I picked up a daily habit in Iraq. Every morning, before I left the office, I'd savor that moment — the moment before. Maybe it came from all the times that my Iraqi friends told me how they prayed before they walked out their doors because they might never return.
For almost three years, I spent my mornings the same way: I woke up and worried about what the day would bring. It wasn't a question of whether people would die that day, only of when, how and how many.
We called it a good day when only 10 died, but then there were the bad days. The day a friend died. The day when more than 300 lives were taken in minutes. The day a mother wept in my arms about her lost son, who'd been killed by a militia member, and his widow curled up in a corner of the empty room they'd shared.
The day a man described washing his wife's bullet-ridden body in a mosque named for a religious scholar she'd loved. The day a daughter cried in the arms of her dead mother, mistakenly shot by a U.S. security team. The day I bowed my head with U.S. soldiers as they honored the memories of their fallen.
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The day I wept with my closest friend in Baghdad. The country she'd welcomed me to and the places she'd shown me no longer were safe for her, and she was taking her daughter and her husband and leaving. After a series of countries denied her a visa, she ended up in the much safer Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.
Iraq taught me to savor the trivial and the good. My favorite memories are silly things — giggling in the Shiite shrine in Najaf with my colleague Jenan after we'd escaped from a reprimanding male guard into the women's section of the mosque.
We'd performed our ablutions in the wrong part of the courtyard, the part reserved for men to use, and when a guard began to yell at us in Arabic, we pretended to be Iranians and unable to understand before we escaped through the gold-embossed doors into the women's section of the shrine. There, we sat cross-legged under the sparkling mirrored ceiling, quietly laughing before we bowed our heads in reflection while other women prayed along the carpeted floors.
We celebrated birthdays with cakes covered in fresh strawberries and music blasting from a laptop. We slowed down in Baghdad traffic to watch processions of cars blasting music and honking horns to celebrate a new bride and groom beginning their lives together. We'd pretend that these snippets in time were the norm, not the exception.
The reality in this capital of gray and brown, war and poverty always prevailed, however. On my last day in Iraq, as on my first day in Iraq, I didn't see what the United States and its allies had accomplished.
I couldn't see much evidence of the billions of American taxpayers' dollars that have gone to rebuild a nation ravaged for more than three decades by war, sanctions and more war.
I couldn't understand what thousands of American soldiers had died for and why hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had been killed. I didn't see a budding democracy in an Iraqi government that was more like Saddam Hussein's every day. I didn't see a land long divided by sect, ethnicity, tribe and class beginning to grow into a united nation.
For a few months, I had hope that things might work out. That was when the violence diminished and life started to return to the capital. State television aired "Baghdad at Night" from neighborhoods that had never been the most dangerous but nonetheless were coming to life again.
I thought that maybe it would work out when I dined at an Italian restaurant I'd first visited in 2005, before the owners fled and the place shut down. It reopened on New Year's Eve. My hopes rose when the best shawarma place in Baghdad reopened when the owner, who had been kidnapped at least once, returned, and when the kebob place in Fallujah opened its doors again.
Slowly and defiantly, people started to live again and build their lives atop the rubble, the blood and the scars of war.
"We're exhausted," my McClatchy Newspapers colleague and friend Mohammed told me. "All we ever see is red, and sometimes you just want to see any other color than red."
As I prepared to leave this spring, the American soldiers did, too. The violence began inching up again with their impending withdrawal, and the feuding factions that had been held together by the U.S. military prepared for their next battles.
Everyone I spoke to said they were worried about the next fight; a conflict that they said most likely will kill more Iraqis than in the past six years.
That battle is likely to begin sometime after the American soldiers leave. Then, the United States no longer can restrain a Shiite Muslim-led government that's determined to make sure that its former oppressors never surface again.
The U.S.-backed government can't stop the battle for land and oil between Kurds and Arabs in the north. It can't bury, pay off or protect the Sunni insurgency that fought the U.S. occupation and the new Iraqi leadership that rode to power on the occupier's tanks.
Fadel has covered the war in Iraq for Knight Ridder Newspapers and McClatchy Newspapers on and off since June 2005, and has been McClatchy's Baghdad bureau chief for nearly three years. Her work in Iraq won the prestigious George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting.