Military history

CHAPTER 6

Gone Forever

I WOKE UP in the shadowy cool of a palm grove in the southeastern corner of the capital and drove in at dawn. The marines had been expecting a fight but by sunrise it was clear there wasn’t any Iraqi army at all. I left the marines in the palm grove. After a few minutes I spotted some Iraqis and spun the car in their direction; they’d converged on the United Nations headquarters on the edge of town. It looked like the aftermath of an outdoor concert: paper strewn about the floors, desks overturned, windows smashed, walls punched out. The Iraqis were carrying off refrigerators and ceiling fans and boxes of UN rations, which included split-pea soup and strawberry shortcake. They were piling the stuff into the trucks the UN had left behind and they were stealing them, too. The last Iraqis were bounding up the stairs with the desperate looks of shoppers at Christmas worried there’d be nothing left.

I found an American colonel on the second floor. He was walking slowly and without much purpose; bewildered, perhaps, by the disappearance of the enemy he’d prepared for. For a time, the colonel watched the Iraqis as they carried off the last of the merchandise, and then, when it was gone, he ordered his men to close up the building. The colonel walked to the road and looked at the stream of Iraqis pushing carts laden with the offerings of a nearby department store. They were waving happily to us. “There obviously is a vacuum of public authority,” he said. Then he offered a small smile. “I wonder if they like us, or if they are just happy to loot the stuff.”

I kept driving, weaving through the throngs, without much idea where I was going. Plumes of smoke rose along the horizon. I felt the strangeness of a place in the first minutes of momentous change. I passed what appeared to be a bank; people were pawing at clouds of Iraqi dinars spiraling in the air. I stopped at the Oil Ministry. There was an American tank parked out front, making it the only government office I found that day to receive any sort of protection. Even so, the Iraqis were helping themselves, carrying off desks and lamps. The Americans looked on. The Iraqis were working together, smiling and amazed. Not everyone, though. I found myself standing next to an elderly, well-dressed man. He was shaking his head; he was already from another era. “I am here to collect my paycheck,” he said. His name was Hassan Ali. He looked at his countrymen carting out the furniture and twisted his face. “I am angry. Very angry.”

I pulled into a Sunni mosque called Al-Ani, and a throng of Iraqis backed me up against a wall and started shouting. “You’ve unleashed these people, the lowest people,” a man yelled into my face from three inches away. His breath was buffeting my face. He was referring to the looters, who he said had come from the neighborhood next door, Saddam City, a sprawling Shiite slum that contained nearly half of Baghdad, and which by the end of the week would be renamed for a famous ayatollah. “It is their religion to steal,” said a man named Ali Nasr. “This is what they preach in their mosques.” Another voice rose from behind. “Only for oil,” he said. Soon, driving some more, I came upon Ibrahim Hussein, a sixty-one-year-old taxi driver, seated in a plastic chair outside his home and taking in the view. Beyond him, the street lay abandoned, strewn with glass and metal shards. Across the road lay the Ministry of Telecommunications, smoldering from airstrikes. “These people need someone tough,” Hussein said, not rising from his chair. “A soft man will not be able to govern. He will need a stick.”

I drove some more. The faces of the Iraqis showed as much surprise as happiness, a sudden lightness in a new world none of them yet understood. Two men, Haider Jasser and Malik Salem, walked the street together and looked on at the unfolding excitement. That very morning, Jasser and Salem said, they had woken in a Baath Party jail, nursing scars from beatings they had received for crimes they claimed not to remember. An American tank had come to the prison gates, the men said, and a soldier had climbed out and told them to go home. Jasser and Salem, now free, tried their English phrases on me, tossing them out like little thank-you notes. “Hello mister,” Haider said. “Okay okay. Thank you very much. Thank you, George Bush.”

I encountered a blacksmith, Muhammad Abbas, standing with his two young children at the base of a sixty-foot statue of the Iraqi dictator. A crowd had gathered round the green copper likeness along with some American soldiers. Abbas’s eyes tilted upward in blinkered wonder as a group of marines tied a noose around the statue and began to pull. The metal Saddam was pointing upward and out.

“Good,” Abbas said, his eyes showing both pleasure and fear.

The marines gunned the engine on their personnel carrier, to which the metal Saddam was tied, and the statue tilted and bent. Abbas, warming to the exercise, urged the marines to pull harder.

“All the way down,” he said, eyes flashing.

