Two hours into the celebration, after the children had finished scurrying about the garden, the adults had gossiped under the portico and everyone had indulged in a buffet of hummus and kebabs, Washington Post photographer Bill O’Leary clambered onto the roof of the villa serving as The Post’s bureau in Baghdad.
“Let’s take a group photo,” he beckoned.
And so they gathered. The interpreters, drivers and guards. Their wives. Their sons and daughters. Sixty-eight in all, standing between two palm trees under a gray autumn sky.
It was 2003. U.S. troops had entered Baghdad that April, and although Saddam Hussein was no longer in power, the Americans had not yet delivered upon grand promises to rebuild the nation. Most in O’Leary’s frame had no electricity at home. Looters roamed their streets. Many had not been to a party in years — they hadn’t had the means to entertain while Iraq’s economy was smothered by a trade embargo.
But as the shutter clicked, they smiled. Some thought back to their carefree childhoods, before years of war and suffocating sanctions. Others allowed their minds to wander ahead. The day’s gaiety seemed a harbinger of more joyous times.
After the photo session, the youngsters resumed playing table tennis and bouncing balloons into the air. “They are so lucky,” one of the drivers declared. “They will get to grow up in an Iraq free of war.”
My fellow Post correspondents and I would throw more parties for our Iraqi staffers and their families while I was The Post’s Baghdad bureau chief from 2003 to 2004. But never would there be as many attendees or as many grins.
The insurgency and civil war unleashed hell upon their lives. So did their work for an American news organization. Menacing letters were wedged under their doors at night. Thugs tailed them home. A bomb destroyed one interpreter’s house. The risks caught up with us in 2007, when reporter Salih Saif Aldin was fatally shot while interviewing residents of a Baghdad neighborhood about sectarian violence there.
Through it all, they kept working. They uncovered stories and arranged interviews. They drove us to Fallujah and Basra. They guarded our house and negotiated our way through checkpoints. And on the days when it was too perilous for Americans to roam the streets, they went out, notebooks and cameras in hand. Their knowledge opened our eyes; their instincts saved our lives.
Eventually, the danger grew too grave even for them. A few of the bureau’s three dozen staffers came to the United States as students and sought asylum. Many others applied to immigrate under a special visa program for Iraqis working for U.S. news organizations. Today, three-quarters of those in the party photograph live in America. They have been joined by almost a dozen others whom we hired in the years after the party.
I worried that their new lives here would be yet another calamitous spawn of the conflict. Many of them alighted with enormous expectations, limited English proficiency and skills that would not guarantee a well-paying job — at the very moment our economy was imploding and Americans were losing interest in Iraq. But they did not come calling for my help, and instead of checking on them and reaching for those who stumbled, my attention drifted to the war in Afghanistan.
This spring, on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, I thought again about my bureau-mates. Were they foundering? Thriving? My mind coursed with curiosity, responsibility, guilt. Had my fellow Americans and I failed them?
I set out to find them, to once again share a plate of kebabs, to swap tales of the old days, to see their homes and children — and to learn how their dreams no longer involved Americans building a new Iraq but Iraqis building new lives in America.
Had a blood-pressure cuff been slapped around Muhanned al-Kusairy’s beefy left arm while he rode with me down the ambush-riddled road to Baghdad’s airport — his right arm always hoisted an AK-47 rifle — the gauge would barely have twitched. The bureau’s security chief remained unperturbed, even when the rest of us were hyperventilating.
That equanimity escaped him last month in Phoenix. As he ascended to the 19th floor of a downtown building on a Baghdad-hot afternoon, his hands trembled, his face flushed, and his stomach, he remarked, felt as if it were “filled with mice, not butterflies.” He was heading to see a man he had come to idolize since moving to Arizona three years ago, a man who he hoped would fulfill his American dream.
“Mr. Sheriff!” Muhanned exclaimed. “It’s a huge honor to meet you.”
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose hard-line approaches to illegal immigration have drawn nationwide attention, embraced the fawning Iraqi immigrant. “Tell me about yourself,” he said.
Instead of describing his 18 years in the Iraqi army, or the multiple times he steered us from danger, or the small militia he built to protect The Post’s bureau, Muhanned opted for the present tense.
“My dream is to be a deputy sheriff,” he told Arpaio. “I want to work for you.”
