The coffee shop girl signaled a greeting from her hospital bed, her face a pointillist palette of wounds, one eye forced shut, the other gazing off into a void. Nahrain Yonaan offered her one functioning hand; the other was swathed in gauze, a mangled claw.
She seemed cheered to think that I came to visit from the U.S. Army base in southern Baghdad where she served coffee and soft drinks to the troops, a place she had become fond of, where each day she stepped into a life comfortably apart from the deepening despair of Iraq outside the gates. She had encouraged her melancholic younger sister, Narmeen, to find work with the Americans as well. I allowed her to embrace the illusion, propagated by her mother, that a certain captain had made the trip to the squalor of Kindi Hospital in an act of solidarity.
Nahrain took my hand. She was blinded and maimed. And she did not yet know the worst: Narmeen and an aunt had been killed in the drive-by shooting and subsequent bombing that mutilated the body of this once-vivacious 25-year-old. Nahrain survived the fusillade and escaped from the targeted minivan after pretending she was dead. But in one of those acts of valor and imprudence so prevalent in wartime, she slipped back to the bullet-ridden vehicle and--in a bid to save her sister and aunt--tried to remove the bomb deposited there by attackers who were keen to finish off the victims. It exploded in her face. "Nahrain was the light of my family," her mother, shattered, confided to me.
The lamentable fact was that no one had come from the base, nor would the Army do anything to help this broken young woman. Masked gunmen had attacked the minivan she was traveling in because it ferried her and others to jobs at the U.S. camp. The assassins had stalked the vehicle from the base, a frequent scenario in the Iraqi killing grounds. She and her fellow commuters were the latest victims of a grisly but effective guerrilla strategy: eliminate any Iraqi who was "collaborating" with U.S. forces, even if their role was no more significant than serving beverages in a base cafe or cleaning the floors.
"We'll see what we can do," the major at the base, known as Camp Cuervo, told me later when I inquired whether Nahrain could be transferred to a military hospital, where perhaps her vision and limbs could be saved. "She was very popular. But we have a lot going on right now."
I made my way back to my Iraqi colleagues, who were waiting at the front gate from which Nahrain's vehicle had taken off a few nights earlier. We were apprehensive that we too would be shadowed on the way out. As I left, the major advised, "Hey, man, be careful driving out of here."
I left Iraq last summer after covering the conflict there for two years as a Los Angeles Times correspondent. There's a lot not to miss: the carnage, the ubiquitous sense of menace, the logistical barriers of reporting a story in a place where foreign journalists are shut out from much of Iraqi society. But there is also a deep sense of regret for having left behind so many Iraqi colleagues and friends, people who repeatedly risked their lives for me and others. Most have no chance to leave. It is hard to avoid feeling that I abandoned them, though none ever puts it that way.
I spent time before I left clearing out old files, revisiting past stories. I came across a photo of a battered Nahrain in her hospital bed in spring 2004. That was one story that took me a long time to get away from. But there were others too: some momentous, some lost in the daily stream of mostly bad news from Iraq.
The euphoria that followed the fall of Baghdad and the ouster of Saddam Hussein was already diminished by the time I first came to Iraq in June 2003, arriving overland in a Baghdad-or-bust Suburban that motored from Amman through the vast expanses of Al Anbar province, the sprawling swath of western Iraq, to the capital. That was the practice then, when travel was still relatively safe and no one had an inkling that Al Anbar would soon become ground zero of an insurgency that would stymie the cocky U.S. troops and claim the highest number of American casualties since the Vietnam War, with no end in sight.
AN INSURGENCY IS BORN
"The American jet fired a missile at the mosque," the young man insisted, as others nodded in agreement. "We could see an airplane and a flash of light."
This was in a place called Fallouja, the so-called city of mosques, an insular town west of Baghdad that before long would become infamous as the symbolic heart of the Iraqi insurgency. But at this point, in July 2003, it was still a place where Western journalists could venture and even be received with traditional Arab hospitality, though lines were being drawn.
Many here, clerics and ex-generals alike, owed their well-being to the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. He, in turn, referred to governorates such as Al Anbar, where Fallouja was located, as "white provinces" because they were loyal as opposed to the restive Shiite south and rebellious Kurdish north. To his often-divided Sunni Arab compatriots and other allies co-opted by the Baath apparatus, Hussein had communicated an unwavering message: We are a civilized minority holding back a tide of potential usurpers. Fallouja had fallen without a fight to the U.S. mechanized onslaught. Its sons, however, were soon manning the ramparts of resistance, jihad and martyrdom.
Among them was a cleric named Laith Khalil Dahham, an ascetic young man from a hamlet called Al-Bahawa in the lush date palm groves along the Euphrates to the west of town. Dahham had been a gifted scholar known for his dedication to the mystical Suffi teachings that have long held great allure in Iraq. He had risen quickly to become imam of the Al Hassan ibn Ali mosque, which drew adherents of Suffism.
But Sheikh Laith, as he was known, had joined the escalating ranks of Sunni clerics who were providing spiritual validation to the then-burgeoning insurgency. He embraced a militant stance early on. It seems naive now, after so many clerics and mosques in Iraq have been implicated, but at the time it was unclear that the anti-U.S. campaign would garner so much religious support--or that disenfranchised Sunni Arabs from places such as Fallouja would become the principal foot soldiers in an uprising that would thwart the most potent military force on the planet.
