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Six years in Iraq: three American stories

A soldier, a reconstruction expert, and a peace activist tell of how Iraq has changed – and what more needs to be done.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 20, 2009

TOGETHER: An Iraqi soldier and two Americans stood guard during a joint patrol last week in Mosul, Iraq. Progress in Iraq has tended to come one relationship at a time.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP

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For Staff Sgt. Todd Bowers, America's six years in Iraq have been an accomplishment and a tragedy best summed up in the life of a single man – an Iraqi he knew only as Moufid.

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It was 2005, and the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah was at war, buildings blasted to rubble and rockets splitting the sky.

Amid the chaos, "this Iraqi walks up to us and says, 'How can I help?' " says Sergeant Bowers, who has served two tours in Iraq.

It was a breakthrough moment for Bowers's unit. "He really represented the kind of relationship you need to establish at the local level to begin to turn the tide," says Bowers.

Six years after America invaded Iraq, Bowers's experience symbolizes what America has learned – and what Iraq has sacrificed. Progress in Iraq has come one relationship at a time – a lesson that could change how the American military fights in Afghanistan and beyond.

But Moufid was killed in front of his family later that year for cooperating with Americans, Bowers learned – a glimpse of the war’s cost to the Iraqi people.

Much of the wanton violence that claimed Moufid as well as thousands of other Iraqi civilians is now waning. US combat deaths, too, are now consistently lower than at any time since the invasion began in 2003.

Although few experts – let alone Iraqis – speak of victory, the Iraqi government is gradually taking greater responsibility for its own affairs. National elections slated for the end of the year offer the promise of another step toward a stability and calm Iraq hasn’t known for decades. This has given President Obama the confidence to plan for the withdrawal of two-thirds of the 145,000 American troops in Iraq by autumn 2010.

The pullout is backloaded to allow for maximum security coverage during the elections.

Yet Iraq is a more nuanced picture when seen through the eyes of three Americans who have come to know the country intimately: soldier Bowers, reconstruction expert Paul Hughes, and peace activist Michele Naar-Obed. On the sixth anniversary of the invasion, their personal perspectives point to accomplishments such as those in Fallujah, but also to the difficulties that lie ahead – from the rise of a more conservative strain of Islam to dormant sectarian rifts that could resurface as the Americans leave.

The soldier

When he got word that he would be deployed to Iraq, Bowers was an intern in the Capitol Hill office of former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe in early 2003. A week later, he was on a ship bound for Kuwait and what would be the invasion of Iraq.