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Personal notes from Iraq, five years later

New York Times News Service

The lost, in mind’s eye

Five years have passed since I stood on the border of Iraq and Kuwait, watching the predawn sky for the first salvos in the Iraq war. I am reading political analysis and historical accounts of years that are past. I am thinking of all of the things that had not yet happened as I stood in the desert sand that day.

Whatever war is, it is a deeply personal experience for those who live in it. I am a photographer and have captured thousands of images of Iraq and the war there since that day. But when I stop reading about the war, I guess I get that faraway look I always saw, as I grew up, in the eyes of countless veterans and civilians who lived through war, including my mother. I don’t wonder what they see anymore.

I see images. Not the images I took. I see the images and feel the sensations I keep mentally when I am without the help of a lens. Sometimes they are still images and sometimes they are short movie clips of the people on all sides of the war who are no longer living.

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I see Fakher Haider, with a gleam of excitement in his eye and small smile of satisfaction on his face, as we float in a canoe in the marshes near Basra. Fakher was serving as translator and cultural guide to James Glanz, a correspondent, and me. Fakher told us that the residents of the marsh had said there was probably a Saddam tank under the reflooded part we were floating over. He gazed into the water looking for the tank or maybe seeing his own images from the past. At the end of the day, we all had the feeling you get when you witness something you have never seen before and do not know if you will see again. Months later, Fakher was dragged from his house in front of his wife and children. His body was found with a shot to the head.

Lance Cpl. Greg Rund is sitting in the dark cavern of a bunker blocking the main road to Fallujah two weeks before the battle to take over the city, wearing his Marine-issue pants and a brown T-shirt. Greg is cooking ramen noodles in a canteen cup. Lance Cpl. Enrique Mayer and I are being entertained by the constant jokes and physical comedy that are Greg. Greg carefully picks out a long noodle and tells us to watch this trick. Greg puts the noodle in his mouth and pulls it out of his nose. We roar with laughter and forget we are being mortared and shot at with rockets every few hours. I spent close to a month watching Greg fight in and around Fallujah.

Greg was killed while giving cover fire for his squad as they escaped from a house in Fallujah where they were ambushed on Dec. 11, 2004.

In the hallway of a hospital in Kirkuk, I am photographing Mahmood al-Obaidei, who has a hive of hospital workers battling to keep him breathing after his body was devastated by a roadside bomb detonated near his shop. Though I am taking photographs, it is not the images I remember. I hear Mahmood trying to breathe. The hospital workers throw the paddles of a defibrillator on him. Two shocks to the chest and his pulse again gives a weak beep on the monitor. There is a brief sign of life. The paddles are readied again. Then darkness. The power goes out. The staff groans; they wait for the power to return. The generator kicks on and the machine has to be recharged. A jolt blasts Mahmood’s chest. Nothing. The moment to save his life has passed. And I remember hearing only my own breathing.

Today when I look into the abyss of the past five years it is not black. It is populated with faces. And it is not quiet.

— Max Becherer, New York Times

Dark hints amid the joy

April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell. In an old notebook, seeds of the future.

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By dawn, most of Saddam Hussein’s military had melted away. American troops already controlled the west bank of the Tigris, and their colleagues on the east advanced through the morning toward the city center, hourly shrinking the bubble of Saddamist control.

Shortly before noon, fear spread through the last remnants of the Sunni-dominated Baathist apparatchiks who were still "minding" foreign journalists at the Palestine Hotel. Messengers arrived aghast, proclaiming, "The Shias are looting Saddam City."

If the Shiites felt confident enough to loot, it was all over.

As the minders vanished, we drove to east Baghdad, where a roadside portrait of the Sunni dictator was already defaced with the words "Ya Ali," hailing the first Shiite imam.

Iraq’s long-suppressed Shiite majority was coming. We saw them looting an abandoned police barracks, carrying out machine gun barrels, tear gas guns and cutlasses.

Saddam City no more. The delight was unmistakable.

"Good, America, good!" shouted one young man.

"Have we got rid of the criminal? Tell us," pleaded an old man. "When, where are we going to get rid of him?"

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In Sunni suburbs the mood was black. A quarter past noon, a gray-bearded engineer watching looters snarled: "This is the freedom that America brings to us: They destroyed our country. They are thieves. They stole our oil, and they kill our people."

At 3:10 p.m., four Marine M1 Abrams tanks arrived near Fatah (Conquest) Square. They were heading for Firdos (Paradise) Square less than a mile ahead, where, two hours later, the Marines would tear down a statue of Saddam before the world’s television cameras. The first tank into Paradise Square was named "Satan’s Right Hand."

Around 3:30 p.m., one of the first people to risk crossing the Americans’ path was an old Christian woman named Victoria. She ran across the street, kissing her rosary beads and murmuring "al-hamdullilah, salaam, inshallah." (Praise be to God. Peace, God willing.) She did not stop for an instant, heading back to the safety of her house.

At 3:44 p.m., the lead American vehicle sprayed bullets at an Iraqi car that strayed too close, sending everyone scuttling out of sight. The new rules were being laid down: "Danger, stay back" and "Deadly force is authorized." Five years later, these mottoes adorn tourist towels and bumper stickers in the Green Zone.