At Friday services, the firebrand railed against the "occupiers," alarming U.S. officers who monitored the weekly sermons. Angry young men came to partake in sizzling night sessions at the mosque complex, where worship melded seamlessly into calls for jihad.
Then, after late prayers on June 30, 2003, a huge explosion rocked the compound, killing at least a half dozen of Sheikh Laith's followers. The Army said that a makeshift bomb-making factory on-site had ignited by mistake. The imam initially survived the blast. He was shown on Al Jazeera television in a hospital stretcher, his gaunt body scarred from shrapnel, his battered face Christlike in its agony. He was shuffled from hospital to hospital, but adequate care was never found. Sheikh Laith was 25 when he died.
I arrived at the mosque the next morning, just as the worshipers were hoisting the unadorned coffins of those who had been killed. Bearded young men in white Arab dress and red-and-white checkered head scarves known as yasmah discharged Kalashnikovs into the air, waved black banners and vowed resistance. It was a scene out of the Palestinian intifada--in Iraq. U.S. soldiers were nowhere to be seen as the defiant funeral cortege bearing the wooden boxes marched down the dusty streets to a wind-swept cemetery. Across from the mosque, men who said they were "witnesses" were unanimous: A U.S. warplane had attacked the holy site.
At many subsequent bombings, it seemed, the story was the same: U.S. aircraft or artillery were said to have fired at the target, be it a police station, a line of recruits or a mosque. With every attack, with every outrage committed in the name of "resistance," fingers were pointed at supposed U.S. aggressors.
The Army called it fiction. But myths resonate in the paranoia-drenched atmosphere of Iraq, where a quarter-century-plus of Baathist rule had pummeled the concept of truth.
AN EYE ON THE REARVIEW MIRROR
My interpreter, Suheil Ahmad, and I traveled to Al-Bahawa, Sheikh Laith's home village, in search of the dead man's relatives.
A friendly Sunni sheik accompanied us and provided the needed introductions in the conservative farm region, where the cycles of crops and prayer dictate daily life.
The late imam's extended male family--he came from a prominent tribe--greeted us along a canal amid the date palm-fringed ribbon of green that caresses the Euphrates. The men sat in the shade of the mourning tent, sipping tea and fingering beads. Sheikh Laith's father and uncles, all dressed in traditional tribal headdresses and robes, spoke with deep pride of the precocious scholar who now, indisputably, rested in paradise. Later, a longtime acquaintance, Ahmed Jasim, marveled at his friend's passing. "He has had a wonderful death," Jasim told me. "We are all hoping to have a similar end, to be martyrs like Sheikh Laith."
At the time, U.S. authorities--notably L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator and de facto proconsul--were dismissing the mounting attacks as desperation acts by "bitter enders" who would soon be annihilated by superior U.S. forces. But it never felt like that in Fallouja or elsewhere in western Iraq, where anger was building, arms and munitions were abundant and there was no shortage of volunteers--many unemployed young men gravitating in their discontent to militant mosques--to take on the U.S. troops.
The people of Sunni Arab Iraq, long divided by tribe and region of origin, had found a common enemy.
After the imam's wake, we drove into the town of Amriya to visit some of the dead man's followers, who had gathered at the house of an elderly and half-blind sheik. Abandoning caution, he began to complain that U.S. troops had arrested several area "boys" who had been transporting arms from the south. The young militants in the room quieted him and wondered aloud whether Suheil and I were intelligence agents. We quickly changed the subject to the imponderables of Sufist philosophy and then made an apologetic exit. "That was a very perilous moment, Mr. Patrick," Suheil advised me as we sped back toward Fallouja and its crown of minarets, our eyes on the rearview mirror.
It was becoming apparent--with every new ambush and roadside bombing, with most every interview I conducted--that this was going to be a long and bloody fight. Could it possibly be, I wondered, that the war was already lost?
'THIS WAS LIKE A MAFIA HIT'
The Russian Kamaz flatbed truck lumbered down the sweltering streets of Baghdad, its driver evidently confident that no one would take notice amid the bustle and confusion that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Concealed in the rear were more than 1,000 pounds of military-grade, high-impact explosives. At the core of the "cocktail" was a 500-pound, Soviet-made bomb meant to be dropped from an airplane. Cradling the big bomb were mortar shells, rockets, grenades, bullets: a sinister potpourri that was still widely available in Iraq, thanks to the extensive looting of Hussein's armories, though no one paid much attention to all that at the time of the U.S. invasion.
The driver--steel-nerved, fanatical or likely both--threaded the rolling bomb through the hubbub of Baghdad, reaching the site of the former hotel that housed the United Nations compound. He apparently accelerated into a wall and detonated his payload just before 4:30 p.m., as many inside were getting ready to go home. It was Aug. 19, 2003.
The truck was about 30 feet from the building, outside the concrete wall, but the blast was fierce enough to tear through the U.N. complex, collapsing the nearest corner of the three-story structure and exposing ravaged offices. It was as if someone had taken a giant can opener to the building.
