War Forever Changed Lives of Six Iraqis We Knew Well

Cairo – On June 28, 2004, the day the U.S.-led occupation authority in Iraq officially was dissolved, our Baghdad news bureau held a staff dinner to mark the beginning of the country's path to self-determination and democracy.

A photo of the modest party and our serious faces reflected our concerns that the tensions coursing through Iraqi streets didn’t match the rosy predictions for the country’s future that were coming from Washington.

Even so, Iraqi and American staff members toasted, “Long live Iraq!” and had a chocolate cake from the bakery in our hotel. After filing our reports, we piled on couches to watch TV channels replay the swearing-in of Iraq’s new interim premier, Ayad Allawi.

More than seven years later, with U.S. troops almost gone from Iraq ahead of the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline, these are the fates of the six Iraqi staffers in that photo: One is dead, one is an amputee, one was internally displaced and the others are refugees in Sweden, Australia and the United States.

Just one still lives in Iraq, and he was forced to move to a different neighborhood after a double car bombing in January 2010 left his house in ruins. The same blasts partially demolished the hotel where the picture was taken and killed a friendly young worker in the bakery where we’d ordered the cake.

The postscripts to that photo encapsulate the ruinous aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, which set off years of sectarian warfare and political paralysis that have touched the lives of virtually all of Iraq’s more than 30 million citizens.

The mostly tragic fates of the bright, enthusiastic Iraqis who worked for our bureau capture the story of post-invasion Iraq. Besides the staff members pictured, at least a dozen other Iraqi men and women from all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds have helped us as drivers, translators, reporters, cooks and cleaners. None has a post-invasion story with a happy ending.

Some 2 million Iraqis have fled the country as refugees since 2003, according to international rights groups; few have returned. Those who stayed faced internal displacement, especially at the height of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, and a barrage of assassinations, bombings and sectarian clashes that continues in spurts today.

Far from being immune because of their work, our staff members were doubly at risk, from the everyday street violence as well as from targeted attacks from Sunni Muslim and Shiite extremist groups that deemed them “enemy collaborators” for working with American journalists.

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In the photo, the second man on the left is Abdelwahab Abdelrazak, the longest-serving staff member and the only one of the six who's still in Iraq. He’s a Shiite driver whose easygoing demeanor and loyalty to the bureau began to change as he fell under the sway of militiamen who took over his neighborhood. He began to bully Sunni staff members, switch TV sets to sectarian channels and disappear on unspecified “errands.”

When Abdelwahab’s sectarian barbs became a real problem in the office, I chose to reprimand him privately rather than to fire him. This was a man who’d whispered reassurances when we were briefly kidnapped together in Najaf, and who once knocked me to the ground to shield me from an incoming mortar round.

I believed, naively in hindsight, that our staff’s warm camaraderie would help Abdelwahab resist the pull of the militias’ money, guns and power. He continued to work with us until last year, but by then he’d drifted so far away that his formal departure was unceremonious.

Seated next to Abdelwahab in the photo is Yasser Salihee, a smiling, bespectacled young doctor-turned-reporter who would be dead exactly one year after the picture was taken.

Yasser’s killer was Army Staff Sgt. Joe Romero, an American sniper who later was convicted of possessing and distributing drugs while in Iraq. Romero told reporters he'd worried that Yasser was a car bomber when he failed to slow down at a checkpoint on June 24, 2005. Yasser was off work that day, en route to fill his car with gas so he could take his young daughter to the swimming pool.

That daughter, Dania, is now 8 and lives with her mother, a physician who remarried and moved with her husband to Colorado, joining an exodus of skilled professionals who’d been expected to lead the rebuilding of their country.

Our unflappable and beloved office manager, Omar Jassim, is next in our staff photo, with his hand resting on Yasser’s shoulder. A year later, Omar helped to retrieve Yasser’s bloody body after the shooting and then joined our other colleagues as a pallbearer at his funeral.

Omar also was the captain who righted our wayward ship after Yasser’s death, ordering us to pull it together when grief nearly collapsed the bureau. We scarcely had time to mourn before civil war erupted, with Shiites and Sunnis locked in a cycle of executions, torture, kidnappings and forced displacement.

Omar stayed in Baghdad longer than most, but only because he’d already sent his wife and children to Syria and moved into the office so he wouldn’t have to risk the daily drive through checkpoints where his Sunni name could mark him for death.

He, too, finally gave up on Iraq and signed up for a U.S. resettlement program that placed his family in Massachusetts. Omar, a bilingual, degreed engineer and gifted techie, now works the night shift at a grocery store. His wife has learned English, and his Facebook page shows photos of his adorable son and daughter dressing up for Halloween or displaying certificates they won at school.

Next to Omar in the staff photo is his younger brother, Ali Jassim, a driver who doubled as the staff prankster. Handsome and hilarious, Ali entertained us with dark jokes about the state of Iraq, such as one in which a woman whose husband has been electrocuted exclaims, “Thank God! That means there’s electricity!”

Ali maintained his sense of humor throughout the campaign of displacements, which threatened his own family, yet it was evident that his feelings toward Shiites had hardened.

After a deadly upswing in violence, Ali moved with his wife and daughters to Sweden, whose then-lax immigration laws turned the country into a haven for thousands of Iraqi refugees.

Ali thrilled in the chilly climate of his adopted country but always pined for Iraq. He decided last year to take a short vacation to Baghdad to visit his mother and other relatives he hadn’t seen since he'd moved in 2006. Days into the trip, a roadside bomb exploded near Ali and tore off his right foot. He’s returned to Sweden for good now, walking with a prosthetic leg, continuing physical therapy and reassuring us that he’s as handsome as ever.

Ali’s tragic vacation landed hard on David George, a Christian translator who’s pictured next to him. The two played merciless pranks on each other and enjoyed an interfaith friendship that would be rare to find in today’s Iraq.

Iraq's Christians figured out early on that there was no place for them in the new sectarian configuration, so they left en masse, David’s family included. He was in Jordan for a while but has lived for the past several years in Australia, struggling to find steady work. He and Ali still trade affectionate insults on Facebook.

The last Iraqi staffer pictured is another driver, Hassan Abdul Hassan, who's seated and striking a mock philosopher’s pose with a hand on his chin. Tall and lanky, he slunk around like a cat and was known in the office for sneaking naps in a spare room on slow days. He sometimes got jumpy in scary situations, though not once did he refuse an assignment or let us down on the job.

Hassan is Shiite, but he hated the militia violence as much as Sunni insurgent attacks. Neither promised a vision for the future that could convince him to stay, so he also moved to Sweden with his family in 2006. A recent photo on his Facebook page shows him at a lookout point over the Swedish coastal city of Gothenburg, embracing his wife at sunset.

Our office wasn't exceptional in these outcomes. Every household in Baghdad could offer similar stories of dashed hopes and departed loved ones. It would be much harder to find an ordinary Iraqi who today still believes the words Allawi spoke after his swearing-in, on the day our staff photo was taken in June 2004:

“We would like to express our thanks to our friends in the coalition. We want to tell them that all the sacrifices will not go in vain. We are determined to continue. We are committed. There’s no way to turn back.”

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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