His quest was not born from desperation. In just three years, Muhanned, his wife and their four children have blossomed from raggedy refugees, hauling their life’s possessions on two luggage carts at Newark Liberty International Airport, to American suburbanites, ensconced in a spacious rambler with a pool out back, two Chevy Tahoes in the driveway and an enormous flat-screen television in the family room. After stints guarding foreclosed banks and patrolling construction sites along the border with Mexico, Muhanned landed a security supervisor job at a 266-bed hospital in Phoenix.
He noted to Arpaio that he is better compensated — and afforded more responsibility — than an entry-level deputy. “But I’m ready to give all of that up, put on a vest and get out on the street in July,” when high temperatures in Phoenix average 105 degrees, he said. “Ever since I arrived here, I’ve wanted to wear a uniform with the American flag on it.”
Save for artwork with Arabic calligraphy hanging on the living room wall and a prodigious bowl of Baghdad-style rice — yellow basmati mixed with toasted almonds and fried vermicelli — on the kitchen table, there is little about the Kusairy house that feels Iraqi. Bruce Willis thunders from the television. Muhanned’s youngest daughter, Maldaa, wears shorts and pink-striped, knee-high Converse sneakers, and speaks English untinged by her Baghdad roots. His drink of choice is Coors Light, in long-neck bottles, which are stocked in the fridge. He pours his morning coffee into a black mug emblazoned with a star and the words “Army Strong,” an homage to the six months he spent working for the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division before joining The Post.
He and his family must wait two more years to become citizens — “it feels like two centuries” — but that has not dissuaded him from trying to be what he deems American. He covers his bald pate with a black Stetson, sports a stars-and-stripes sticker on the tailgate of his Tahoe, listens to country star Alan Jackson’s greatest hits and spouts off on politics when wedged in traffic on I-17.
“We have too many illegals here,” he said soon after picking me up from the airport last month. It was three days before his meeting with Arpaio. He went on to rail about how many immigrants receive state-funded health care and food stamps. “And they don’t pay taxes,” he groused. “They’re stealing from both my pockets.”
But, I noted, aren’t you an immigrant who received free health care and food stamps when you arrived in Arizona?
“I came legally, and I pay my fair share in taxes,” he said. A few miles later, he returned to the topic. “I wish I was in charge of the Department of State. Anyone who doesn’t love the United States, I’d deport him to Mexico.”
Later that evening, Muhanned changed into dark cargo pants and a black T-shirt with the sheriff’s six-pointed-star emblem and drove to meet up with Arpaio’s posse. He joined the volunteer group this year, hoping it would enhance his chances of becoming a full-fledged deputy. Muhanned has spent more than 40 hours in evening classes, learning how to use a two-way radio, process detainees and conduct a traffic stop. He is moving on to intermediate-level instruction this summer — “They will teach me to use a Taser!” — and he hopes to earn his certification to carry a sidearm and a posse badge by the end of the year. Although his instructor told him to wait until then to purchase his uniform and other supplies, Muhanned bought everything the first week. A tan patrol shirt. A Kevlar vest. Boots and gloves. The bill came to more than $1,000.
He is unmoved by criticism that the squad of 3,500 civilians, some of whom are armed, has not been properly screened or trained. “Don’t believe everything you read in the media,” Muhanned said.
“We,” he told me, referring to the United States in the first person, “should have sent the sheriff to Iraq in 2003 instead of Paul Bremer,” the White House envoy who ran the initial U.S. occupation. “We needed someone tough like him.”
A few months after the party, my colleague Dan Williams headed into Baghdad’s Sadr City slum during a revolt by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. His driver took a wrong turn, and they soon found themselves at an intersection filled with young men toting AK-47s and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. Dan sunk into his seat. Once the gunmen inspected the car, he would almost certainly be blindfolded and bundled away. American journalists were preferred bargaining chips.
Before the men could approach, the car’s third occupant jumped out. It was Naseer Nouri, a former Iraqi Airways engineering director who was interpreting for The Post because his airline was grounded.
He pointed at the men in the street. “You, you and you,” he shouted, “come here.”
They gathered around him.
“Do you have enough ammunition?” he barked. “Do you have enough food and water?”
Yes, sir, they said.
“How is your morale?”
“We are ready to die for Moqtada!” several yelled.
“Excellent. Keep up the good work,” Naseer replied. “Oh, and can you tell me the best way out of here?”