The bomb killed about two dozen people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. point man in Iraq, a debonair Brazilian and much-admired international civil servant who had navigated thorny humanitarian and peacekeeping challenges in Cambodia, Kosovo and East Timor, among other postings. Iraq, alas, would turn out to be a test of a different order of magnitude. Months later, a rebel video hawked by open-air vendors would identify the suicide driver as an Egyptian militant who had gained holy-warrior street cred by targeting Coptic Christians in his homeland.
The finely planned and perfectly orchestrated attack on U.N. headquarters was the first major suicide bombing in post-Hussein Iraq--a grim milestone to be followed by hundreds more such incidents. Today Iraq is practically synonymous with kamikaze violence; it's almost hard to recall a time before car bombs.
The United Nations had largely opposed the U.S. invasion, but at that point it was still seen as a potential U.S. ally in steadying Iraq's deteriorating security climate. Along with De Mello, among those killed was Arthur C. Helton, a noted human rights advocate and an expert in refugee matters with whom I had spoken when I reported on U.S. immigration. He had come to look into the issue of displaced persons in Iraq. In those somewhat heady days, it still seemed conceivable that international aid organizations would descend on Iraq and make a difference.
"We're looking forward" to their arrival, a U.S. Army officer, Col. William Mayville, had told me not long before in the northern city of Kirkuk, where American forces initially had secured the oil fields and eventually moved into the ethnic tinderbox that is the northern city.
The flood of international aid workers never came to pass, like a lot of expectations there. In retrospect, it's clear that the rubble at the U.N. headquarters signaled the effective end of the notion that a global partnership might bring peace and stability to Iraq--at least for the foreseeable future. Many Iraqis had little sympathy for the U.N., which Hussein had long demonized as the agent of U.S.-organized sanctions that had throttled the country for a decade.
Iraqis came to examine the damage; this was before bombings became passe and onlookers feared being targeted in follow-up blasts. I stood in a debris-strewn highway median across from the site. The ground was littered with anti-aircraft shells, the common detritus of post-Hussein Iraq--and useful material for the improvised bombs that already were ravaging the roads.
Soon, most international U.N. personnel left the country, and Baghdad took on a fortress-like feel. Concrete "blast walls," massive sandbags, zigzagging concrete barriers, barbed wire and other fortifications chopped up the city, while armed men in various guises toted rifles and manned machine-gun nests in a once-glorious capital whose previous occupiers had included Mongols, Turks and Brits.
Ten days later, on Aug. 29, a car bomb detonated outside the gold-domed shrine of Imam Ali, a revered relative of the prophet Muhammad, in the Shiite capital of Najaf as worshipers were leaving Friday prayers. The bomb-laden vehicle was set off by remote control just as the targeted cleric was exiting one of the mosque's turquoise-tiled doorways. Blasted to bits was Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, who had recently returned from exile in Iran and was a political and spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite majority--and a man despised by many Sunni Arabs as an Iranian turncoat. As many as 120 others were killed, too. "They were basically collateral victims," said an FBI man who was working the case in Baghdad. "This was like a Mafia hit."
For hours, thousands thronged to gawk at the jagged remains of the charred SUV in which Hakim had been riding. It was said that all that was left of his body was a finger with a ring on it.
Filing past the twisted wreckage of Hakim's SUV, it was difficult not to be struck by the utter cold-bloodedness of attackers who would sacrifice so many lives to get one man. Or did they intend it that way? The few hospitals were overwhelmed and didn't have room for all the remains of the other blast victims; workers stacked corpses and body parts in the corridors--not the last time I would come across this macabre spectacle.
The two attacks of August 2003 made clear that something noxious had been unleashed in Iraq. There may have been a window following the invasion and the fall of Baghdad when some kind of political resolution could have been worked out. But now that seemed an increasingly remote possibility. This was a lot more than angry young men with head scarves taking potshots at U.S. convoys.
On the streets of Najaf, the mood turned volatile. Foreigners were suspect. The following day, as mourners gathered and funeral processions carried the dead to the sacred ground of the city's vast cemetery, a mob gathered outside the hotel where I and several other foreign journalists were monitoring events from a roof. The men bared knives.
We thought about jumping to the next building, but it was too far away. Ultimately, a Shiite cleric posted himself at the door and prevented anyone from entering. "These are our guests," he insisted. "We should treat them as guests."
The mob dispersed, and we were able to make our getaway, aided by some police cars that came to rescue us.
SADDAM IN POLYESTER
The surviving policemen of the Sunni Arab town of Khalidiya, having seen their co-workers killed in a blast targeting their station, cited the usual culprit: a U.S. warplane.
And just why would U.S. forces target U.S.-trained and U.S.-paid police? I asked at the bloody scene. "We refused to patrol with the Americans," explained one angry survivor, whose cousin was among at least 17 killed that morning, Dec. 14, 2003. How then, I inquired, did the engine block from the apparent bomb-car end up atop the rubble of the police station? "There were two American missiles," he responded, explaining that one had hit the car. Other events would soon overtake this maddening exchange.
"They found Saddam!" The cry went up suddenly as journalists at the bombing scene dashed to their cars. "They found Saddam!"