And then Saddam snapped at the knees, and he came crashing down, and the crowd that had gathered, and Abbas, too, cheered and whooped and clapped.

“Very good,” Abbas said, reaching for his daughter and son. “A good day.”

A couple of miles away, thoroughbred racehorses were bursting out of their stables and rearing up, their eyes bulging with terror. They were tall and sleek, of great strength and the highest breeding, and their coats shimmered in the afternoon light. A crowd of Iraqis were circling, trying to corral them, and they were leading them away. “For my family,” one of them cried, hand on the reins, and the others laughed with him. I could only imagine what they meant.

The building from which the horses were escaping contained the office of the Iraqi Olympic Committee. Despite its name and the Olympic rings on its archway, the building had served as the personal fief of Uday, one of Saddam’s sons and the one with the most deranged reputation. Uday had brought his women here, whom he sometimes kidnapped from weddings. He also brought his prisoners here, sometimes athletes whom he tortured for losing their games. He had his parties at the Olympic Committee’s bar, waving his guns and cavorting with his imported prostitutes; the videos of those parties started showing up in Baghdad’s bazaars only a few weeks later. And it was the place where Uday kept the racehorses that were now rearing and screaming.

The Iraqis who were not chasing the stallions were carrying off the contents of the office: computers and rolled-up carpets and even things they appeared not to understand, like computer switchboards. One man carried a polo mallet and helmet and a pair of leather jodhpurs. A set of horseshoes dangled on his forearm. He pushed an office chair that carried a desktop computer.

Watching this scene from a few paces away was a platoon of American marines. A young lieutenant stood with his men, looking on with a troubled expression. I asked him why he was letting the Iraqis destroy the building, destroy the city. “I don’t have orders,” he said, shaking his head. “No orders.”

The lieutenant watched a little while longer and, growing more agitated, he began running back and forth along a row of his men. He said something to one of his sergeants, then something to someone else. I approached again.

“Not now,” he said. He was lining the men up in a row. I stood back. Something was going to happen. He gave an order.

“Ready, front!”

About forty marines stood at attention, looking ahead, past the Olympic Committee headquarters.

“Present, arms!

“Order, arms!”

The lieutenant turned and looked toward the Olympic Committee.

“Forward, march!”

The marines began to march toward the Olympic Committee in a wide row. The lieutenant was darting back and forth, calling “two-three-four-march.” The men carried their M-16 s at their sides, pointing them at nothing.

The column of marines moved not into the crowd but past it, with none of the marines turning their heads. Their boots struck the ground in rough unison. It was like a parade, one meant to scare the Iraqis away. As the marines passed, a couple of the Iraqis glanced over, and one or two stopped working. The rest continued plundering.

“Column, halt!” the lieutenant shouted.

The marines stopped. Next to them, a group of locals were standing in the bed of a truck, lifting an office table inside.

“About face!” the lieutenant yelled.

The marines turned on their heels.

“Ready, front!”

“Forward, march!” and the men began again, marching past the party, whose members now, on the second pass, did not bother to look up.

THE LOOTERS POURED into the cluster of clinics known as Al-Kindi, disappearing down its corridors and reemerging with medicines and beds and surgical instruments. As the men departed with their booty, new looters took their place. They came in waves. En masse they turned to one of the last untouched hospitals, a one-story building called Al-Wasiti. The mob surged then stopped at the metal gate and banged on it—bang, bang, bang, bang. They could have easily kicked it open.

Yasir Mousawi, a young doctor, sleepless after many days, was sitting quietly in a plastic chair. Hearing the banging, he rose and walked to a supply closet and took out a Kalashnikov and walked outside and fired a single shot into the air. In a few seconds the crowd was gone.

Al-Wasiti was a filthy, chaotic place, and, on this chaotic day, the best Baghdad had to offer. It was filled with patients, gun-shot, broken and deathly ill, led there by nurses and doctors from the city’s other hospitals, many of which had ceased to function. The beds were filled and dozens lay in the lobby, on tables and stretchers, wailing and gasping. Various liquids mingled on the tile floor.

In one bed lay a young man, Amran Adnan, nineteen, shot through the head while he sat on his front porch. No one seemed to know what had happened; perhaps, his parents said, it was the neighborhood men celebrating the return of electricity by firing their guns. Adnan lay in his bed, blinded, his head and face covered in gauze. His parents sat at his side, while Adnan’s thirteen-year-old brother, Muhammad, waved away the flies.

