maybe it came from all the times that my Iraqi friends told me how they prayed before they walked out their doors because they might never return.

For almost three years, I spent my mornings the same way: I woke up and worried about what the day would bring. It wasn't a question of whether people would die that day, only of when, how and how many.

We called it a good day when only 10 died, but then there were the bad days. The day a friend died. The day when more than 300 lives were taken in minutes. The day a mother wept in my arms about her lost son, who'd been killed by a militia member, and his widow curled up in a corner of the empty room they'd shared.

The day a man described washing his wife's bullet-ridden body in a mosque named for a religious scholar she'd loved. The day a daughter cried in the arms of her dead mother, mistakenly shot by a U.S. security team. The day I bowed my head with U.S. soldiers as they honored the memories of their fallen.

The day I wept with my closest friend in Baghdad. The country she'd welcomed me to and the places she'd shown me no longer were safe for her, and she was taking her daughter and her husband and leaving. After a series of countries denied her a visa, she ended up in the much safer Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

Iraq taught me to savor the trivial and the good. My favorite memories are silly things — giggling in the Shiite shrine in Najaf with my colleague Jenan after we'd escaped from a reprimanding male guard into the women's section of the mosque.

We'd performed our ablutions in the wrong part of the courtyard, the part reserved for men to use, and when a guard began to yell at us in Arabic, we pretended to be Iranians and unable to understand before we escaped through the gold-embossed doors into the women's section of the shrine. There, we sat cross-legged under the sparkling mirrored ceiling, quietly laughing before we bowed our heads in reflection while other women prayed along the carpeted floors.

We celebrated birthdays with cakes covered in fresh strawberries and music blasting from a laptop. We slowed down in Baghdad traffic to watch processions of cars blasting music and honking horns to celebrate a new bride and groom beginning their lives together. We'd pretend that these snippets in time were the norm, not the exception.

The reality in this capital of gray and brown, war and poverty always prevailed, however. On my last day in Iraq, as on my first day in Iraq, I didn't see what the United States and its allies had accomplished.

I couldn't see much evidence of the billions of American taxpayers' dollars that have gone to rebuild a nation ravaged for more than three decades by war, sanctions and more war.

I couldn't understand what thousands of American soldiers had died for and why hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had been killed. I didn't see a budding democracy in an Iraqi government that was more like Saddam Hussein's every day. I didn't see a land long divided by sect, ethnicity, tribe and class beginning to grow into a united nation.

For a few months, I had hope that things might work out. That was when the violence diminished and life started to return to the capital. State television aired "Baghdad at Night" from neighborhoods that had never been the most dangerous but nonetheless were coming to life again.

I thought that maybe it would work out when I dined at an Italian restaurant I'd first visited in 2005, before the owners fled and the place shut down. It reopened on New Year's Eve. My hopes rose when the best shawarma place in Baghdad reopened when the owner, who had been kidnapped at least once, returned, and when the kebob place in Fallujah opened its doors again.

Slowly and defiantly, people started to live again and build their lives atop the rubble, the blood and the scars of war.

"We're exhausted," my McClatchy colleague and friend Mohammed told me. "All we ever see is red, and sometimes you just want to see any other color than red."

As I prepared to leave this spring, however, the American soldiers did, too. The violence began inching up again with their impending withdrawal, and the feuding factions that had been held together by the U.S. military prepared for their next battles.

Everyone I spoke to said they were worried about the next fight; a conflict that they said most likely will kill more Iraqis than in the past six years.

That battle is likely to begin sometime after the American soldiers leave. Then, the U.S. no longer could restrain a Shiite Muslim-led government that's determined to make sure that its former oppressors never surface again.

The U.S.-backed government can't stop the battle for land and oil between Kurds and Arabs in the north. It can't bury, pay off or protect the Sunni insurgency that fought the U.S. occupation and the new Iraqi leadership that rode to power on the occupier's tanks.

In my last days in Iraq, I drove through Baqouba and out past the small town of Buhroz in eastern Iraq. We passed low concrete roadblocks that had been pushed to the side of a country road.

This had been a frontline for al Qaida in Iraq in most of 2007 and 2008, when the group battled the Americans and their paid Sunni fighters. Along the sides of the bumpy roads, scarred with the gaping potholes left by roadside bombs, the buildings seemed deflated — saddened and wilted by the violence.

The shell of a school was left behind from a bombing that had collapsed the roof. There was no laughter of schoolchildren, no mothers picking up their girls. Most of the tiny villages were empty and uninhabitable.

These were the relics of war and the symbols of loss — the burned-out hulks of white Chevy Suburbans, the cars that had been riddled with bullets or caught by bombs planted in the concrete. Homemade explosives were still visible on the edges of these roads.

