2011 Reflections: Iraqi resilience amid war

Seven Monitor correspondents reflect on the world's hot spots. In this installment, Scott Peterson explains why despite the risks, he kept going back to tell the stories of Iraqis.

Hadi Mizban/AP
Iraqis leave a Sunni mosque after prayers on Friday in Fallujah.

In the darkest years of the Iraq war, in 2006-07, some 3,000 Iraqis were being killed every month. Every day the bodies of ordinary Iraqis appeared on the streets, tortured in a vicious sectarian war – or blown up by car bombs and suicide bombers.

Back then, kidnappings afflicted Iraqis and foreigners alike. Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was released after 83 terrifying days; many others fared much worse.

The question came too often to ignore, from my friends and family – and even surprised Iraqis – about why I continued reporting from Iraq.

My answer was always the same: Despite the magnitude of murder, there were also 5 million Iraqis in Baghdad alone who survived every day.

I wanted to tell their stories.

Those narratives could be as inspiring as they were often grim, as Iraq's social fabric frayed under the weight of violence. While the death toll has since dipped (to about 150 civilians per month), many risks remain: In the days after the final US troops flew out of Iraq on Dec. 17, the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for a key Sunni rival, which could prompt sectarian feuds to reignite.

But Iraqi resilience has remained strong, no matter what the challenge.

There was the Methboub family, whose widowed matriarch, Karima, kept her eight children alive and laughing, despite impossible poverty as the post-Saddam Hussein world exploded around them.

I found hope in the war diary of daughter Amal, who wrote by candlelight of her fear during the invasion – and of celebrating her 14th birthday as the bombs fell.

Years later, youngest son Mahmoud risked his life daily to sell Pepsi on the street, and daughter Fatima found love through the kitchen window, with a young man in the next apartment.

That joyful marriage would turn to abuse and misery, though Fatima has since regained her coquettish nature. Son Ali would be held and tortured in prison for 2-1/2 years, then released without charge. And Amal and her sister Hibba would finally make it to college – a bright coda.

Yet as the years ground on and the violence deepened, getting to the Methboubs required careful planning and disguise.

I used Iraqi shirts, jackets, a beard, a pair of Shiite rings acquired in Tehran, and an ordinary shopping bag to hide my camera and notebooks, hoping no one would notice me during the short walk to their apartment.

That walk grew longer and riskier when a spate of car bombs in the area caused residents to block the streets with chunks of concrete.

I could rarely stay for long, and left under the cover of darkness. I could never tell the family when I would arrive. But a similar balance of life took place everywhere.

Tough balance

When a double suicide car bomb in late 2005 hit the Hamra Hotel, adjacent to the Monitor office, it blew in our windows – and I had to stagger through clouds of dust with my cameras on my way out.

Those bombs devastated the lives of Iraqis who lived 25 yards from its impact point, including the Khafaji family. Father Yas lost his wife, 11-year-old daughter, and nephew when the bombs destroyed their home.

Such savage violence often defined the disconnect between Iraqis and their American occupiers.

While Iraqis lived under the constant threat of death, inside the fortified Green Zone was a different story. True, US officials, generals, and contractors there were living under frequent rocket and mortar fire. But they were also taking coffee at the Green Bean or grabbing slices at Pizza Hut – a sliver of Americana that was duplicated with everything from enchiladas to Heinz Steak Sauce at sprawling US military bases.

I certainly saw American warriors killed in Iraq's unforgiving deserts and squalid streets – but tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, as well as Al Qaeda-inspired and Shiite militants, also died in the often horrific violence.

In Fallujah in 2004, I embedded with tattooed US Marines for a month as they conducted the modern equivalent of the Vietnam-era tactic "to destroy the village in order to save it," in this case a city that once held 300,000 inhabitants.

The fight was fierce. The courageous light armored vehicle company I was with saw 1 in 5 killed or wounded; I still carry shrapnel in my arm from one firefight.

Success worthy of the sacrifice?

Was the Iraqi and American sacrifice worth it? Will history show that the benefit of toppling Mr. Hussein outweighed the vast human and financial cost?

I'd had a taste of the regime's violent potential, which Iraqis endured and suffered under for decades. I first traveled to Iraq in 1991, sneaking across the border during the Kurdish uprising. After Iraqi helicopters fired over our heads and tanks advanced while blasting their main guns at our positions, I joined 1 million Kurds as they fled over the mountains to Turkey.

In the late 1990s, I made perhaps a dozen more journeys to Iraq, until I was blacklisted. Regime control was so complete that only once did an Iraqi take me aside to complain about Hussein. He told me that if the United Nations eased its severe sanctions, Iraqis could shift attention from filling their bellies to getting rid of their dictator.

Americans have now achieved that goal. But the ferocity of what they unleashed has left no Iraqi untouched.

Monitor family's losses

The Monitor family has also been touched. The losses sustained by such a small group illustrate how widely the war affected Iraqis.

I hired Mohammed as a translator in 2004 after knowing him for years, but his taxi was stopped by Sunni militants south of Baghdad, and he and other Shiite passengers were tortured and killed.

Jill's translator, Allan Enwiyah, died during her January 2006 kidnapping; the Monitor helped get his family to the United States. Jill's driver, Adnan Abbas, escaped unhurt but fears for his safety deepened when militants posted video of Adnan's cousin – and several other drivers who had supplied US bases – being beheaded. The Monitor also helped Adnan and his family move to the US.

Monitor security guard Talib Ali Ibrahim was diverted by a fake checkpoint near his neighborhood in early 2007, and disappeared. Efforts over many weeks by Monitor fixer Awadh al-Taee and security chief Mahmoud al-Khazraji to identify his body – among hundreds at Baghdad morgues – proved horrific and fruitless.

Months later, Talib's replacement, Riad, was shot dead in his neighborhood by three gunmen, who killed another man with Riad and shot his brother in the leg.

The memories of these Iraqi friends – as well as the inspired courage of those still in Iraq, who have survived nearly nine years of war – brings tears to my eyes today.

Yet as heart-rending as those losses are for the Monitor family, they are but a snapshot of the sacrifices endured by tens of thousands of families across Iraq – and those of nearly 4,500 American soldiers.

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