“His eyes burst,” Dr. Nuis Hassab said, looking on.

His parents turned to me. “Can you take him to America? In America they can restore his vision. Can you take him?”

In another room was Abdul Wali, fifteen, whose intestines and stomach had been shredded by an American cluster bomb. Doctors said he would recover. Still, the frustration among the doctors seemed to be swelling with the disorder in the halls.

“We are using medicines here that are of only historical interest in the West,” Dr. Ahmed Abdullah said. He was slumped behind his desk. “And without electricity we have no water, and we cannot sterilize our instruments. The nurses, they hand them to me and tell me they are clean, but I don’t believe them.

“I don’t believe anything,” Dr. Abdullah said, shaking his head. “I don’t believe anything.”

At 1 p.m. a man was carried inside the hospital’s lobby bleeding from his neck and shoulder. The orthopedists and plastic surgeons sprang toward the new patient. With no emergency room, they began working on the man in the lobby itself, amid the wailing patients who had filled it to overflowing.

The man’s name was Kamal Sultan. The doctors flailed about with their outdated equipment. They massaged Sultan’s chest, and his heart murmured and skipped. They soaked up his blood with bandages and napkins, but it kept spilling onto the floor.

“Electricity!” one of the doctors shouted, his hands and forearms soaked in Sultan’s blood. “Where is the electricity?”

Amid the chaos, one of the orderlies wheeled a suction machine to the foot of Sultan’s stretcher, hoping to clear his lungs of water and blood. But the plastic machine refused to start without the electricty. Where is the generator? someone asked.

Sultan, with one shoe on and the other on the floor, clung to the last bits of his life. The orderly wheeled up another suction device, trailing a tangle of extension cords and plugs and exposed wires. He knelt down to find a connection.

“Where is the electricity?” the doctor yelled again, as the nurses beat and worked Sultan’s chest.

In twenty minutes, Sultan was dead.

“Finished,” one of the doctors said.

I discovered that Sultan had been sitting in his car at an intersection in Baghdad when an unidentified man approached and fired. In Sultan’s pockets, the doctors found $ 4, 500 in American bills, an impossible sum for an ordinary Iraqi.

Sultan’s sister entered the hospital, spotted his body, threw herself on top of it and began to wail.

I saw a couple of Iraqis step toward the door, and I followed them outside. It was a father and his daughter. Halla Ibrahim, age six, had fallen down while playing in her yard, and her father had brought her here to have a splint placed on her tiny arm. Al-Wasiti was, after all, an orthopedic hospital.

“I’ve been trying to calm her down,” Hamad Ibrahim said. “She is terrified of the dying. She is terrified of the soldiers and their guns. She is afraid of the bombs.”

He ran his hand through his daughter’s hair. Halla was holding her father by the pants leg.

“She is a quiet girl,” Hamad said, himself thirty-five. “I’m an old man, and these things I can’t bear.”

AMAL AL-KHEDAIRY STOOD in the ruins of her waterfront home and cursed the people who had rained the bombs on her. Hers was a full-throated, almost lunatic fury, sharpened by the Western-educated voice that carried it. For years, Khedairy had run Baghdad’s most luminous artistic center, one that flourished under Saddam. It was a place dedicated to bringing the worlds of Occident and Orient together.

“This is our American liberation!” said Khedairy, seventy, as she waded through the half-burned books of her second-story library. “I never thought you would do it. I went to the American School. I believed in your moral values. And every night you bombed. Every night, I ran through the streets, an old woman in my nightgown. Look at my library!”

In a city of flat, squat buildings spare of trees and greenery, Khedairy’s home was a luxurious island: two levels, floor-to-ceiling windows, a garden full of jasmine and bougainvillea and date palms. The Tigris River meandered past her backyard.

Khedairy’s house was in Suleik, one of Baghdad’s wealthier enclaves, known for its intellectuals. The house was filled with cultural artifacts, or it had been. I thumbed through recordings of Beethoven and Wagner among the antiquated LPs; there were collections of Turkish and Arabic music as well. A handcrafted wooden grille formed one of the walls of the sitting room, and the books on her shelves included works on Oriental architecture and French literature.

Khedairy’s house sat just across the Tigris from the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police, and this was her misfortune. Night and day for weeks the bombs fell there, most of them finding their target, some of them not. At least one had missed; the back end of Khedairy’s house was splayed open to the world. The windows were shattered, the rain had come in and the LPs and the books had been blown apart and scattered.