At Yasser al Khuthayer village, about seven miles from Baqouba, young men were planting grass on the abandoned land near the destroyed homes that once housed their families.

The village, like many in Iraq, was one extended family, in this case the Yas. On sunny Fridays, they'd gathered for picnics. The children had played in the lush green land and bathed in the small canal behind the collection of homes and farms.

No longer. Most of the grass is dry now, brittle and brown. It's slowly withered since Nov. 15, 2007.

On that bloody day, fighters from al Qaida in Iraq came to Yasser al Khuthayer and battled the villagers. The fight lasted hours, and the fighters took all the men of the village they could find, including teenage boys. A few escaped through the now dried-out canal behind the village or hid under shelves in the one village store. The cows and sheep were taken, too.

The men who invaded the village accused the residents of being Sahwa, members of the Awakening Council who were paid by U.S. forces to fight al Qaida in Iraq. The villagers had no idea what Sahwa was.

Three of the boys were returned because they were too young, but 17 men are still missing and probably were dumped in a river after the extremists killed them. The family probably will never find them, never give them proper Islamic burials and always wonder whether they're alive somewhere.

On the day I visited, just before dark, a handful of young men, teenage boys and the older disabled men left the village they'd always called home with the more than 120 women and children of the village and went to Buhroz, the nearest town, where they now live in rented homes they can't afford.

Hasna Khowass Hassan welcomed me into her home. A broken woman, she still shrouded herself in black in her stark rented home. There was no grass outside, just garbage strewn through leaking sewage.

Her eyes were dulled by sadness. Five of her seven sons have been killed, and her husband is dead, too, killed by al Qaida in Iraq in the name of the Islamic State.

Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, she'd never heard of such a group, but it's some of what the war brought her. She's never returned to Yasser al Khuthayer since that fateful day, and she never will.

"Why would I return?" Hassan said as she put her head in her hands and silently sobbed. For a few minutes, she couldn't speak.

Why would she go back to the place where her family was killed, her home of more than 30 years destroyed and her life changed forever?

A portrait of her husband hung in the empty room where she lived with her sons' widows and their children.

Al Qaida in Iraq killed at least 17 men from this village, and now Waleed Taha Yas, 25, is supporting 22 members of his extended family. His younger brother is just 14.

Four men from the village, capable of working, divide the burden of the elderly, the women and the children. The men plant grass on the dry plots of land and sell squares to farmers to feed the families of widows and fatherless children. Often they depend on the charity of the larger tribe to get by each month.

It took six months before the men went back to Yasser al Khuthayer. Waleed Yas went with them, but he found no remnants of his former life except the twisted metal of bedposts, burned rugs and broken pieces of the past.

Each home was reduced to charred walls and rubble. Waleed had spent everything to furnish the room he'd shared with his wife, which was connected to his brothers' room by an open courtyard.

He showed me where his bed had been and proudly described the beautiful wooden dresser he'd bought and the large marriage bed his family had helped him buy.

For a month, he'd come here and weep.

Yas pointed to one destroyed building where five people were killed. Two more people were killed next door, and then another three, and the stories go on.

All around me were the broken pieces of what had been.

At one home, broken dishes rimmed with pink flowers littered the debris where a family once gathered to eat. The blue shelves of the kitchen were charred by fire. Outside, ornate bricks lined the abandoned path in the garden.

Nearby, a dusty remnant of a rug peeked out from a pile of broken bricks.

On the drive home from Buhroz, I thought of the elderly widow, Hassan. As I packed my bags to leave Iraq, I thought of her. On my last trip on the road to the Baghdad airport, through the maze of concrete walls that surround neighborhoods like prisons, past the checkpoints where dogs sniffed my bags and women patted me down, I thought of her.

As I write these words, I think of her, and I wonder now, as I wondered the first time I traveled that airport road, what her suffering and the bloodshed of Iraqis and Americans alike has accomplished.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leila Fadel has covered the war in Iraq for Knight Ridder and McClatchy on and off since June 2005, and has been McClatchy's Baghdad bureau chief for nearly three years. Her work in Iraq won the prestigious George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting. "Her work provided a comprehensive array of disturbing, firsthand accounts of violence and conflict by juxtaposing the agonizing plight of families in ethnically torn neighborhoods with the braggadocio of a vengeful insurgent proud of his murderous exploits, and the carnage and sorrow among victims of Iraq's most deadly car bombing in a remote region of the country where few reporters ventured," the award committee said. "Her reports also offered vivid depictions of complex developments and subtle shifts in Iraq's ever-changing military and political struggle."

Now a national correspondent in McClatchy's Washington Bureau, Fadel worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a crime and education reporter. A graduate of Northeastern University, she's lived in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and speaks conversational Arabic.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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