A long, divisive war will soon be over

Georgia  soldiers patrolled western Baghdad in 2006

President Barack Obama made a stunning announcement Friday. The war in Iraq would be over in December when virtually all of the remaining 40,000 U.S. troops will pull out and come home

After nine long, divisive years, the Iraq war is finally coming to an end.

I am glad for all those troops who will come home before the holidays to hug their friends and loved ones. 
I am concerned about the future security of Iraq — many of my friends in Baghdad still live in fear.

And, I feel strange that the war will no longer be a headline. It has been so much a part of my life — from my first trip in 2002 under the controlled environment of Saddam Hussein’s information ministry to my last journey there with so-called surge units in 2008.

The night that the United States began “shock and awe,” it was pouring in Atlanta. I rushed in the rain to the Woodruff Arts Center from the Atlanta Constitution newsroom to cover a ceremony honoring Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize.

I lived in this tent for almost four months at Camp Striker in 2005.
I remember sitting there, amid nobly dressed ladies and gentlemen beaming with pride, taking in the pomp and ceremony of the evening.

But my mind was elsewhere.

I thought of my friends Salar Jaff and Hala Araim. Were they alright? Had they fled Baghdad? How many people were cowering in fear that night? How many suffered?

It was only a month later when I arrived in Iraq that I found the answers to my questions.

Less than a week after the U.S. bombing started, the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team from Fort Stewart was about 100 miles outside the Iraqi capital. They had raced through the harsh Iraqi desert and were eying Baghdad, once the crown jewel of the Middle East.

I met up with some of them in April. Little did they know then how things would transpire in Iraq. In the first weeks of American occupation, the soldiers traveled in soft-skinned Humvees without fear of being blown up.

I thought about the first days of euphoria after the fall of Saddam as I listened to Obama from the CNN newsroom today. In another country not far from Iraq, the same kind of jubilation was unfolding on the streets.

Will Libya succeed in enforcing security so it can get on with the task of building democracy? Or will it turn into terror as Iraq did?

No one can answer such questions with any certainty, of course. We will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, to all my Iraqi friends and the many soldiers and Marines I met over the course of nine years: I raise my glass to your courage. 

Leaving Iraq

The last of the 4,000 soldiers in the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait Thursday. There are no U.S. more combat brigade teams left in Iraq. All is going seemingly well for President Barack Obama’s plan to pull to leave just 50,000 troops there by September.

Hard to think about how it was then.

By then, I mean seven years ago, when the United States invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and U.S. soldiers deployed in droves.

In 2003, I looked at the American Humvees and Abrams tanks rolling through Baghdad. The soldiers wore aviator glasses and pointed their M-16s triumphantly. I stood among crowds of Iraqis and like them, pondered the course of history.

I did not know then that more than 4,000 of those soldiers would die in Iraq, along with thousands of Iraqis, many of them caught in the middle of dirty urban warfare.

By the time I returned as an embedded reporter in 2005, Americans ruled the landscape.

Camp Liberty was a sprawling American base with air-conditioning, movie theaters, stores, restaurants and other amenities the Iraqis lacked. Even now, Iraqis say they have no electricity or other basic services. A young lieutenant who was waiting to catch a plane with me on the military side of the Baghdad airport told me that if the Americans could deliver electricity, they would win the war.

In a way, he was right. By 2008, Iraqis asked me why the world’s superpower could not give them something as basic as power.

This year, protests erupted over the lack of power. In a land where temperatures soar to 120-plus in the summer, it’s hard to live without a fan. Only two-thirds of Iraqi have their electricity needs met — in Baghdad, it averages to four hours a day.

I thought about the day when I returned to my tent at Camp Striker and the AC unit had shut off. I sat on my cot dripping buckets of sweat and and tried to imagine life for Baghdadis outside the camp.

Seven years after the war, basic services are still a problem in Iraq.

So is insecurity.

Many people like to point to the drop in violence as a marker for success in the war. But my Iraqi friends still worry about stepping out with their children.

A car bomb exploded in Ramadi Wednesday night, killing two people. That may not sound like a lot compared to the height of the war when hundreds died each month. But when it is your husband or your mother, it’s everything.

Another 48 people died Tuesday in an attack outside a military recruiting center in Baghdad.

When will the killing end in Iraq? When the Americans are gone? When the Americans are still there?

When will the government be formed? It has been almost six months since the parliamentary elections and still there are no agreements on forming a new government.

“Iraq is still at the beginning of the story of its evolution since 2003,” Ryan Crocker, the former American ambassador to Iraq, told CNN.

I cannot pretend to be an expert on Iraq and pass judgment on this day being hailed as another milestone in post-Saddam history.

Today, I am in the comfort of my Atlanta home, thinking back to all the suffering I saw in the past.

I think especially of Dahlia, a young girl I met in the barren fields of dust and scrub near Nasiriyah. She was walking testament to her name: Dahlia. A bright flower in the midst of drab.

She wore a crimson and lemon yellow printed robe, her head was covered in a black scarf – at 10, she was old enough to respect the modesty taught by her culture. She stood barefoot in front of a lone U.S. Humvee that stopped before entering the gates of Camp Cedar.

Dahlia’s father was killed by Saddam, she told me. She never went to school — there were no schools nearby. She lived in a makeshift tent with her mother and brother.

I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. “Nothing,” she said, as though she knew her fate was bound to the bleak sands of southern Iraq, that she would never break out of poverty.

She thought for a while longer. “I want to work at Cedar.”

That was in 2006. The U.S. military closed Cedar shortly after I met Dahlia. Now so many more of those bases are gone.

No, today, I cannot share in the optimism of all those who hail Iraq a success. I think of the hundreds of Dahlias I met in the midst of war.

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