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.
One Iraqi lawmaker, Mahdi al Hafedh, explained it to me this way: "With many of the problems facing our people, we don't even know how bad they are because the government lacks the capacity to properly assess and measure them. So it's hard to imagine how we will begin to fix it all."
As much as anything, these struggles will determine Iraq's future. They complicate armed fights and aggravate the political instability, and all of that makes it hard for me to imagine a time in the near future when Iraqi families won't be called to bombing sites to cry.
I asked a lot of the Iraqis I interviewed what they think their country's future holds. Some wouldn't even venture a guess.
The answers I did get varied widely, but none was very optimistic. The insurgents and the militias are behaving only so the Americans will leave, some people speculated. They're saving their energy for after the U.S. withdraws, they said. Most Iraqis agreed that the religious, sectarian, ethnic and political tensions that have underlain the violence have been suppressed, but by no means purged.
"It feels so much safer than a year ago," a young man, Hussam Abdul Hammed, told me on the last day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "But still I am afraid to really trust the improvements."
U.S. officials in Iraq also seemed unconvinced that the progress is permanent.
One afternoon in late October, I was eating lunch at a cafeteria at Camp Cropper, a U.S. base near the Baghdad airport. A few higher-ranking Americans were sitting with me.
"So where do you live?" asked one of them, a brigadier general who was trying to make polite conversation. I said that I lived in a hotel in Baghdad's Karrada district with some other Western reporters.
"What's Karrada? Is that in the IZ?" he asked, referring to the International Zone, a heavily protected, walled-off section of the capital that houses the U.S. Embassy and most nonmilitary American officials who are living in Iraq.
"Karrada is a neighborhood," I answered.
"A neighborhood in the IZ?" he responded, his forehead scrunched in confusion.
"No," I said. "A neighborhood out in Baghdad."
"Wow," the general said. He seemed to disapprove. "That's a risky choice."
This was one of the many differences I observed between what U.S. officials said publicly about Iraq and what they admitted privately.
I saw their distrust of the improvements in the way they operated, too. Civilian officials still don't leave secured areas without heavy protection from the military or private contractors, and visits to Iraq by high-ranking Americans still go unannounced until the last minute for fear that they'll inspire attacks or assassination plots.
Once when I was returning to the IZ with a State Department official after covering a trial, I was stunned as the convoy of private security contractors that transported us tore through the streets of Baghdad, forcing Iraqis off the road and barreling over medians to avoid traffic and return us to safety as quickly as possible.
I wondered whether there was some nearby threat I didn't see. Were we being followed? Had shots been fired in the distance that I didn't hear?
No, the State Department official explained. This is how they always drive.
For all the pessimism and doubt, however, many Iraqis I spoke to said they thought that their country would never regress to the rampant killing it was witnessing 15 months ago.
"The people won't stand for that again," said Nadil al Sahie, a university professor. "We've had enough."
I hope he's right, and I think he might be. But whether the real story of Iraq will become one about success and peace is a far larger and tougher question, and how long it might be before we can tell that story is impossible to say.