An Iranian news agency had broken the story, based on a tip from a visiting Kurdish leader. We all raced away. The slaughter in Khalidiya received scant notice in the next day's news accounts.
"He was caught like a rat," Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno told me and my colleagues that evening in Tikrit, Hussein's erstwhile stomping grounds. The tough-talking New Jersey native was briefing the press at one of Hussein's former palaces along the Tigris, now the headquarters of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. It turned out that Hussein had been holed up a few miles away in a simple shack; the ditch outside, with a Styrofoam plug, some bricks and a weathered carpet for camouflage, had been used as an emergency haven.
The generals and their minions chuckled at the rustic setup, but the fact was that Hussein had avoided capture for more than eight months despite one of the largest manhunts in history. Those familiar with the ex-dictator's official hagiography commented on the location's significance: It wasn't far from where a young Hussein, on the run and shot in the leg, was said to have swum the Tigris en route to an epic escape that would take him into exile in Cairo and expose this cunning and ruthless country boy to the broader currents of pan-Arab nationalism.
The next day dawned frigid and blustery in Tikrit. U.S. Army Blackhawks, flying fast and near tree level to avoid ground fire, obligingly ferried reporters to the site of the capture. The sparseness of Hussein's den was striking, practically in the shadow of some of his most sumptuous palaces. There was no running water in the two-room adobe shack where he had laid low. Inside, bottles of honey, packages of new shirts and underwear in plastic wrapping and assorted clothing lay strewn about. Journalists opened Hussein's mini-fridge, fingered his books of Arabic poetry and descended into his "spider hole."
I was particularly struck by the shirts: the loud polyester kind that has worn out its welcome in much of the world, but remains au courant in retro Iraq. Hussein was a tyrant and a murderer. But no one ever said he didn't know his people, their habits and their easily offended sense of pride.
Hussein's capture sparked buoyant new forecasts that the insurgency would fold. Triumphant officials hinted that he had been holding it all together, controlling a network of funds and operatives, a kind of Professor Moriarty in his web of rebellion.
It didn't take long, though, to realize that Hussein's capture wouldn't make much difference. At the time, the U.S. military death toll in Iraq was about 460; the number recently exceeded 2,000, with thousands more injured, many maimed for life. Hussein's capture didn't pacify the seething Sunni heartland either. A separate Shiite uprising would soon ignite. And the seeds of sectarian warfare--the most chilling scenario in this very heterogeneous land--were already being sown. Within months, the images of a pathetic Hussein acquiescing to a U.S. medical examination hardly seemed to matter.
A few weeks after Hussein's capture, a suicide bomber plowed his vehicle into Nabil, a restaurant along Baghdad's upscale Arasat Street popular with foreigners. At least eight people were killed and more than two dozen injured in the New Year's Eve blast. The injured included seven staffers from the Los Angeles Times and the spouse of our technical assistant. I was on vacation with my family in a snowbound village in northern Italy when I heard the news. As joyous Italian children set off fireworks and sparklers to celebrate the New Year, I frantically dialed satellite phone numbers in Baghdad, desperate for details.
"It's terrible, Patrick," our disconsolate office manager, Salar Jaff, kept repeating to me, his tone scratchy and barely audible on the sat phone, a disembodied voice from another planet. I could easily envision the now-familiar bedlam and bloodshed. It seemed inconceivable, though, that this could be happening to my friends and colleagues, a little more than a week after I had left on a break.
All of our people ultimately survived the Nabil blast. Through a quirk of fate, the early arrivals that night had changed tables to what turned out to be a safer spot; a pregnant Iraqi woman and her husband, celebrating life in the face of the bloodletting engulfing their country, had been crushed and killed by the collapsing masonry at the very table where my colleagues were supposed to have sat. "They died in our place," Mohammed Arrawi, our computer tech, later told me, numbed at the thought. It was an inauspicious kickoff to the New Year, 2004.
PRAYING WE'D GET OUT ALIVE
"Let's take one more chai."
The morning was beginning to swelter, though it was only March. The scorching Iraqi spring was bearing down on us. The stink of dried blood and sweat permeated the air. This was the Shiite Ashura holiday--a date, as it happened, that would become part of the celebrated litany of Shiite martyrdom.
I had come to Karbala, one of the sacred cities of Shiite Iraq, expecting trouble. Hundreds of thousands of Shiites were gathering here for the holiday, which marks the 7th century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, Shia's most beloved figure and the grandson of the prophet. Throughout Iraq, people were increasingly worried about sectarian attacks--especially Sunni versus Shia, and vice versa. Karbala seemed the obvious target.
Kalashnikov-bearing Shiite militiamen stopped all cars approaching the city, including ours, and patted down everyone entering the area housing the two gold-domed shrines to Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, Hussein's half brother. Nonetheless, the place felt vulnerable and tense as the multitudes descended.
The early-morning rites came off without incident. The chief spectacle--white-robed men striking themselves on their heads with swords--was as bloody and medieval as expected. Other self-flagellators paraded through the dense crowd, beating themselves with chains, in some cases laced with razor blades. It was a ritual shedding of blood, not the involuntary variety usually on display.
