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.