“I want you to come and see what they have done to my institute,” she said, tugging on my shirt. The institute was downtown, a mile or so away. “It’s all gone: the paintings, the piano, the carpets, the music. All looted by these animals. Our liberation!”

For weeks, Khedairy said, she fled her home when the bombing started, dashing to a friend’s house blocks away, where she felt safer.

This was not the first time Khedairy had returned to her home since the invasion, now a week old. Nor was it the first time she had seen the wreckage. During the invasion, she had returned every day to her garden to water the plants and palms. Perhaps it was my unexpected entrance into her home, the appearance of an American, that had set her emotions tumbling. As I stood by, she ranted and wept amid the ruins of her home, picking up a tattered book here, a record album there.

“We will kill them all one day, Rumsfeld and every one of them,” she said. “Look at what they have done to my library.”

I felt bad for Khedairy but I wondered how she had flourished under Saddam. Perhaps this was unfair, perhaps it was malicious of me, but I couldn’t help but wonder. The Mukhabarat building lay just down the street. I meant to ask Khedairy, but she was lost in misery and confusion and I thought that it was perhaps not the best time to inquire.

We sat on her couch. Khedairy was a graduate of London University, a professor who had taught the literature of Britain and France. The bombing of her house, the ransacking of her cultural center and the looting of the national museum were all connected, Khedairy said. They were evidence of an American plan to deface her country’s culture and steal its treasures.

“Why else would they do this?” she asked.

For all the bombs, Khedairy’s house—and Khedairy’s neighborhood—had not yet been looted. But the thieves were coming closer. For the past two weeks a group of her neighbors, armed with guns, had stood guard over their houses. But Khedairy believed that her home would not be safe for much longer. In recent days, she said, American soldiers had moved closer to her neighborhood, and Khedairy was convinced that they would allow the looters to roam freely through her home.

“They follow the tanks,” Khedairy said. “The Americans come in, and they let the looters do as they wish. That is what they did at the museum. That is what they did at my institute. My neighborhood is next.”

Not all of Khedairy’s anger was directed at foreigners; she had saved a good deal of it for her fellow Iraqis. As we arrived at the steps of her cultural center, she surprised a half-dozen Iraqi men picking over the last of the artifacts and paintings that had not been stolen.

“My God, I’ll kill you!” she growled, and the young men scampered out the door. In her anger, Khedairy picked up a piece of broken pottery and hurled it into the back of one of the men. “How could this nation produce such sons?”

The devastation wrought by the looters was complete: books and sheet music lay scattered across the floor, lamps and fans had been torn from the ceiling. Upstairs, a recent exhibit of artwork by Iraqi and Japanese children lay in tatters.

Khedairy paused before a decorative wrought-iron door, one of the few things that appeared intact. She fingered it, studied it, swung the thing on its hinge.

“I will have to save this,” she said, “before someone takes it.”

I PULLED UP TO the gates of the presidential palace in Tikrit just before the marines. It was a stately, magnificent place, taking up two miles along the Tigris. There were ninety buildings in all, including homes, offices, hotels and servant quarters. For all the upheaval outside, swans and ducks were still swimming in its lakes.

I stepped into Saddam’s personal study, a wide room of marble floors, cathedral windows and magnificent carpets. The room was empty and quiet. There, on a shelf, sat The Collected Works of Saddam Hussein, volumes 1 through 10, barely cracked. In the next room was a tablet of paper, imposing in its plainness, labeled simply “The President.” In the bathroom were signs of a hurried exit: a cabinet door open, a crumpled towel on the floor, a pair of men’s boxer shorts still hanging on the rack.

I was joined by a group of Iraqis, locals who’d never set foot in the place.

“All my life I have dreamed of this palace,” said Ahmed Farhan, a twenty-two-year-old student. He looked at a chandelier and ran his hands along the books. “We were never allowed to see this.”

Farhan and I walked together down a long marble hallway; I tried to see the place through his eyes. He wore a white dishdasha and sandals. He said his father owned a small farm about a mile away. Farhan walked wide-eyed down the corridor, stopping here and there to admire something.

“I didn’t know anyone could lead such a life,” he said.

He spotted an Arabic romance novel, with a pouting, large-breasted brunette reclining on its cover, and he picked it up. He pocketed some AA batteries for his shortwave radio. But that was all.

