E-mails from the front lines of the Iraq war

They arrive nearly every day, these sad, strange e-mails from Iraq.

They are unsentimental and hard, gathered by stringers scattered across a country at war. They’re often tough to follow, terse poems with broken rhythms and words landing in wrong places. But there’s an unadorned power that speaks to things beyond style and grammar.

“An IP source said that some gunmen assassinated yesterday evening staff brigadier general in the Iraqi army and his wife in Tobchi (west Baghdad) while he was driving his car… both were killed instantly.”

IP is Iraqi police. The snippet came from a Baghdad writer working his world of contacts and whispers, of fresh graves and sorrow. I may have known him once, but I haven’t been to Iraq in years. I now follow its circuitous and disturbing narrative in newspapers and magazines, and in e-mail traffic I see as a Middle East correspondent for The Times.


“A car bomb went off in the city of Baqubah this evening in an area where there are some popular restaurants and cafes killing three civilians and injuring 22 others.”

No commas. No names. Is punctuation necessary when meaning is so clear?

“An IP source said that a sticky bomb targeted a civil car of a leader in Sahwa, the source didn’t mention his name.... causing damages to the car… he was unharmed.”

Many stories that make it into the newspaper begin this way, growing little by little in detail and scope through the day. But most of these missives, brief passages sent through the ether, slip into obscurity. I wonder about their nameless victims. Did they have children? Were they doing well in school? Was there a place to hide? Did they ever think they’d escape unharmed?

“An IP source said an IED was planted in front of a house of a warrant officer in IP in Hamadaniya (Abu Ghraib)…a squad car came to the place but the IED exploded before the team dismantled it killing the warrant officer (the owner of the house) and one of the IP team in addition to wounding three civilians and some damages to the house.”

An IED is an improvised explosive device, or makeshift bomb. War is cluttered with acronyms and euphemisms, jumbles of letters and syllables to disguise lies and pain. They conjure geography, body count, the faint recognition of a similar story from a different time, all twisted together, like a knot with a lost beginning.

When I first started reporting from Iraq years ago, endless missives from stringers invaded my inbox. Every click brought news of deaths, executions, house fires, bloodied markets, roadside battles, ambushes, torture and blossoms of black smoke from suicide bombers.

You couldn’t write about them all, you could only honor them by reading a few lines about their fates before hitting “delete.” Or go to the morgue and match the e-mail with the bodies, like the one about the carpenter and his son waiting for work and getting blown apart in the dying chill of a Baghdad morning. They were laid in borrowed coffins, which were tied to a car roof. A man drove them to the city’s edge.

The e-mails are far fewer today, but they can still be filled with rage and bewilderment.

“At 7:30 a.m. the engineer Abdul Karim Abid, working in Baghdad airport, passed the security distance near a checkpoint…the Americans opened fire on him killing him instantly inside his car.”

That was it, a strand of words like an unfinished note passed between friends in a classroom. A little later, an update followed based on an interview with a man who was quoted as saying:

“The airport closed for about two hours as protestation against the killing…why such killing? Where is the security agreement between the government and the USA. Was that the democracy they brought to us? Democracy of killing?? They respect animals but killing the human beings in this way!!… he was an official going to his work!!”

Sometimes, men vanish in angry outlands.

“Gunmen kidnapped three men from Qatar accompanied by Sheikh Hamid Jarboo, one of Anbar’s tribal sheikhs. . they were lost in the desert between Rawa and Hetra. .they were there for hunting purposes. . they were kidnapped Thursday evening.”

Afghanistan, they say, is the new Iraq, but the old Iraq is still here.

“An IP source said that 45 cadets in the Special Future Academy for VIP security were poisoned and some of them were critically poisoned… reasons are unknown so far…they were evacuated to the hospital … the academy is in Abu Ghraib near Baghdad international airport.”

Special Future Academy. What a lovely phrase, like “the princess’ villa.” I was in one once on the Tigris River right after the war began. The princess had died centuries ago and the villa had been taken over by men who imagined riches but were left struggling to feed their families. They spent their days in a broken collection of rooms melting gold flakes in caldron fires. The gold was swept daily from the floors and counters of jewelers, but the jewelers had fled the fighting and the glimmers, stars shining in dustbins, grew scarce.

I wanted to stay with the men, listen to their stories, watch their twisting blue flames. They were strong and enduring. But my interpreter said: “It is time to go to another place.”

“A security source said that Basra airport was targeted by rocket attacks which caused to close it in front of all flights including the Iraqi pilgrims (going to Mecca)…107 mm rockets targeted the airport…one of them landed on the runway.”

Pigeons fly through smoke. I watched them for hours once on a Baghdad roof as gunfire peppered an alley below. Their keeper released them from wooden cages and they wheeled and flashed across the sky. The keeper said he didn’t want war to ruin his life and that he would continue freeing his birds in the afternoon and calling them home at dusk by twirling a stick tied with a bright rag.

“Some gunmen opened fire at an IP captain, working in a prison … they used silencers … incident happened in Elam neighborhood, south Baghdad, killing him instantly.”

I wonder if the morgue man is still there, the one with the green jumpsuit and rubber boots like you wear in a slaughterhouse, who collected the dead and hosed out the coffins. I watched him on a smoke break years ago, sitting on a curb, blood from his fingers seeping across the white of his cigarette.

One day, perhaps, the e-mails will stop. I don’t know. It’s not my story.