Witness: Reflecting on Iraq as U.S. troops withdraw 15 Dec 11

Reuters Baghdad correspondent Ahmed Rasheed says it was just a day after that first meeting that he began to realize the price his country would have to pay for democracy.

(Reuters) – “Three days after U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad in April 2003, I had my first encounter with an American marine. I opened my door to find him crouched on the street and holding a pump action shot gun.

He wore full combat gear, with knee pads and a heavy pack. I couldn’t see his eyes through his black glasses. But he looked nervous. I asked him if there was a problem.

“He looked at me and said: ‘Sir, we are here to protect you. We are here to liberate you from Saddam’s regime and bring you elections to choose your president freely.’”

Reuters Baghdad correspondent Ahmed Rasheed says it was just a day after that first meeting that he began to realize the price his country would have to pay for democracy.

“I saw a U.S. army humvee rushing by, carrying four Iraqi men blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. Nearby, looters were ransacking one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces and the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, the deposed dictator’s former intelligence service.

“Looking nine years back, I cannot think of an Iraqi who has not been touched in some way or one who does not still struggle to avoid bombs or attacks, especially those conducted by assassins using silenced weapons – called ‘ghost bullets’ by Iraqis.

“For me, my country is still in a distressing state. After all these years of suffering and hoping to see a peaceful Iraq, I still can’t get into my car without looking underneath to check if a magnetic sticky bomb is attached.”

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As the last U.S. troops prepare to leave their country, many Iraqis are remembering the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and wondering what the future holds for them after the soldiers go home.

Their government is still a fragile coalition of Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish parties which struggle to make power-sharing function. Violence has fallen sharply, but bombings, attacks and assassinations still occur almost daily.

Like many of their countrymen, Iraqi journalists working for Reuters have experienced turmoil, suffering and loss. Here some of them reflect on the events that marked the U.S. military presence for them.

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Saad Shalash, photographer:

“Since the first day of invasion I was optimistic about the change we thought would happen. I thought we would be able to travel, I thought we would free, that the Iraqi economy would get better. I was wrong. A massive bomb attack in 2004 changed everything for me.

I had seen other blasts, like an attack on the United Nations. But this was the biggest attack I had witnessed and the closest.

I was working as a Reuters driver at the time. We were in the southern city of Kerbala when one blast went off. Another bomb exploded behind us. We tried to get away. We had just got around a corner when a third blast exploded. It was very close to me. Shrapnel hit my arm. I didn’t notice until someone told me I had blood on my shirt. We heard two more explosions further away. I thought I would die there on that day.

I thought ‘That’s it, Iraq will continue with these bombings’. I was right. Even now I feel that car bombs can happen. I don’t like to take my family outside now. These bombings became a part of our daily life. I feel they will continue after the U.S. troops pull out.

It is out of the government’s control. We see no improvements in the standard of living, the power shortages, the infrastructure which is still destroyed – all these problems will just get worse. All I think about is keeping myself and my family safe and offering them the simple needs in life like water and electricity.”

Suadad al-Salhy, journalist in Baghdad:

“I have experienced all kinds of threats in this country from all sides after the 2003 U.S. invasion, but for some reason I cannot get rid of two memories related to the U.S. presence.

The first was in August 2008 when U.S. soldiers stormed my parents’ house after midnight, blocked us all in our rooms and arrested my youngest brother, just three days after the arrest of my father. He was arrested after the Iraqi translator with the soldiers got offended because my father had asked him to stop shouting because he frightened the children.

The Americans released my brother after 10 or 12 hours. He was detained after they stopped him and all the youths aged between 15 and 20 years old in the area. They asked a masked young man, an informant, to point out suspects to arrest.

The second incident happened in January 2010 when I was working in Ramadi. I was with some colleagues working on a story covering the high rates of birth defects and the relationship with depleted uranium and phosphorus weapons used by the Americans in their fight against insurgents in Fallujah.

My husband called me asking if I was okay. He did not tell me anything but his voice was wobbly.

I called our office in Baghdad; they told me three large car bombs had hit well-known Baghdad hotels, killing at least 36 people and wounding another 71. One of the hotels housed my husband’s office at that time. The first blast occurred near an entrance, just a few meters away from his office. The office ceiling totally collapsed and the walls, which were mostly made of glass, crashed. My five-year-old daughter was with her ??father at that moment, playing in his office.

I tried to contact staff who were with him, but communications were really bad. After an anxious 30 minutes I was told my daughter was okay after her father picked her up out of the debris. But no one could tell me if they were injured or not.

The distance between Baghdad and Ramadi is not more than 100 km (60 miles). But the Americans closed all roads leading to the capital that day. I had to spend the longest and worst five hours one can pass as a mother.

Exhausted, I finally returned to the house. I was not even aware of the glass from all the shattered windows. It made no difference to me then. I found my husband there waiting for me, I rushed to his arms and collapsed crying. I could not believe the day was over and thank God my daughter and husband were alive.”

Aseel Kami, journalist in Baghdad:

“I consider myself lucky so far because I was not forced out of my home, I was not shot at, I did not receive any direct threat, I was not wounded or maimed by an explosion like many Iraqis who suffered during the nine years of U.S. presence.

But one of the distinguishing moments that still clings to my memory is a horrific day when a car bomb exploded near an Iraqi army checkpoint in 2006, meters away from my home.

It was the holy Muslim month of Ramadan when my mother, my son and I were gathered around the table to break our fasting when all of a sudden a huge sound erupted and the glass of the windows shredded in all directions.

Without realizing what had happened, we jumped from our chairs and ran to an inside corridor thinking it would be safer. I was shaking and holding my son. My mother was uttering some words from the Koran.

Minutes later, I thought I should go out to find out what had happened and what was the cause. I went out into our garden and I could not see anything because of the dust from the explosion, I only heard voices of people screaming.

Our neighbors told us a car bomb had exploded.

I remember this moment because only a few minutes before the explosion, my son, six years old at the time, had been playing with his friends in the road. I had called him back so he could wash his face and dirty hands before we had our meal.

One of his friends, who stayed there longer, was injured in his stomach and the other lost the sight in one of his eyes.

Security may be much better than six years ago but bombings still occur daily, and that makes me worried all the time, about myself, my son and my parents.

A few months ago a mortar round landed near my son’s school near the Tigris river, just across the fortified Green Zone, home for the U.S. embassy and many Iraqi officials.

Another memory that stuck in my mind was the dark humor I used to share with our Baghdad stringer (freelance correspondent) to lighten a little the dark days of the sectarian violence in 2006-7.

Almost daily we used to report on dumped bodies found in Baghdad streets. One day we reported up to 60 bodies found bound, blindfolded and shot in the head and chest.

Our stringer I developed a code to describe those kind of corpses – he just used to say ‘full option bodies’.

I know it is cruel to deal with these tragic events by making jokes but this is how we managed to pass these difficult days.”