The first marines came trickling in. For a few hours, everyone walked together amid the splendor, Americans and Iraqis, everyone wearing the same astonished looks. There were cavernous ceilings, massive chandeliers and dining tables long enough to seat a hundred people. All of it was plated in gold or bedecked in sequins or spangles or panels of oak.

“Wow, this looks like Las Vegas,” a young American captain said, standing on a balcony and looking out on the panoramic grounds.

Within a couple of hours, the serious looters arrived. They carried away carpets and stoves, paintings and gilded chairs. I found an Iraqi man, Maaruf Hussein, loading his car. He had been rummaging around one of the palace’s meeting rooms. He had come to furnish his house. Into his battered taxi he had loaded a half-dozen Persian carpets and several boxes of lamps and fixtures. His prize, though, was a refrigerator, which he had strapped to the roof of his car.

“I never had a refrigerator, and today I took one,” Hussein told me. “I’m going to put cold water in it for my wife. Maybe I will take the day off tomorrow.”

Hussein said he would not allow himself to be burdened by guilt for taking the Iraqi president’s belongings.

“Nobody likes to steal, and everyone would like to live in a wealthy country,” Hussein said. “But he never made us feel like we were part of the country.”

Which brought Hussein around to the carpets he had put on top of his car.

“I am going to put them down in my house,” he said, “and whenever someone comes and walks on them, I will tell them that these came from Saddam Hussein’s palace.”

THE CROWD WAS STILL gathered round the Abu Hanifa mosque. The battle had ended hours before. Whoever it was the Americans had been trying to kill had fought ferociously and driven away. One marine had been killed and twenty more people wounded. The Americans said they’d found a meeting of “regime leadership,” which was shorthand for Saddam Hussein. The Americans were gone. It was April 10, 2003. Twilight. The regime had collapsed the day before.

“Saddam was here, and I kissed him,” an Iraqi man said, stepping out of the throng. He spoke in a gravelly voice and his eyes were rimmed with blood. He was surrounded by a group of men with matted hair and matted clothes. “He got out of his car. We shook hands and kissed him. There were two hundred people here.”

The Iraqis looked on warily, keeping their distance. I sensed their hostility and kept the car’s motor running after I’d stepped into the street. The neighborhood, Adamiyah, bore fresh marks from the battle in the shattered windows and the shot-up storefronts. In the distance, I saw an American boot. Adamiyah had been a neighborhood favored by Saddam’s officers.

The Iraqi man continued in his hoarse voice. Saddam had arrived yesterday, in the afternoon, in a convoy of thirty cars that included his son Qusay and the Iraqi defense minister, Sultan Hashem Ahmed. The Americans were still in the center of town, seizing the ministries, and had not yet made it to the northern end. Saddam had climbed onto the top of his sedan, then stepped into the adoring crowd.

“Then the Americans came and Saddam fought like a knight,” another man said. “They retreated like women.”

In my left ear I heard a high-pitched sound growing louder with the seconds, moving fast, and as I turned toward the whistle I saw a black line, a black streak moving, streaking into Abu Hanifa’s dome. I felt the air suck me in and away and then out and back and the minaret disappeared in a cloud. The ground shook from the explosion and I fell backwards and so did the Iraqis. I was stunned and they were, too. The Iraqis looked at me and I looked at them and they looked at their beloved Abu Hanifa and a voice rose from the crowd: “Do you see what your country has done!” I was already diving into the car, and the crowd was throwing cans and rocks as I sped away.

image

THE GROUND WAS parched and without life and the sky held no clouds, only the sun. Saddam Hussein’s family gathered round the graves in an open field in the dictator’s hometown. Some wore kafiyas to shield their skin. There were two hundred men, and by their broken-down cars and shabby clothes they looked like the poor relations of a powerful family. They stood in unhappy silence as one of the leaders of Saddam’s tribe delivered the eulogy.

“O God, welcome Uday and Qusay as martyrs on the day of judgment,” intoned Sheikh Ali al-Nida, the head of the Bani al-Nasiri tribe. “Give them a soft place to rest in the earth, open the grave wider for them, and let each become your son.”

The bodies had stunk and the faces had been unrecognizable when the Americans took them from their refrigerated containers and handed them over earlier that day. It wasn’t just the bullets and shrapnel the Americans had poured into the house in Mosul where the brothers had fled with Qusay’s fourteen-year-old son, Mustafa. It was also the freakish funeral-parlor restoration job they had done on their faces, in a sorry effort to convince the Iraqis that the sons of Saddam were dead. So the metal coffins were closed, the faces of Uday and Qusay without burial shrouds.

