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Iraqi voices: As U.S. withdraws last troops, the people speak

Editor's note: Photojournalist Kael Alford spent 10 months covering the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath in 2003-2004. She returned this summer to report this Photoblog series. (This post includes a graphic image)

By Kael Alford

The question Americans ask me most often about Iraq is how have the lives of Iraqis changed due to the war? Have we helped them? Are they enjoying more freedom of expression, more security, more prosperity and a brighter future thanks to the U.S. intervention?

Those are tough questions that defy “yes” or “no” answers. But over the next seven days, I will offer some insight into the status of Iraq and its people through a series of vignettes, profiles and photos that I reported in June and July of this year.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Smoke from burning oil drifts over the Euphrates River as seen from the Highway to Falluja. Shortly after the U.S. invasion, oil pipelines and infrastructure became targets of sabotage by Iraqi insurgents.

There are many ways to quantify the price the U.S. paid for the invasion and occupation of Iraq:
•    Nearly 4,500 Americans killed and scores of thousands of veterans’ lives forever transformed by lost limbs, traumatic brain injuries and life-changing psychological impacts.
•    The financial costs: more than $800 billion and counting for the U.S.  war itself, and a huge burden on the veterans’ health-care system for many years to come.

But those calculations only begin to tell the story, and they don’t take into consideration the flip side of the equation: What about Iraqis?

A conservative estimate is that 100,000 Iraqis have been killed as a result of violence since the invasion and some informed estimates put those numbers much higher. The civil war that followed the invasion has abated though lower levels of sectarian and politically motivated violence continue.

Since the American deposition of Saddam Hussein indicators of Iraqi well-being show some improvements but paint a mixed picture. The future of democracy in Iraq is tenuous and much depends on what happens next.  I reported in Iraq this summer seeking a more nuanced perspective from Iraqis themselves.

Courtesy of Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Photojournalist Kael Alford in Najaf, Iraq, August 2003, during battles between U.S. forces and the Jaish Al-Mehdi.

When I left Iraq in 2004, foreign journalists and aid workers were being targeted by groups ranging from nationalist militias to home grown groups affiliated with al-Qaida.

The violence later expanded to include Iraqi journalists, politicians, doctors, college professors and professors and everyday citizens, who were subjected to kidnappings, sectarian murders and massive bombings.

When I returned this summer, the violence had diminished but was once again climbing.  On the morning of my arrival in Baghdad, a loud explosion shook me awake. At first I thought it was a nightmare, but a characteristic second explosion a few minutes later confirmed I wasn’t dreaming. The target was a Turkish restaurant across the street from the compound where I was staying. No motive was known, and luckily no one was injured at that early hour.  A week later, even the shattered glass of the nearby windows had been replaced and life returned to normal.

There were other incidents during my stay, including the murder of an American professor who was contracted by USAID to cultivate entrepreneurial education at Baghdad University. He was killed when his convoy was struck by a car bomb. And the violence has increased steadily since I left Iraq in July.

Sami, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who drove me while I reported, never left his car unattended for fear that an infamous “sticky” bomb might be placed under the carriage. I limited my time in each location and didn’t return to the same place often or follow any discernable routines. Taking photos on the street usually brought the attention of Iraqi police, who -- anxious about any form of surveillance -- detained me and pored over my documents.

I rarely walked outdoors in public except in areas we knew well, and could count the number of western journalists in Baghdad on two hands. Other than journalists and one freelance human rights observer I knew, no foreign diplomats or aid workers ventured outdoors without heavily armed escorts. A young American embassy worker I met in the “Green Zone” -- the heavily fortified village of bureaucrats and politicians where the remaining American officials reside and the Iraqi government does its business -- called all of Iraq outside the fortified compound the “Red Zone.”  I never ran into trouble, but each journey felt like a safari into unknown territory because security in Iraq is always in flux. You’re safe, until you’re not.

But in the midst of this troubled landscape, I also was met with kindness and hospitality.

I can’t count the number of times Iraqis welcomed me into their homes, offices, conferences, shops and restaurants and told me their stories. With only a few exceptions, people were eager to share their experiences with an American journalist and to host a foreign guest. These visits always happened behind closed doors, away from the watchful eyes of the street.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Pilgrims pass through Firdos Square, Baghdad, June 2011, as viewed from the Palestine Hotel. Firdos Square was where U.S. Marines famously toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein with the help of a tank on the day they arrived in central Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The Palestine hotel stands behind blast walls. The hotel housed foreign journalists during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The hotel became a target for terrorist attacks in the years during the U.S. occupation when foreign journalists and contractors stayed at the hotel which was struck by a massive bombing in 2007. The hotel has recently been renovated in the summer of 2011 and is now open for business.

One family I most wanted to find again, I had never spoken to. All I had was a photograph I’d made in March 2003, in the neighborhood of Shoala on the outskirts of Baghdad, during the initial American air campaign. In the picture, three men cried over the body of an 8-year-old girl lying on a slab of marble in the back room of a mosque. She had been killed when an explosion ripped through a market where she was shopping with her family –apparently caused by an American missile gone awry.

I returned to the Shoala market on the last day of my trip and showed the photograph to the first person we saw, who happened to be the doctor who pronounced the girl dead. Hours later I was sitting in the living room of those men in my picture. We looked at each other as if we all might be ghosts. They begged me for copies all the images I had of that day. They wanted to know, did I have any photographs of their mother? She was also killed in the attack, along with a sister-in-law.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Ahmer, Ali and Mohammed Al-Mousewi with the body of their 8-year-old sister Zahra who was killed in a missile strike on an outdoor market in Shoala, Iraq, March 28, 2003. The brothers' mother and sister-in-law were also killed. The attack left more than 50 people dead, according to Iraqi officials. Journalists for the Independent Newspaper in the U.K. have uncovered strong evidence that suggests the bombing was a U.S. missile gone astray during the U.S. air campaign that preceded the American invasion of Iraq.

They brought a 9-year-old into the room, their niece who had survived the blast as an infant, sheltered by the body of her dead mother. The girl’s ice blue eyes tore the fabric of time, her young body counting the years that had passed since that day.
One brother asked if I could help find a doctor who might treat his daughter with a speech defect caused by a palate malformation that no doctors in Iraq could repair. “She is a girl, and in Iraq girls with defects do not find husbands,” he said.  Before I left their house, the men asked Sami if he’d make a photograph of me and the family together, in a gesture that said our lives, however distant, are connected. 

In the week ahead I will share other scenes like this, drawn from a tenuous, hospitable and resilient country. As the last American troops leave Iraqi soil, the future of our relationship with Iraq begins a new chapter.

Editor's note: This project was supported by a Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion.

More from the series:

Introduction: As U.S. withdraws, the people speak
For 'the Sheik,' U.S. pullout is cause for alarm
Patchwork electrical grid a symbol of country's disconnects
A new day for culture and consumer goods
For women, freedoms under fire
Suspicious minds in a squatters' camp

Colonel helped with the ‘Surge,’ then his past came calling

Related stories:

Koppel: Is the U.S. really leaving Iraq?
Engel: A look at the US bases, Iraqi troops and other legacies of the US presence