By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 13, 2009 7:16 AM
Thuluyah, an Iraqi town on the Tigris as picturesque as it was tragic, always seemed to mirror the ebb and flow of the war in Iraq.
I first traveled here in June 2003, days after the American military had launched what it called Peninsula Strike, one of its first efforts in counterinsurgency that, in time, ignited a far broader insurgency across the western and northern regions of the country.
I returned in late July for a story that remains one of the most heartbreaking I encountered in Iraq. During the military operation, in which three Iraqis were killed, the soldiers relied on a Thuluyah resident as an informer, a young man named Sabah. In the aftermath, as tribal law filled an anarchic void, villagers declared that the informer's father had to kill his son, or they would kill the entire family. He and another son did.
"I have the heart of a father, and he's my son," he told me afterward, his eyes glimmering with the faint trace of tears. "Even the prophet Abraham didn't have to kill his son." He stopped, steadying his voice, almost a whisper. "There was no other choice."
I returned again, after Saddam Hussein's capture in December 2003. The town felt besieged, leaderless and relentless in its refusal to accept the American occupation. "We are now a shaab biduun," a friend, Qahtan Jabbouri, told me. "A people without."
That was my last visit. I tried to return in 2005, but it seemed too dangerous. I tried again in 2006, spending days vainly seeking a guarantee of safety. It never came.
Last month, though, returning to an Iraq almost unrecognizable by the standards of two years before, I was welcomed back to the town by a cleric named Mullah Nadhim, whom I first met in 2003. Jailed by the Americans twice, he was an insurgent leader, joining al-Qaeda in 2006. He turned on them in 2007 and now deems himself a U.S. ally.
Ahlan wa sahlan, he said by phone as we approached the town. "You're most welcome." He sent a car to meet us at a checkpoint, where the guard kissed his driver.
Thuluyah was a far different place, a measure of how much has changed here.
It still bore the scars of the war. Qahtan had been killed by his nephew in 2007 after he started working for the Defense Ministry. Sabah's father still lived there, protected by the same tribal elders who forced him to kill his son. Bullet holes were everywhere -- on the façade of buildings and a traffic roundabout. The carcass of a transport truck, burned in an insurgent attack days before, sat on the side of the road.
But the rural hospitality so pronounced in Iraq had returned.
At his home, we were received with plates of apples, tangerines and bananas. Glass after glass of tea followed. Lunch was declined, until a friend of Nadhim's insisted.
"If you don't stay, he'll kidnap you until we're done with lunch, and then I'll kidnap you so that you join me for dinner," he said.
This time, of course, it was a joke. Even then, we decided to stay.
More jokes followed, as we made our way around town.
Another resident marveled at the survival of a former colleague from Baghdad.
"The prostitute never drowns," he said. As in, she can always find work.
He followed with another plea for another lunch, no less insistent. We protested. We have to return to Baghdad. We'll come back soon. We'll make sure we stay longer.
"A bird in your hand," he said, doubting our word, "is better than 10 in the tree."