“There are clashes that way,” one man said, pointing to the right. Then he gestured to the left. “But that way is clear.”
When Naseer returned to the car, Dan was incredulous.
“These are stupid boys used to taking orders,” Naseer said. “If I told them who we really are, they would have captured us. So I pretended I was a commander.”
Naseer started in the bureau as an interpreter. He tagged along with Post correspondents, facilitating conversations with anyone who couldn’t speak English. After a few months, he became a fixer: He came to us with ideas for stories and set up interviews with Iraq’s new political and religious leaders. By the spring of 2004, we had made him a special correspondent. He would go out on his own to report stories, which we edited and published under his byline.
In April 2006, militants abducted Naseer’s 14-year-old nephew, Noor. When the kidnappers called, Noor’s father offered to pay whatever they wanted. “Use the money for his funeral,” he was told. “We’re going to kill him so his uncle learns to stop working for the Americans.”
The next morning, Noor asked his captors to use the toilet. From the bathroom, he spotted a back door and dashed to it. As he scaled the compound wall, he saw a pickup truck in the rear courtyard filled with bodies, partially covered with a plastic sheet. Once he returned home, his father kept him inside the family house for 18 months.
Naseer, who didn’t want to lock up his three teenage daughters, beseeched my successor, Ellen Knickmeyer, for assistance. She agreed to help relocate his family to Jordan, where Naseer’s son, Saif, who had worked as a driver for the bureau, was training to become a pilot. But the family could not readily obtain Jordanian residency permits. A year later, a U.N. agency referred them for resettlement in the United States.
Naseer, his wife and their four children arrived at Reagan National Airport in May 2008. As they embraced a small welcoming committee of Post staffers — one of them, former Baghdad correspondent Jon Finer, wore an Iraqi national soccer team jersey — Naseer walked up to me and proclaimed, “It’s great to be back in America.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, before Saddam snatched the presidency and began bankrupting his oil-rich nation, the Iraqi government gave hundreds of students scholarships to attend foreign universities. Naseer, who joined government-run Iraqi Airways after high school, was sent to the Spartan College of Aeronautics in Tulsa in 1976, where he learned to fly, fix planes and disco dance.
He wanted to stay, but the terms of his scholarship required him to return and work for the Iraqi government. If he had refused, his relatives would have been thrown in prison.
Soon after I hired him in April 2003, Naseer pulled a faded Oklahoma driver’s license from his wallet. When he learned that Post correspondent Anthony Shadid, who helped me run the bureau, had grown up in Oklahoma, he rushed over with an urgent question: “Have you been to Reflections nightclub in Tulsa?” Anthony replied that, sadly, he had not. Discotheques, he noted, were no longer popular in the United States.
Those memories of dancing, drinking and telegrams home to ask for more money fueled unrealistic expectations of immigrant life that began to crumble on Naseer’s first night back in the United States. The organization hired by the U.S. government to assist his family in their initial months here placed them in a blighted basement apartment in Hyattsville. The furniture inside was fine, said his wife, Hoda, “if you were coming from a refugee camp.” The monthly stipend was barely enough to cover food and utilities. His children clamored for wi-fi so they could Skype with friends in Baghdad and satellite television so they could watch “Arab Idol.”
But Naseer still had a valid FAA certification from his time in Oklahoma, and that helped propel his family into a comfortable middle-class life. Six months after arriving, he received an offer from US Airways to work as a unionized, graveyard-shift mechanic at National Airport. He impressed his interviewer by explaining how he kept Iraqi Airways planes aloft without spare parts during the trade-embargo years.
He bought a spacious townhouse in the shadow of FedEx Field in Landover, a full-trim Honda sedan and the latest iPhone. His 56-year-old belly rounded out from gluttonous dinners. “I’m living the American dream,” he told me in 2009 as he showed off his new purchases.
But for all his smarts on the streets of Baghdad, his instincts began to fail him in the Mall at Prince Georges. When he went to the Macy’s fragrance counter to buy a bottle of Polo Blue in 2010, the saleswoman urged him to apply for a charge card. He figured building a credit history would be beneficial.
The next month, offers for other cards began arriving in the mail. He was thrilled when one came from American Express. (As a child, he kept an American Express card he found on the street in his wallet.) But instead of limiting his purchases to what he could pay off each month, he kept spending, constrained only by each card’s credit limit and minimum-payment requirement. A new television. Furniture. Curtains. Pots and pans. Clothes.