“In Islam, this is not the way you bury a martyr,” Nida told me. “The Americans have not allowed us to have a proper ceremony.”

American soldiers had spent the morning turning away Iraqis who had tried to attend the funeral, but the moment the ceremony got under way the Americans departed. The Tikriti soil was baked so hard from the heat that an Iraqi man connected a jackhammer to a gasoline-powered generator and made the graves that way. Then the pallbearers lifted the coffins, and Saddam’s friends and family could no longer contain themselves.

“Our blood, our souls, we’ll sacrifice for Saddam!” the family members cried, repeating the line again and again.

The bodies went into the ground and the men gathered around, all of them pressing in. Each of them leaned over and picked up one of the bricks of hard-rock earth and threw it on the coffins. The rocks banged off the coffins and fell into the graves. Some of the men stood back.

“O Uday and Qusay, angels will be visiting you in your house in Heaven,” one of the men said. “They will ask you, ‘Who is your God?’ and you will tell them Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet.”

The Iraqis crouched on their knees and lined up in prayer to mark the end of the ceremony. As they finished, one of them rose from his knees and cried out, jabbing his finger at me and Tyler Hicks, the photographer who accompanied me.

“Death to America!” he shouted, with roars of assent from the others. “Death to America!”

The men rose and the crowd began to move, and it was growing louder, rapidly approaching the moment when it would transform itself into a beast, its individual parts absolved by the actions of the whole. I heard angry chatter all around me.

“Let’s go kill some Americans,” one man said to his friend. “Just like we did before.”

As Tyler and I made for the car, one of the Iraqis stopped me and put his hand on my shoulder.

“We will make the Americans leave this country on their knees,” he said. “Just you watch.”

Video

THE ARMORED CARS were wheeling up to the office building where the insurgents were trapped. The Americans began firing their cannons before they had even braked, encircling the building fast as if they thought it was going to run away. The insurgents were shooting back. I could feel the wind of their bullets flying up the street. I moved in closer.

A Humvee was burning. It was sending up billows of flames and black fog and crumbling into itself. The soldiers had parked it in the middle of the street in the middle of the day in the middle of Karada, as nice as any neighborhood in Baghdad, and gone into Al-Warda to shop for candy and sodas. It was like a 7 -Eleven in the United States. The insurgents had been waiting for them in the office building across the street, on one of the high floors. When the soldiers cut the engine on their Humvee the insurgents fired their rocket-propelled grenade from an open window and the Humvee exploded.

“Hey this guy’s legs have been blown off!” a soldier yelled as he ran behind an armored car. Two more soldiers came in crouched behind him, dragging the bloody mess.

The insurgents had stayed put. They’d ambushed the Americans and then waited for more soldiers to arrive so they could fight it out with them and then die. I walked in closer, pressed against the windows of the shops, which were pulsating against my flattened palms. Bullets were flying in every direction, yet when I looked up I saw the locals immersed in their routines. A woman was hanging laundry from her window, sheets and T-shirts. An ice cream shop was selling cones.

I slipped into a video store to get out of the shooting and found it filled with young Iraqis. They were dressed in tennis shirts and a couple of them were discussing a videotape to rent. They looked frightened at my presence so I went back into the street and as I did an American soldier who was sticking out of the hatch on his armored car turned around and looked at me and waved his arms at me to get back, get back. I kept moving toward him and he fired his gun over my head. “Get the fuck back,” he shouted. I stopped, not retreating but not moving forward, and he turned back to the battle.

In a couple of minutes the shooting stopped and the Americans drove away, leaving the neighborhood burning and smoking. They towed the Humvee but left the building aflame, belching and sputtering like a spent Roman candle. I stepped back into the video store. Everyone was still there.

“Me, I love the American people,” Atheer al-Ani, the owner, told me. He stood behind the counter. Like others hanging around his shop that day, Ani spanned many worlds. His mother and sister lived in Chicago. He stocked mostly American films. He was wearing a yellow Izod tennis shirt. “These people who do this have no minds, no minds,” Ani said. “They’re stupid.”

Still, Ani was flustered by the firefight that had just unfolded in this normally lovely neighborhood. He turned to a friend.

“Who are they fighting for, Saddam?” he asked his friend. “Saddam is finished. Right?”

“Right,” said the friend. “Finished.”

