In Iraq, an Obligation Coming Due
Every time I read about the United States pulling out while Iraq takes the final step into the abyss of civil war, I find myself thinking of a conversation I had with my translator and my driver in April 2003 as the first phase of the war was reaching its climax.
We were coming back from inspecting the damage caused by American airstrikes in a small town at the edge of Saddam Hussein's control in northern Iraq. My translator, Ahmad Shawkat, and driver, Sami Abdul Qader, were chatting in Kurdish.
"What are you guys talking about?" I asked.
"Sami wants to know if you will help him and his family get out of Iraq if Saddam comes back."
"Is he joking?" I said with a casual laugh. "Tell him, yeah, sure, no problem."
"No, he is very serious," Ahmad said. "He cannot believe Saddam will go without a fight. Sami's afraid that because he works with Americans he will be killed."
It took me a second to absorb this. Sami was absolutely fearless. Several days earlier we'd come under artillery fire while watching Green Berets and Kurdish pesh merga trying to secure a bridge on the road from Irbil to Mosul. Ahmad and I were roaming through pastureland with the Green Berets and Sami was with the car when the artillery piece opened up. All the other drivers working with reporters on the scene pulled well back. Sami stayed right down by the bridge as the shells came in, refusing to leave us behind.
That he was now genuinely afraid seemed odd, because what he feared was quite improbable. Baghdad was on the verge of falling. As we were having this conversation, American troops were preparing to pull down the statue of Hussein in Firdaus Square.
But my driver's fear was not without basis. I've seen what happens when the "international community" precipitously pulls out of conflict zones. To have had an American job -- working for journalists or for nongovernmental organizations -- is not a good thing at those times.
This is the way things work in war zones: We go, they stay. If the whole escapade falls apart, American journalists and relief workers are evacuated and can be swimming in a hotel pool, all expenses paid, by evening. Our translators, drivers and office managers return to their houses and wait in fear of reprisal against those who collaborate with the Great Satan.