Mike Tharp: How Iraq breaks your heart

07/11/2009 1:47 AM

07/12/2009 11:30 AM

BAGHDAD -- Hope is not a plan.

That's the title of a book by Thomas Mowle, a series of first-person accounts by senior U.S. military officers in Baghdad in 2004-2005.

It's also the mantra of troops serving now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And it should've been in the front of my mind last Wednesday as I conceived a story, slugged "One Week." It was going to be about the relative calm throughout Iraq the first week after U.S. combat forces withdrew from major Iraqi cities June 30.

The numbers supported the idea. Our Baghdad bureau compiles and keeps a running account of Iraqi casualties, the Daily Violence Report. It's based on their own reporting as well as that of stringers stationed strategically across the country. The number of dead and maimed, apart from a horrific bombing in Kirkuk on the pullout date itself, had declined year-to-year.

An American officer responded to my request about U.S. casualties during the first week of the new security arrangement. Unlike Vietnam, where enemy body counts (often noncombatants) and U.S. losses were calculated almost as they were reported, the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn't publicize losses -- ours or theirs. Or the innocent victims/collateral damage.

Before he retired in August 2003, Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of Coalition Forces in Iraq during the invasion, once famously said, "We don't do body counts."

Even so, this week the U.S. officer directed me to two Web sites that proved extremely useful in determining that June 30 to July 7, no U.S. military people had died in Iraq; the number of wounded also was dramatically lower than the first week of July a year ago.

Then Mohammed, one of our Baghdad reporters, and I took a taxi ride. He said it was a first for a Baghdad bureau chief or, like me, a rotating correspondent for McClatchy. That's because, for security reasons, we travel in a car with one of our bureau drivers, always trailed by a "chase" car in case the fit hits the shan.

Riding in a taxi -- even if the safety numbers looked good -- meant rolling the dice. Putting yourself in the hands of a stranger. But we rolled 'em. Taxi driver Shakir Mahmoud drove us through the International Zone (IZ, or the so-called Green Zone), a heavily fortified area of Baghdad housing the huge U.S. embassy, senior military and Iraqi officialdom.

(Mohammed called in the driver's name and license plate number to the bureau, just in case.)

For two hours, including an hour in the taxi, we drove around central Baghdad. Where once American soldiers had manned checkpoints, sped through traffic by forcing Iraqis to the curb and jammed intersections with long convoys, it was quiet. No signs of Americans. Iraqi national police and army officers stood at the checkpoints. Private security guards monitored IZ posts where sergeants and specialists once stood guard.

The story was looking smarter.

It looked and sounded good, in fact, right up to 8 p.m. Baghdad time, 9 a.m. in Merced. I'd already written and filed it.

Then Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, blew up. Literally. At least six bombs exploded around the northern city, killing 14 and wounding 44 more. I'd written that the lull may have been just that -- a lull.

How I wish that CYA line, standard in journalistic stories, hadn't been needed.

So I rewrote the top of the story to reflect the spasm of violence. It got worse today. In Baghdad and two other northern cities, suicide bombers, car bombs and other weapons of local destruction killed and injured hundreds more.

The words of an Iraqi army officer I met while embedded in northwest Baghdad echoed in my head. Two days before the June 30 withdrawal, Iraqi Army Capt. Haithum Haidr, operations officer of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Brigade of the Iraqi Army's 6th Division, said that if he were an insurgent, "I would lay low for a week, then come out fighting."

They laid low for a week. Then they came out bombing.

That's how Iraq breaks your heart. A week into this tour I wrote about the joy of being able to go outside our building and eat supper like normal people. I expressed cautious hope that maybe, someday, Iraq could enjoy peace like that simple evening out of doors.

Hope is not a plan.

I get to leave. I can come back home to Merced. All our troops eventually get to come home -- if they live -- though they may be sent back for second and third and fourth tours. Or they may now be sent to Afghanistan.

But some 25 million Iraqis, or however many are still here after many of the best and brightest have fled their birthright, can't leave. They have to live in Iraq through today, tomorrow and for untold years to come.

The eight Iraqis in our Baghdad bureau, four reporters and four drivers, have taught me many lessons during my 12 weeks with them over the course of a year

Jenan, for instance, came to work this morning breathless. She lives a little over a half-mile from the bureau and had just pulled out on her street when she saw her cousin walking. She stopped her car and asked him if he wanted a ride. Then, about 200 meters ahead, an IED exploded. If she hadn't stopped to talk with her cousin ...

Laith, another reporter, rolls in red-eyed most mornings. His house has no power, so he sleeps, or doesn't, on the roof, trying to escape the heat but subject to the dust and sand. Mohammed commutes from Fallujah, and each evening when he leaves, I say, "See you tomorrow." Then we both automatically say at the same time, "Inshallah." If God wills.

The most eloquent description of what these reporters go through to give you, our McClatchy readers, the best obtainable version of the truth, came in a short speech by Sahar. She and other women in our bureau won a prestigious journalism award for courage two years ago. Here's her acceptance speech. She says it far better than I can:

"It is a great honor for me to stand here today.

"To me, this award means that my colleagues and I have succeeded in what we set out to do; and that our voices have carried, through war, through death and sorrow, through sleepless nights and fear-driven days in an effort to reflect the picture of our country as we see it, and of our people as only we can truly know them.

"To be a journalist in violence-ridden Iraq today, ladies and gentlemen, is not a matter lightly undertaken. Every path is strewn with danger, every checkpoint, every question a direct threat. Every interview we conduct may be our last. So much is happening in Iraq. So much that is questionable. So much that we, as journalists, try to fathom and portray to the people who care to know.

"In every society there is good and bad. Laws regulate the conduct of the society. My country is now lawless. Innocent blood is shed every day seemingly without purpose. Hundreds of thousands have been killed for seemingly no reason. It is our responsibility as journalists to do our utmost to acquire the answers, to dig them up with our bare hands if we must.

"But that knowledge comes at a dear price, for since the war started, four-and-a-half years ago, an average of about one reporter and media assistant killed every week is something we have to live with.

"We live double lives. None of our friends or relatives know what we do. My children must lie about my profession. They cannot under any circumstance boast of my accomplishments, and neither can I.

"Every morning, as I leave my home, I look back with a heavy heart, for I may not see it again -- today may be the day that the eyes of an enemy will see me for what I am, a journalist, rather than the appropriately bewildered elderly lady who goes to look after ailing parents across the river every day. Not for a moment can I let down my guard.

"I smile as I give my children hugs and send them off to school; it's only after they turn their backs to me that my eyes fill to overflowing with the knowledge that they are just as much at risk as I am.

"So why continue? Why not put down my proverbial pen and sit back?

"It's because I'm tired of being branded a terrorist: tired that a human life lost in my country is no loss at all in the eyes of the world. This is not the future I envision for my children. They are not terrorists, and their lives are not valueless.

"I have pledged my life -- and much, much more, in an effort to open a window through which the good people in the international community may look in and see us for what we are, ordinary human beings with ordinary aspirations, and not what we have been portrayed to be.

"Allow me, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to reach out. Help us to build bridges of understanding and acceptance. For although this war has cast a dark shadow upon your nation and mine -- it is not too late.

"I thank my bureau chief and our editors for retaining a high standard of balance and credibility, and I thank you all for being here tonight.

"Goodnight."

Hope is not a plan.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp, when he returns from Iraq, can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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