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I knew Iraq had changed, but not this much.
I was preparing to go out for a patrol with a group of soldiers to see joint checkpoints north of Mosul, the still restive town in northern Iraq that has more than its share of lingering problems from the American invasion and occupation.
I was telling the young medic on the patrol about my allergies: I’m allergic to shrimp and other crustaceans, I said. This may seem odd to say on a combat patrol in Iraq, but actually a new clotting agent used by the U.S. military is made of shrimp shells. It would be unfortunate to survive a blast or gunshot wound, then die from anaphylactic shock because of the clotting agent used to stop the bleeding, I half jokingly told the medic.
The medic noted my condition, and said cheerfully, “Don’t worry, we won’t get attacked.”
The area we were going through was arguably one of the more violent in Iraq. But these days, the word “violent” has a totally different meaning than it did on my last trip, in June 2006.
Back then, Iraqi soldiers, recruits, and police were slaughtered on masse. One car bomb was a quiet day in Baghdad; normally, there were several before noon at various points in the city. Sometimes, two or three struck the same squares or roundabouts at different times in one day.
Back then, Iraq was less a country than a hell on earth. After the Samarra Mosque bombing in February 2006 unleashed sectarian violence, a driver and translator I worked with extensively was shot in the back of the head as he walked out of his house in the Dora neighborhood. Knight Ridder lost a translator to an American soldier’s bullet. U.S. Embassy guards killed two Iraqis outside ABC News’ compound in the capital. Jill Carroll was kidnapped, her translator, Alan Enwiyah, a former record store owner, was shot in the head.
But now, south of Mosul, in the “dangerous” parts, soldiers get maybe one or two attacks a day in an area that, as an American battalion commander on his third combat tour in Iraq put it, used to see two attacks per hour. At least.
I told a brigade commander in Kirkuk about how when I first arrived to Baghdad, I had to lay down in the back of a car as a driver took me from the Baghdad airport into the city. It was October 2004, and there were beheadings, kidnappings and full-scale rebellions against the Americans. Less than a year later, dozens of Iraqis and Americans would die on the same road, including Marla Ruzicka, a human rights advocate, and her driver and fixer, Faiz Ali Salim.
Two weeks ago, as I climbed into the armored vehicle that takes U.S. Embassy staffers from the embassy in the Green Zone to the airport, the guard on board felt the need to remind us where we were:
“Remember, this is STILL a combat zone.”
“There was a time when there’d be no issue with anyone acknowledging that,” said Col. Larry Swift, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division in Kirkuk.
“I had similar conversation last night with battle captain,” he said. “We went back and forth about whether or not his unit had [been shot at]. I asked him: did he hear it, was there any damage to vehicle, was it just celebratory fire somewhere else. And as we struggled to figure out this one incident, we just stopped and I said to him, you , know, there was time that if you didn’t get [shot at], it meant you hadn’t left the gate.”
Iraq has a lot of challenges ahead, and could still erupt into violence at any time. Although American troops are withdrawing and violence against them is at record lows, ethnic and sectarian tensions and divions, and intimidation among and between Iraqis are still present and threaten to erupt into violence at any time. And Iraqis continue to die. The Times of London lost a long time driver named Yasser, one of two brothers who had worked with the organization for years, in the bombing of the Hamra Hotel in January. I had ridden with these two brothers in dark days of 2005 through the streets of Baghdad, and they took care of me like I was family.
Still, it is stunning to see, and feel, the turnaround. I hope the trend continues, for the Iraqis who have lived with so much loss and destruction over the last seven years.
The author and NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro stand on a bridge over the Tigris in November 2005. The smoke in the background was caused by a car bomb, a daily occurrence in 2005. (Photo provided by author)
The author stands on a street in the Karrada District of Baghdad as voters walk to the polls in Iraq's first parliamentary elections in December 2005. (Photo provided by author)