For these faithful, Imam Hussein was not a figure of the distant past. They chanted of his martyrdom and beheading on the plains of Karbala as though he had been killed just days before. Many of the pilgrims were Iranians, ecstatic about finally being able to visit the Shiite holy sites; access had long been tightly controlled in a regime suspicious of Persians, traditional rivals of Arab Iraq. Many Iranians donned gauze masks--a modicum of protection against the atmospheric soup of dust, grime and blood.
My big preoccupation that morning, March 2, 2004, was to avoid getting trampled. Hundreds of thousands of people shuffled past the city's two main shrines; separating the two monuments was a pleasant but now teeming palm-filled park--almost like a Mexican zocalo--on a site reduced to rubble a decade earlier as Saddam's forces crushed a Shiite rebellion. Once among the mass of pilgrims, I and others were carried about as though part of a larger organism, and most everybody was sprayed repeatedly with blood from the penitents. I don't like crowds as a rule and felt terribly vulnerable knowing how little it would take for a human stampede to kick off. I was relieved once we were out of the maelstrom and vowed never to get sucked into an Iraqi crowd again.
We paused at a chai stand at a quieter spot down the road, one of a number of sites where volunteers were providing hourglass-shaped goblets of sweetened tea from steaming caldrons. I savored two, then three glasses of the narcotically sugary drink and smoked as many cigarettes, taking in the retreating humanity that was then decamping from the shrine site, many still engaging in ritual self-mutilation as they ambled by.
My Iraqi interpreter, Raheem Salman, wanted to leave; Westerners always drew stares, even in the Shiite heartland, which welcomed the ouster of Hussein. I understood the value of not lingering. This was to be my last chai. And that's when we heard it: a not-so-distant thud, like a mortar round. "Not good," said Raheem, who had helped navigate me out of difficulties in Najaf and other places.
A few seconds later, another blast erupted about 40 yards down the street to our right, more or less where we would have been walking had we not procrastinated over the chai. Debris, falling bodies and panicked worshipers were soon coming our way in a kind of rippling, uneven wave. The next explosion was closer, perhaps 20 yards to our left. A fireball shot into the air. The ground shook.
Through pure chance, we found ourselves in a relatively secure spot--right between two killing zones. In that terrifying instant, my mind somehow recalled the televised scenes of people fleeing the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. The survival instinct kicked in.
We shoved our way through the cascading victims and the miasma of debris and dust closing in from both sides. I glimpsed figures falling, others unconscious and some shrieking in fright: men, women, children. We cut down a side street filled with garbage up to our ankles and ran as fast as we could, adrenalin driving us on. The detonations persisted: We assumed the city was under mortar attack. I counted eight blasts before we ducked behind a brick wall at a construction site. I used my sat phone to call my wife, my office in Los Angeles and my bureau in Baghdad, as we hunkered down and then prayed we would get out alive.
Once it seemed relatively safe to wander about, we found several bomb sites littered with ball bearings--flesh-piercing metal pellets packed into suicide vests and belts. Strips of human tissue and globs of coagulated blood clung to buildings, walls and overhead cables like gruesome confetti. Bloodied shoes were scattered about. I recall a pair of blood-drenched girl's sneakers; she must have been about my daughter's age. I offered my satellite phone to anguished Iranian pilgrims who were desperate to call home. One man was collecting pieces of seared flesh and placing them in a plastic bag. They deserved a decent Muslim burial, he explained, as he went about his task.
A week later, I returned to the site of the tea stand to retrace my steps. I wanted to measure how close the bombings were--and, to some extent, exorcise the still-palpable fright. Nine suicide bombers had struck in Karbala, the deputy police chief told me, killing 130, while as many as 70 other pilgrims perished in synchronized strikes the same hour at the resplendent Shiite shrine of Khadimiyah in Baghdad.
On the main drag in Karbala, an entrepreneur was hawking CDs with video clips of the fireball we had seen close up, spliced with scenes of slaughter. The CD, which cost about 40 cents, was a big seller.
'WE'LL COVER YOU . . . ON THREE'
More than a year later, the hunted eyes still follow me.
The rebel in white sneakers was in shock, stooped over on the curb, life seeping from his young body. Another insurgent lay dead on the sodden ground nearby, a big chunk of his back blown open, exposing a gouge of raw meat and jagged bone. I caught the dying man's gaze as I passed by with a Marine squad.
There was no obvious hatred in those eyes, no anger, just the fear and dread of a young man knowing he was taking his final breaths. He shivered in the cold with massive internal injuries, though no wound showed. Among the last things he would see on this earth was the unthinkable: U.S. Marines on the streets of Fallouja, a place he surely thought would never meet such a fate, abandoned by God, he might say. We didn't stay long. "He could be booby-trapped," a Marine said. A medical corpsman did attend to the wounded insurgent. But it was too late. He was dead in a matter of minutes.
They called last November's battle for Fallouja the Marines' most intense bout of urban warfare since Hue, more than a quarter-century earlier. I was among the few journalists who were able to live with a Marine infantry company as it prepped for the fight, and then walk in with the troops as they took the rebel-held city.