Last fall, he skipped two mortgage payments and was dinged with late fees from multiple cards. To dig himself out, he took a part-time job at Dulles International Airport servicing transatlantic jets, but the fatigue of working extra hours, fueled by bottles of 5-Hour Energy, led him to total his car. Racked by stress and guilt, he finally cut up his cards and put himself on a budget.
His debts, now about $15,000, loom over him. His minimum monthly payments consume almost all of the income he once used to take his family to restaurants and movies.
“I thought I knew everything about America,” he said as he leafed through his bills. “But there are ambushes here I never expected.”
Two hours before the party was set to commence, the sky turned dark gray. A light drizzle threatened to escalate into a rare Baghdad rainstorm. I grew anxious. There was no way we could fit all of the attendees inside our house.
I thought about renting a large canopy, the sort that Washington socialites erect on their lawns for summer soirees, but where would we find one in Iraq?
“I’ll take care of it,” said Rifaat al-Samarraie, one of the bureau’s drivers.
Ninety minutes later, a giant red tent mushroomed in the back garden. I ran up to Rifaat, grateful and impressed.
“Where did you find this?” I asked him.
“Oh, Mr. Rajiv, these are very easy to get in Baghdad,” he said.
I shot him a confused look.
“We use them all the time,” he said. “It’s a funeral tent.”
The closest Rifaat comes to driving for hire in America is a glass-walled parking-garage pay station in downtown Portland, Ore. He sits in the booth, dressed in black pants and a windbreaker, until late in the evening, whiling away the time between cars by practicing his English. Unable to afford instructional books and audio recordings, he plods through Bible stories handed out by Jehovah’s Witnesses, using his mobile phone to translate the words he doesn’t know.
That sort of resourcefulness — honed by the 13-year trade embargo, which forced Iraqis to find ingenious work-arounds for restricted goods — has defined Rifaat’s journey. He was the first in the bureau to apply for a special immigrant visa, just weeks after Congress expanded the program in 2008 to include Iraqis facing threats because of their work with U.S. news organizations. When he was interviewed by the International Organization for Migration, which screens applicants for the State Department, he begged the man processing his case to send him to “a good state.”
After he, his wife and their three children reached Oregon, he thought the man had ignored him. The apartment in which they were placed was dark and dirty. The furniture was fit for a Sadr City hovel. The rain seemed ceaseless. Months later, however, he realized that the interviewer had granted his wish. When his federally mandated refugee assistance expired, the state provided a $700-a-month stipend until he got the parking job. Last summer, he and his family moved into a public housing complex in north Portland that appears so well-maintained I assumed, when I drove up, that it was a private subdivision. His rent for a comfortable, four-bedroom townhouse: $211 per month.
He has sought to drive his career out of the garage, but has run into obstacles on each trip. He learned how to helm an 18-wheel truck, obtained a commercial driver’s license and received a job offer from a shipping company that would have paid him twice as much as the parking lot, but he decided he did not want to leave his children — all teenagers — for days on end, particularly since his wife doesn’t know how to drive. He is as worried about his sons falling in with local gangs as about them sauntering into a nearby mosque. “We have made it too far for them to fall under evil influences,” Rifaat said.
His most recent plan was to sell his house in Baghdad and invest the proceeds in a new house and a food truck parked in central Portland. His wife is lobbying to move somewhere sunny, perhaps San Diego, so he is planning a summer trip there to scout job opportunities. Initial indications, however, are not encouraging: Another bureau driver has spent the past year struggling to find work there. If not California, Rifaat intends to look in Las Vegas or call Muhanned in Phoenix.
He discusses his job hunt with no trace of despair. In Baghdad, he always appeared happy, even when driving me to the scene of gruesome explosions, and that bonhomie has not dissipated.
“I’m in America — and that’s what matters,” he said as we drove through downtown Portland. “Ten years ago, I thought the Americans would give me a better life in Iraq. Now I realize that I had to come to America to fulfill that dream.”
One day, a man knocked on the bureau’s front gate and offered to sell us a video depicting acts of torture ordered by Saddam’s sons. The office staff insisted on watching it first to ensure they were not being scammed. One screening led to another, and another.