The Kiss

I PULLED ON my running shoes and stepped into the street. It was a Thursday in July, twilight and well over 100 degrees. I was feeling a little reckless. If this ended badly, the only thing anyone would remember was how stupid I was.

We’d set up The New York Times office on Abu Nawas Street; there we lived and worked. It was an Ottoman-style house, with a gated yard and a veranda on the second floor that looked out on a boulevard that tracked the eastern bank of the Tigris River. In those first days, we didn’t fortify the place: no razor wire or blast walls, no watchtowers or machine guns mounted on the roof. Cars motored past our front yard on their way to the Jumhuriyah Bridge a couple of miles up the road.

In the beginning, Baghdad wasn’t that threatening. The other houses around us were either abandoned or rented by foreigners: the French Embassy and the BBC were around the corner. And the Iraqis in the neighborhood were unusually friendly, waving whenever we passed. Running at night seemed reckless, but given the otherworldly heat, running during the day was impossible.

So I set off. The reaction of my neighbors was immediate. Men looked up and waved, they held up bottles of water as I ran by. “Good, good!” one man said in English. “America good!” Abu Nawas was lined with fish restaurants that overlooked the Tigris; as I passed, men held up chunks of masgouf, their beloved bony fish, and asked me to join them. Children stopped their soccer games and ran after me; even the stray dogs gave pursuit. I felt I was living the scene in Rocky II, when the character played by Sylvester Stallone goes for a training run in his Philadelphia neighborhood and all the children clamor after him.

I started running that same route every evening after that, usually well into twilight, but early enough that the streets were still filled with people. My reception was always the same: cheering crowds, squealing children and happy stray dogs. In an odd but real way, my five-mile runs up Abu Nawas Street made me wonder what the war in Iraq was about. All day long reporting in the country I encountered hostility and chaos, which was intense and growing and real. And yet at night when I hit the streets, in the fall of 2003, I could not find a trace of it. It was as if the city, in the heat of the afternoon, had exhausted itself, only to lighten with the setting sun.

One day early on, a young Iraqi boy ran up alongside me. He had been kicking a ball along Abu Nawas, and as I came running he left his friends and started running next to me in his bare feet. The locals sometimes did that, but usually they dropped off after 50 yards. The Iraqi boy, who was perhaps nine years old, kept running the two and a half miles to the Jumhuriyah Bridge; as I turned to run back on a trail along the Tigris, he dropped off to wave goodbye.

A few days later, at twilight, the same boy appeared again, picking up the trail along the Tigris. His name, he said, was Hassan. We ran together for a while, me in my running shoes, he in his bare feet. Hassan motioned across the Tigris, toward the sprawling compound that once housed Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace and which was now the headquarters of the American occupation. The Green Zone.

“Saddam house,” he said.

We ran together some more, and Hassan motioned again across the river.

“Now, Bush house.”

One night, without warning, a wall of razor wire went up across Abu Nawas Street. Somebody somewhere had decided that the Sheraton Hotel, which sat just 100 yards away, was too easy a target for the car bombers, who had just begun striking the city. A barricade now stood between me and the rest of the neighborhood. All traffic ceased.

A few days later, sensing the disruption they had caused, the Americans made an opening in the razor wire so pedestrians could walk through. I resumed my running, but I never saw Hassan again.

One afternoon later in the summer, another Iraqi youngster pulled alongside me as I made my way down the street. She, like Hassan, was about nine years old. Her name was Fatima, she said, huffing next to me and looking up with enormous brown eyes. She wore sandals, and she was very dirty. She kept up the pace.

Fatima and I ran for a couple of miles, her sandals making a scraping sound on the pavement. After a time, she indicated that she needed a rest. We stopped at one of the open-air fish restaurants. Everyone seemed to know Fatima; she seemed to know them.

A man walked out onto the sidewalk, put a hand on Fatima’s shoulder and ran a finger across his neck. “Mother, father finished,” the man said. He pointed to the sky, as if to suggest they had been killed by bombs.

“Fatima live here,” the man said, gesturing with his hand to encompass the restaurant and its environs.

Then a second man walked up, twisted Fatima around and gave her a long and ugly kiss on her lips. He laughed and walked away. Fatima looked at me with very sad eyes, and I suggested that it was time to go.

We ran some more and then, after a time, Fatima stopped. She looked up at me one last time.

“Bye-bye. Tomorrow, OK?” Fatima said, and she turned and walked up the street. I never saw her again.

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