In the anxious days before the attack, there was a lot of talk about "payback time," as Marines recalled comrades lost and maimed in and around Fallouja, as well as the corps' ignominious retreat from the city during an aborted incursion the previous spring. When word came that the invasion was imminent, some of the men in the unit I was accompanying--Charlie Company of the 1-8, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.--began composing what they called "just-in-case" notes. These were letters, tucked in their body armor or pockets or wallets, to loved ones back home: dads and moms, wives and children, best friends.
"That's the first time I thought about death," said Lance Cpl. Stephen Ross O'Neill, 19, of Cincinnati, who had just addressed such a missive to his father. "I don't think anyone should have to write a letter like that."
Among the journalists in our camp, nerves were becoming frayed as "I-Day," or the day of the invasion, neared. Some had decided not to go in during the first 24 hours, expecting a blood bath. We were all feeling queasy and not getting much sleep. An experienced broadcast journalist who had opted to stay behind asked what I and my colleague, Times photographer Luis Sinco, intended to do. We had decided to go in, largely because to do otherwise would have felt like a betrayal of the Marines who had been decent enough to share their lives with us. "Don't ask me to push your wheelchair," the broadcast guy sneered at me.
On the eve of the attack, we headed out before dawn in the Marines' trademark 7-ton trucks, a line of transport vehicles brimming with troops motoring through the chilly rain of the western desert. In the fog and mist the scene felt like a replay of a World War I battle. "My friends are back home flipping burgers," boasted Rafael Peguero, 19, from the Bronx, as we rumbled along toward the rebel stronghold.
We spent the daylight hours in foxholes gouged from the scorpion-infested earth north of Fallouja. Nightfall brought a spectacular display: Artillery and jets pounded the city, softening up the town before the onslaught. The Marines cheered each explosion. It was hard to imagine anyone surviving the bombardment. Finally, about midnight, we headed in, hiking through desert brush, swampy canals and bomb craters to the town limits.
It was a rough entry. The platoon I accompanied was pinned down for four hours at a traffic circle under heavy fire. A cold rain descended upon us. Before the invasion, I had imagined an almost invincible front of thousands of Marines and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles as we crossed the threshold into Fallouja. Now, though, there were no more than a dozen soaked and freezing grunts in the vicinity, and the enemy appeared to be everywhere. Illumination rounds of white phosphorous periodically transformed the inky night into an eerie day, exposing our vulnerable position and drawing curses from infantrymen who were seeking cover in the dark. I'd written about several Marine units that had been overwhelmed and nearly wiped out; I didn't savor being part of the next one.
I pulled my flak vest tight and stuck my helmeted head down in the curb, getting as low as I could to the grimy street as rocket-propelled grenades and tracer fire arced overhead. I tried to calm myself by transporting my mind elsewhere--to a favorite family retreat in Italy's Dolomites, near the Austrian border, where my wife, daughter and I go to escape. The first snow there would be falling.
Somehow we weren't overrun, and before dawn the platoon I was with finally started moving deeper into the city--first in the shadow of a giant Marine bulldozer, which shortly broke through the pavement and got stuck. Advancing through those abandoned streets in the dark was even more terrifying than being pinned down.
Fallouja was surreal and sinister; most civilians had wisely fled, leaving mainly U.S. troops and guerrillas, who took up hiding positions in houses and waited for a clear shot. Unseen U.S. aircraft groaned in the sky. We all knew the pre-sunrise lull would soon end--and it did. Insurgents opened fire on the squad I was with shortly after first light (and morning prayers) as we proceeded down a residential street. I was caught a little to the right of the main group and dashed for cover into a seemingly abandoned house; all the Marines scattered to walls on the left.
I was on my own, unarmed, at the entrance of a building with fire coming from several directions. And I wasn't aware of an important fact: Marines had entered the house a few minutes earlier and found it filled with arms and ordnance--and possibly wired to blow up. Numerous homes and vehicles had been booby-trapped.
"You gotta cross," Staff Sgt. Dennis Nash, the platoon commander, yelled to me from across the way. "We'll cover you . . . on three."
I didn't have time to think about it. At the count, I grabbed my bulky pack and sprinted across the street, no more than 15 feet wide but appearing as a vast chasm at that moment. The Marines put down a wall of fire; I could hear bullets skipping on the pavement. I dived through a hedge and onto a strip of mud where two riflemen--I recall a tall Dominican American kid, Dominguez, from New Jersey--were covering me. "I never knew you could run so fast!" one Marine after another repeated to me later. My harried dash swiftly entered company lore.
We spent several nights in mosques, many heavily damaged after serving as rebel redoubts. Waking up in a place as sublime as the Khulafa Rashid mosque in Fallouja--and finding sleeping Marines on its fine carpet as a dazzling morning sun pierced the stained glass--was something very strange indeed. After a few days of the American blitz, Fallouja lay in ruins.
For many Marines, Fallouja was their first experience in sustained combat: urban warfare, house by house, fire from the "mooj," or mujahideen, at some points coming from 360 degrees. Iraq had mostly been a hit-and-run affair; troops seldom faced off against their enemy and frequently referred to the insurgents as "phantoms" who quickly melted into the population. "I've been waiting for this fight ever since I joined the Marines," Staff Sgt. Nash, an 11-year veteran, told me. "This battle is going to be written about in history books."
