A Romeo and Juliet love story from Iraq

Mike and me in Baghdad in early April, 2006. He believed in love. I wonder if he still does.
Mike and me in Baghdad in April, 2006. He believed in love. I wonder if he still does.

I met Mike when sectarian strife exploded in Baghdad in 2006. That was not his real name, of course, but it was what he went by in his job as a translator for American soldiers.

Mike and I spent several evenings chatting at a coffee shop on the vast Camp Liberty complex. He was a smart well-spoken man with Antonio Banderas looks. He told me about his life in Iraq before the war. He taught computer science at a small Baghdad college and ran a photo processing shop.

He told me about the hope he’d held in 2003 after the ouster of Saddam, after which he worked as a security guard for Kellogg, Brown & Root. Eventually he found a job as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.

But things did not progress the way he’d expected and his homeland seemed on the verge of civil war.

The Georgia Army National Guard unit I was embedded with was then patrolling the streets of southwest Baghdad. Sometimes, Mike would peer out the sliver of a bullet-proof window in the back of a  Bradley Fighting Machine and look for a small stucco house on one of the main thoroughfares.

Over coffee one day, I asked him why he stared so intently through the glass.

“Asra,” he said.

“Asra? Who is that?” I asked.

She was the woman he adored. They shared dreams. Of going to Sulaimaniyah to see snow for the first time in their lives. Of getting married, having children.

He bought American shampoo for her from the PX at Liberty. She had long, thick hair, he told me.

Sometimes, he broke Baghdad’s curfew and snuck into Asra’s house late at night. They knew they could not be seen together.

But he could no longer do that. They knew their love could bring them serious trouble.

Mike was Shiite and Asra, Sunni.

Mike was unwanted as a Montague in the house of Capulet.

Mike wished Asra would stand on her balcony when the Bradley thundered past her house. But she didn’t step outside anymore. It wasn’t safe.

A month earlier, the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra worsened the sectarian violence in Baghdad. I remember seeing bodies strewn on the streets of the capital. I could see that many had been tortured or mutilated or shot in the head, execution-style. Revenge killings soared. Neighborhoods in which Sunni and Shiite lived side by side went one way or the other. Thousands of Iraqis were driven from their homes.

I have been thinking of Mike a lot lately as I watch the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgents battle towards Baghdad. I fear there will be all-out sectarian war. Sunni against Shiite. Blood spilled on the very soil where the division began with the killing in 680 AD of Muhammad’s grandsons in Kerbala.

We may never know modern-day Iraq again. I can see how borders might get redrawn. I am not necessarily opposed to that – the lines, after all, were drawn by the British to serve colonial interests and Iraq was, in many ways, an artificially assembled nation. But it is heartbreaking to see the carnage.

ISIS makes al Qaida look friendly. There have been reports of crucifixions, mass executions and beheadings. The atrocities make Iraq look like Yugoslavia on speed. That’s how Middle East politics expert Gareth Stansfield described the situation in a recent National Geographic interview.

I wonder if Mike and Asra were ever able to be together, start the family they wanted. I don’t have any way of contacting him anymore. I wish I did.

He told me once that it made no difference to him that Asra was Sunni, though her family didn’t see it that way. He saved a huge chunk of his American paycheck every month to build a house for Asra and himself in a Baghdad neighborhood that was then still very mixed.

He knew he was fighting the odds. He told me it would take a miracle to realize his dreams in a country fraught with war. But he wasn’t going to give up — he still believed in love.

I wonder if he still feels that way.

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Remembering Ramadi as Iraq suffers again

Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.
Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.

I fought off tears as I read Sunday’s New York Times. The news from Iraq was horrifying.

A vicious civil war seems imminent as fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) point their guns toward Baghdad.

They are men who make al-Qaeda look like nice guys. And the Taliban, wimps.

They have taken over much of Nineveh province — Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tal Afar. They are now taking aim at Samarra and threatened to destroy a historic Shiite shrine there. An attack on that shrine in 2006 unleashed sectarian bloodshed. Entire neighborhoods in Baghdad and other places were ethnically cleansed.

I remember how hard it was after that to make amends.

I was in Anbar province when the Sons of Iraq program was just getting off the ground. It began with Sunni Sheik Sattar al-Rishawi who helped launch the Anbar Awakening, a movement to stop the extreme violence that had gripped Iraq’s only Sunni-majority province.

I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi "the heart of darkness."
I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi “the heart of darkness.”

Cities like Fallujah and Ramadi looked apocalyptic. I don’t think I saw a single building in Ramadi that had been spared from bullet holes.

I walked the streets of a Ramadi neighborhood called Melaab with Able Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers called the place “the heart of darkness.”

When I asked residents what it was like to live there, they glided their right index finger across their throats. Sunni insurgents brazenly beheaded people in public and distributed videos of the executions.

Ramadi, back then, was the perhaps most dangerous place on Earth. And it was widely believed that the sheiks of Anbar were supporting the insurgents.

Then they began withdrawing that tacit support. I sat with Sheik al-Rishawi’s brother, Ahmed, to understand why his family and others had come around to helping the Americans establish peace.

He showed me his camels (see the photo at the top of my blog), sipped sweet chai and told me the people were just weary from that kind of extreme violence. His own father and brothers were killed by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

He invited U.S. commanders into his palatial home and talked strategy with them. Such friendships had seemed improbable just months ago but the sheiks were determined to bring peace.

From that movement came the Sons of Iraq. Insurgents who once pointed their guns at Americans and their Shiite brethren began to help keep the killing out of their territories. During the so-called surge in U.S. troops, the Sons of Iraq program was in full swing. The Americans paid them $10 a day to keep terrorism at bay.

When the Anbar Awakening first took hold, an uneasy calm came to Ramadi. I went to a polling station where people were voting in a city council election. Amazingly, there was no gunfire that day.

Outside, Capt. Jamey Gadoury, commander of 1-9 Inftantry’s Charlie Company, took his helmet and flak jacket off. We shared lamb and rice with community leaders and members of the Iraqi police.

There were three ways to deal with insurgents, Gadoury told me as he tore a piece of bread and scooped up a chunk of meat. “You either want to kill them, make them go away or get them on your side.”

“So what happened to the Sunni insurgents here?” I asked.

Gadoury stopped chewing and grinned, as though he were onto some awful secret.

“You’re eating with them, ” he told me.

I looked around and suddenly lost my appetite.

I think of my days in Anbar now as I read the tragedy unfolding in Iraq. All that ingenuity to befriend the enemy and make peace. Where did it all go?

Many have blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for stirring Iraq’s cauldron of ethnic strife. Others have blamed President Barack Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops prematurely.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think that violence has come back with a venomous vengeance — I’ll save that for a later post.

I will only say this: my heart is broken.