At 4 p.m., a group of Iraqis screwed up the courage to run out of their houses and tear down a poster of Saddam. It was only 50 yards from the Americans, but well out of their sight. An apparently spontaneous gesture, one of many we saw across the city.

"Heroes, heroes the Americans," one young man said, beaming. "They came into the country and occupied it as fast as they could, thank God." But even in his gratitude he saw his country as occupied, not liberated.

Beside him another man was ecstatic: "Thank you, thank you Mr. Bush. Gentleman, gentleman. Very gentle man."

But an older man shook his head. "If they just came to liberate us, then a thousand thanks. But if they are coming for something else, well, we are a Muslim country."

— Stephen Farrell, New York Times

Seeing insurgency’s dawn in glee at American deaths

Each of us had his own moment of recognition, when we knew the insurgency was not just a scattering of street gangs, but a movement that was blossoming on the support it enjoyed among the country’s Sunni Arabs. My moment came in Mosul.

It was drizzling when I arrived. Broken glass was splayed across the pavement. The American truck had already been towed away. It had gone like this: Two soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division had climbed into a regular SUV, no armor, and driven off the base and into Mosul at rush hour. They were supposed to have known better than to go out alone. One of the soldiers was Jerry Wilson, 45, of Thomson, Ga., the 101st’s command sergeant major, meaning he was the unit’s senior enlisted man. The other soldier was a specialist named Rel Ravago IV, 21, from Glendale, Calif.

Wilson and Ravago were being followed the minute they drove out of the base. The insurgents were in a car just in front of the Americans, and in the heavy traffic they suddenly stopped. Another car trailing just behind the Americans pulled up to their rear bumper. The soldiers couldn’t move. The insurgents got out of their cars and, with their Kalashnikovs, shot them dead. A crowd of Iraqis gathered around, dragged the bodies out of the car and stripped them of their watches, jackets and boots.

After checking out the scene, I walked up the street to the Ras al Jada fire station. It was one of the new ones built by the Americans. It was a big brick building, with three wide garage doors and three new bright red fire engines parked inside. It was very American-looking. I performed a quick mental calculation and figured the renovation and the new trucks cost about a million dollars. I asked the firemen what had happened down the street. The firemen had seen the whole thing, they said. Oh yes, absolutely. All of them had walked down the street to watch with everyone else.

"I was happy, everyone was happy," Waadallah Muhammad, one of the firefighters, told me. "The Americans, yes, they do good things, but only to enhance their reputation. They are occupiers. We want them to leave."

— Dexter Filkins, New York Times

Hope in a concert hall is eclipsed a year later by rage in the streets

Spring 2005. The hushed excitement before the first chords of a symphony. I was sitting in a darkened theater with hundreds of Iraqis, breathing together in collective expectation. Beethoven washed over us like a wave. At the time, Baghdad was plagued by bombings. Later, they would seem almost old-fashioned: blind strikes with random victims, different (though no less destructive) from the murderous sectarian hunts of 2006.

The concert hall was full of interesting people: a physics professor, a pilot, a professional cellist, a businessman. They had a guarded hopefulness that I admired. "It’s the beginning of a new life," said the professor, holding his 11-year-old, Ali, by the hand. "It’s a birth."

"I want to stay," he said. "It is our country. But I am not an angel; I am a human being."

When the lid comes off a country, civil war tends to follow. The regime is no longer there for everyone to hate, and neighbors start seeing one another differently. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought conflicts in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. In Iraq’s abused society, similar processes were at work.

Perhaps in retrospect, civil war was inevitable, and expectations — Iraqi and American — were unrealistic. An American general whose views I shared used to draw the analogy with an abused child: it will grow up to be an abuser. Even a lifetime of tough psychiatric work may not help.

But few could have predicted how far and fast Iraq would fall. I awoke on the warm morning of Feb. 22, 2006, to news of the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. I was late for a meeting at Baghdad’s ballet school. After an hour of watching wispy girls pirouette, we drove to Sadr City, the Shiite neighborhood. Cars bristled with men holding guns. They were jockeying to exit, giddy and spoiling for a fight, like teenagers leaving a rock concert.

A demonstration was making its way down a central road, past the trash and sewage. A man shouted: "Who is most often killed? Whose mosques are exploded? Whose society was destroyed?" He meant Shiites. His outburst was part current event, part history: for more than a thousand years, suffering and its commemoration have been at the heart of the Shiite ideology.

Two days later, I turned 35. The bureau brought me a cake. My friend brought me red balloons.

By autumn, the death rate was one of the highest since the war began. The professor from the symphony had left Iraq with his family. Those we were interviewing were being killed. A Sunni mother sat in a darkened room and told us of the seizure of her husband and son in the middle of a family meal. Several days later, she called us. Her voice was frantic. Her last remaining son had disappeared. Who took him? Who revealed where they were staying? The pain of a parent whose child has been killed is almost too much to witness.

Amman, Jordan, 2007. I am leaving the airport. Other passengers from the Iraq flight stream out into the sun, carts piled with luggage. A man wheels his down a concrete ramp. His suitcases teeter, and then tumble. Our eyes meet and we both begin to laugh.

A moment shared with a stranger is such a rare delight. It had been years since I had experienced one in Iraq. I wished hard that someday again I would.

— Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times

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