Famously, Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who headed the Marine expeditionary force that reclaimed Fallouja, declared that U.S. forces had "broken the back" of the insurgency. The fact is, the rebels lost a safe haven, but were far from beaten. A grim revolt already had broken out in the much larger and strategic northern city of Mosul. Samarra, Fallouja, Mosul, Tal Afar, Qaim, Buhruz--how many times had I attended press briefings and heard Sunni rebel strongholds declared "secured," only to be contested again?
I began receiving e-mails from relatives and friends of these Marines. They wanted to know about their men in Fallouja. The experience was very humbling and somehow harked back to a different war era, when people scanned newspaper accounts for word of their loved ones. Of course, the Internet and satellite technology had made it all so much more accessible and faster.
One woman from Texas e-mailed me photos of her recent wedding, which her brother, a captain in Fallouja, had missed. Then there was the wife of a combat engineer who was ecstatic to receive a call from her husband after I lent him my sat phone. "I am currently six months pregnant with our baby boy and he hasn't got to be here for any of it," she wrote of her husband. "Him calling was so special to me, and it made my day. We have lost several babies in the past, including one last year during the war and he was unable to be with me at that time. This is the first baby that has thrived and is making it this far. I know that he is a strong man, and that is what keeps me going."
A Marine mother from Connecticut put it to me this way: "You are our only link every morning."
WHEN THE WAR TOOK THE DAY OFF
Election day, Jan. 30, 2005, broke cold and ferocious in Baghdad. From the L.A. Times bureau at the heavily barricaded Hamra Hotel, we could see puffs of smoke and feel the familiar detonations. It seemed as though the worst predictions for violence might materialize. But I'd learned to expect the unexpected in Iraq.
As the hours went by, the capital quieted down; more people headed for the polls, some dressed in their best clothes. We could see lines of citizens defying death threats and walking to the booths in a city now free of cars and under extremely tight security. The desire not to be left out in this singular experiment in democracy became infectious among certain groups, especially Shiites and Kurds, who had suffered such repression under Hussein's rule.
A colleague and I headed into the Jadriyah neighborhood near our hotel. Walking the streets wasn't something one did regularly in Baghdad anymore, not since the kidnappings and beheadings of Westerners. Most news organizations had given up independent houses and opted for restricted life in some version of an armed compound. We all were terrified of being kidnapped and thrown in a cage for our loved ones to view on a grisly video. Long gone were the days when we jumped in a car without thinking twice and headed off to Mosul or Kirkuk, Najaf or Basra, the Syrian border or Kurdistan in search of a story. We now traveled in armored vehicles with bodyguards and a chase car, plotting every trip.
As we ambled through the oddly festive capital on election day, someone from among a group of children playing soccer in the streets yelled and threw something at us. A harmless anti-aircraft shell skittered our way. We maintained our pace and didn't look back. My Fallouja experience was still raw, and I stayed close to the walls to avoid snipers overhead, just like the Marines had taught me.
It was exhilarating strolling those streets, now largely devoid of traffic; civilian vehicles had been mostly banned as a measure against car bombs. The war seemed to take the day off--though there were, in fact, scores of attacks in the capital and elsewhere, mostly in the morning. People proudly displayed their purple index fingers, dyed to show that they had voted. The image is a cliche now, but it's hard to understate how uplifting it felt then. I'd never experienced Baghdad like this. The election site, at a school, was downright inspiring.
"We feel we are really doing something good," said Abdul Munaim Abdul Karim, a 63-year-old engineer and secular Shiite, who said he and his wife trekked six miles to find their polling place. "This is a historic day for Iraq."
An occupational hazard of working as a journalist in Iraq is to be accused of being too negative. Yet on Jan. 30, we were probably too positive. The press hailed the results (though we dutifully noted the poor Sunni Arab turnout, dampened by threats, distrust and a call for a boycott).
But what became obvious in the months following the elections is that the vote likely exacerbated Iraq's festering ethnic and political divides. Shiite- and Kurdish-backed slates captured about 75% of the votes; the long-dominant Sunni Arab minority felt more marginalized than ever. We were soon witnessing a relatively new and sinister phenomenon: paramilitary-style executions of civilians, reminiscent of the death squads of Latin America's civil wars of the 1970s and '80s.
Scores of bloated bodies, victims of sectarian slaughter, floated in the Tigris. Most appeared to be Shiites who had been kidnapped by Sunni Arab assassins. Inevitably, bodies of abducted Sunnis began to appear in ditches in Shiite-dominated Sadr City and environs, their hands tied behind their backs, blindfolds over their eyes, bullet holes in their heads. Witnesses reported that men in white SUVs--a trademark of the largely Shiite security services--arrived at night and took away their men.
History may well judge the landmark Iraqi elections of January 2005 as a seminal advance for democracy in the Middle East. Up close, though, the vote seemed to open even wider the floodgates of mass murder.
In February, I received an e-mail from a Marine captain with whom I had spent time during the Fallouja operation three months earlier. We'd met one dark evening in an abandoned building near city hall, where his hard-hit recon platoon--with a Purple Heart rate approaching 50%--had taken up sniper positions. They picked off rebels, one by one, from the blacked-out windows. The captain informed me that he had been seriously injured in a raid south of Fallouja after we last spoke; his ulnar nerve and an artery were severed in his right forearm, and he was scheduled for nerve-graft surgery. A sergeant whom I'd also met had been killed in the same operation.
