Reporter reflects on Iraq: Fixing what we broke

September 4, 2009 

I know why we stayed; I don't know why we came.

It's never going to be worthwhile, just less bad.

Those are the two conclusions I've reached in my four months in Iraq in the past year. I know they're not original, but they're mine and I've been getting to them along with you ever since we watched "shock and awe" rock Baghdad on our televisions in March 2003.

We stayed because we broke Iraq. We owed it to Iraqis to fill the vacuum and restore stability.

We also owed it to ourselves and our military to put everything on the table to halt Iraq's sectarian war of 2006 and 2007.

I'm too young to remember Vietnam, but when I read testimonies about the war and talk to veterans, the thing that breaks my heart is the sense that it could have ended at any point with the same result. I don't believe that about Iraq.

Cutting out at the war's lowest point would have been shameful and brutal to the Iraqi people. I can only imagine how that would've played out, with Iraq's neighbors using the country as a battlefield for their own disputes.

That doesn't mean it was wise to come in the first place.

It's an understatement to say that the progress on security is remarkable, so much so that the Iraqi government got a little ahead of itself this summer in tearing down blast walls and checkpoints that had protected Baghdad.

And that's exhibit A to demonstrate how the security gains can vanish in a moment. August was the bloodiest month in Iraq in a year.

I honestly didn't understand how fragile security was here until I wound up writing about bombings and their aftermath for two weeks straight.

I found myself and McClatchy's Iraqi staff writing a lot of pretty positive stories about changes around the country -- Assyrian Christians finding safety in Iraq's Kurdish provinces, hair salons reopening, private schools taking off and Iraq's entertainment industry returning from a two-year stint in Syria.

That's great news, and it's a joy to see the smile of someone who's been away from home for too long returning.

The flip side of all those stories is that they reflect the deep scars Iraqis will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

It's wonderful that Assyrians have found some respite in the north, but atrocious that they've been driven from their homes in Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. One of the priests told me that 90 percent of Baghdad's Assyrians have fled the city because of kidnappings, killings and threats.

Assyrians are Iraq's oldest people, yet they're living as guests in a Kurdish- controlled government that many of them distrust. I can't imagine a scenario where they can reclaim their land or their houses.

You'd think a story about a boom in hair salons would be a light one, except for all of the bodies that were dumped at their doorsteps in 2006 and 2007, not to mention the threats against stylists.

We've discovered that the surge in private schools has as much to do with corruption in public schools as it does with enthusiasm for the new alternatives.

And I loved meeting Iraqi actors for that entertainment story, but I wish they never had to flee their own country to protect their lives.

That's why I'm telling you it can only be less bad, at least for this generation of Iraqis. Maybe the next will reap the full gains of Saddam Hussein's downfall and the investment of our blood and treasure in their country.

As for me, I know I had to be here now. The professional challenges pushed my limits, but I'll remember the personal ones.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton, who has been on a two-month assignment in Iraq for McClatchy Newspapers, can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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