It was hard to see exactly what was happening from the back seat of the beat-up armored Mercedes that was taking me to Baghdad International Airport. Through the dirty, 2-inch-thick windows I could make out four Iraqi soldiers standing on the side of the road, locked together in one big hug. I'd been watching them for a few minutes, along with my driver, Suhaib, and McClatchy's British security adviser, Kevin. Why are they hugging? I wondered.
After seven weeks in Iraq, I was less than two hours from leaving the country. Whatever was happening outside had stopped traffic, and I was wondering whether it would make me miss my flight to Amman, Jordan.
One of the soldiers broke from the hug and turned toward the traffic. He was crying. They were all crying. Kevin phoned a friend who runs the airport's security.
"It was a suicide bomber a few hours ago," he reported after he hung up. "Two Iraqi soldiers killed."
By the time we passed, the bodies and the wreckage had been cleared, but the mourners lingered. Just before we were allowed to move, two Iraqi men in civilian clothes appeared. One joined in the hugging. The other dropped to the ground, and we watched him rock back and forth in the dust with his face in his hands. "Probably relatives of the dead," Kevin speculated.
I saw a lot of people cry while I was in Iraq, but I think of the hugging soldiers and the rocking civilian most often. Maybe it was the strangeness of seeing uniformed soldiers in tears. Maybe it's because they're the last sad scene I saw before I flew away. Or maybe it's the way they made me feel: guilty, because I got to leave.
Whatever the reasons, I'm glad that I think about them, glad that their grief is my last remembrance of Iraq. Because for all the stories of reduced violence and political and social successes there, Iraq remains, for the most part, a devastated country.
It's OK to revel in what's been achieved, but only for a moment. Because the real story of Iraq, the one that deserves thoughtful attention, is about everything that's still left to accomplish there.
In the few weeks that I've been home, I've had countless conversations about Iraq. The questions people ask me are usually the same: "Do they want us there?" "What's it really like on the ground?"
On my flight back to California, the man sitting next to me wanted to know whether the U.S. is winning.
"No one in the media will just call it like they see it," he complained. "Are we winning or aren't we?" Both his question and his insistence annoyed me. I tried to explain that the yes-or-no answer he wanted doesn't exist.
Has violence dropped dramatically across Iraq? Yes, by at least 75 percent since the height of the bloodshed in 2007, according to most estimates. Is the U.S. moving closer to a time when it can safely exit Iraq? Most agree that it is. But is Iraq a stable democracy? Or stable at all? No. Will it be someday? Maybe.
And within those battles, there are other struggles to consider. Roughly half of Iraqis who want to work can't find jobs. About as many don't have reliable access to safe drinking water. Millions of children don't attend school.
Millions of families who fled their neighborhoods because of violence still haven't gone home; much of Iraq remains segregated, with Sunni and Shiite Muslims still hesitant to mix. Poverty and electricity shortages are widespread, health care is out of reach for many, and corruption and incompetence are rampant in the government ministries that are supposed to be remedying all these problems.