"The election turnout was inspiring," the captain wrote. "It was good to see that our contributions mean something to these people."
I couldn't help but admire that kind of hopefulness. But I also couldn't help feel that he and others had been used as instruments of someone else's grand ambitions--like warriors from time immemorial, I suppose. The entire enterprise in Iraq rests on two shaky premises: First, that the disenfranchised and radicalized Sunni Arab minority--accustomed to being dominant--will somehow acquiesce, accept the new Iraq and abandon its armed struggle. And second, that the Iraqi armed forces, notoriously infiltrated by the rebels, will be able to keep the peace without a large-scale, open-ended U.S. troop presence.
The country's Shiite political elite--mostly longtime exiles with strong links to Iran--know they've ascended for one major reason: U.S. force. But they cannot say that to the Iraqi public. Instead, they must hint obliquely that Hussein's overthrow was the result of some kind of internal Shiite revolt or divine intervention. To give credit to the Americans, to Sgt. Nash and the men of Charlie Company and all the others, would be political suicide.
U.S. forces in Iraq have no illusions about their dual, contradictory role. They prop up the government and provide some measure of security--probably holding off an all-out battle for control of Baghdad. On the other hand, their very presence is the insurgency's major selling point.
THE LONG ROAD HOME
I saw Nahrain Yonaan one last time before I left Iraq.
We arranged to meet at a mutual friend's house. At this point, I dared not go into her neighborhood in Baghdad's southern Doura district, a hotbed of insurgent activity and rebel checkpoints. Nahrain looked drained, lacking the vitality I had sensed even when she was half-conscious in that hospital bed more than a year earlier. She had lost her left eye, her right eye was close to sightless, her hearing was disintegrating and several toes and fingers were mangled or missing. Pain was constant and shrapnel remained in her body--the result of pitiable medical care.
The frequent gunshots in her neighborhood terrified her; she feared insurgents might return to finish her off. "Everyone was nice to me during my time with them," she said, still befuddled that the Army had not offered medical assistance. "I was shocked to be ignored by them."
By Nahrain's side sat her older sister, Atoor, 27, a spirited soul who was filled with resentment about the new Iraq. "I am a young woman, but I can no longer go out freely and walk the streets," she said. "I cannot put on jeans and walk out because people will start calling me bad names." As Christians, Atoor and Nahrain were appalled at the graffiti that smeared their churches, the bombs at Sunday services, the coerced wearing of head scarves and the threats to a group that had lived side by side with Muslims for centuries. In their view, a wave of fundamentalism and moral absolutism was sweeping their nation.
Nahrain and her sister were on their way to Amman, Jordan, looking to start fresh in a new place. Their dream was to acquire U.S. visas, but the sisters had little hope of ever being granted the prized documents, despite relatives in America who were willing to sponsor them. Iraq, the country of their birth, wasn't for them anymore.
It's something you hear a lot in Iraq these days: The lucky ones get out. "I still have hope in the future and in life," Nahrain said, "but not here."
I bade farewell to Iraq in mid-July, hoping for the best as we careened down the airport road, past the bomb-gouged potholes and the unlucky spots where so many had been blown up. I must have traveled this way 50 times. A few months earlier, Marla Ruzcika, a 28-year-old aid worker from Northern California and a friend of many journalists, had been killed there, along with her driver-translator, in a suicide bombing that had targeted a convoy traveling near her car. The fate of this woman whose exuberance seemed to mock the very notion of mortality was on my mind as we sped along.
I got dropped off and double-stepped with my bags past the carcasses of vehicles destroyed by suicide bombers to the relative safety of the Nepalese contract guards at Checkpoint One, behind a comforting concrete wall. I took a deep breath. I endured a final round of searches, preoccupied as always that someone in line might be concealing a bomb and preparing for paradise. I then waited eight hours in the Baathist cathedral that is the Baghdad airport terminal for a flight out.
A series of odd summer sandstorms had enveloped Iraq, and the few commercial flights were spotty. Many blamed the Americans--who else?--for the curious meteorological events that had cast an ochre pall over the battered capital. Something about military activity in the west kicking up the sand and dust.
Abruptly, the sky cleared and the Royal Jordanian jet that was to extract me and a motley assemblage of security contractors and assorted Iraqis approached the airport on its delayed run from Amman. As if on cue, an explosion shook the terminal. A mortar landed harmlessly about 100 yards away, drawing a glance from the seen-it-all security men also waiting for the flight. "They're getting closer," commented an Aussie contractor, who looked out the terminal window and watched the reddish-brown earth erupt as the mortar struck the desert.
We boarded uneventfully and took off safely, the jet banking severely into the overcast skies to avoid potential rocket fire. Two hours later I was in a taxi in Amman. This had been my 12th or 13th trip into Iraq. I'd lost count. But I was in one piece, more or less. I telephoned my wife in Italy. It was time to start a new life. Iraq was somebody else's story now.
Patrick J. McDonnell is The Times' Buenos Aires bureau chief.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times