They replayed the most brutal scenes. Their favorite involved Qusay Hussein’s henchmen lining up the bodyguards for a prominent Baathist official and beating several on the soles of their feet.
I wanted to turn away, but they insisted I view the entire recording. “We always heard rumors of how evil they were,” Naseer said. “Now we can see.”
The bureau was composed of Sunnis and Shiites, and several who were mixed, the offspring of a time when sect did not define society. Some staffers had been members of the Baath Party; others had refused to join. They never fought over religion — even when the rest of the country was embroiled in a civil war — and rarely bickered about politics. When it came to the U.S. invasion, they were in agreement: Launching a war to oust Saddam was a great idea.
Even as many Americans who once supported the mission changed their minds when the promised sweets-and-flowers welcome turned into a full-blown insurgency, the Iraqis of the bureau never wavered. A decade later, they are among a shrinking minority in the United States who think the war, at a cost of almost 5,000 American lives and many more Iraqi ones, made sense.
“You can call it an invasion if you want, but it was a correction. We had to use force to correct him,” Muhanned said as he waited for an order of kebabs from an Iraqi food shop a few miles from his home. “He was crazy. He threatened us. He threatened Israel. He was in bed with al-Qaeda,” he said, asserting a connection, made by former vice president Dick Cheney, that has been debunked by U.S. intelligence officials.
Naseer and his fellow interpreters are well aware of the succession of errors made by Bremer and others in the U.S. occupation authority soon after the Americans arrived in Baghdad: the dismantling of Iraq’s army, the banishment of many mid-level Baathists from government jobs, the failure to acknowledge the insurgency until it was an outright rebellion. “We helped to cover all of these stories,” recalled Omar Fekeiki, who interpreted hundreds of conversations with Arabic-speakers. “The Americans made many mistakes. But they were right to remove Saddam.”
Their views on the war cannot be separated from their experiences over the past decade. We paid them princely salaries by Baghdad standards, and now they are among the fewer than 100,000 Iraqis who have been allowed into the United States since 2003. “The war was terrible for most Iraqis, but it was good to us,” Omar admitted.
But for those who are struggling here and those who remain there — for those who worked with Americans and those who didn’t — where does American responsibility end? “Once you break it, you are going to own it,” then-Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President George W. Bush before the war. Have we owned up? Or have we sought to assuage our collective guilt by convincing ourselves that Iraqis, wherever they are, are better off because of us?
Omar still follows Iraqi politics obsessively. Rifaat watches Iraqi newscasts on his Internet-connected television. Others get the latest Baghdad updates by text message. Their opinions about Iraq’s government are almost as uniform as they were a decade ago: They regard Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an Iranian stooge bent on consolidating his power rather than forging consensus, and they believe that the United States could have curbed that behavior by keeping troops in Iraq.
“When you correct something, you need to maintain your correction until you’re sure the problem has been fixed,” Muhanned said. “You can’t leave too soon.”
Because homes in Baghdad received less than two hours of power a day, my first order of business in 2003, once I rented the bureau house, was to procure a generator. The one I selected was as large as a compact car, and its care required an expert. One of the interpreters suggested his brother-in-law, Ahmed Nooraldeen. “He knows a lot about electricity,” the interpreter said.
Ahmed lacked the greasy hands of a mechanic, but he kept the generator humming, which allowed us to keep working. When light bulbs blew because of voltage fluctuations, he was ready with spares. When a fuel shortage gripped the city, he bribed bus drivers to siphon diesel from their tanks.
A month after the party, he asked me for permission to start his workday at 2 p.m. “I’m going back to school,” he said.
“That’s nice,” I replied. “What are you studying?”
“I’m not a student — I’m a professor,” he said. “I teach physics.”
My eyes bugged out.
“Don’t worry. I will keep changing your light bulbs,” he said. “Working for you is applied physics.”
Ahmed was, without a doubt, the smartest member of the bureau. In 2006, he received a scholarship to a doctoral program in physics at an Indian university. In 2008, as he neared completion of his dissertation, he applied for a special immigrant visa to the United States. After he and his family tasted life outside Iraq, they had no desire to return.
Ahmed reached America armed with a PhD. His wife, Abeer, figured she would practice dentistry as she had for 14 years in Baghdad. They chose Toledo because his aunt and her daughter had been resettled there a year before and promised to help.
They got to Ohio in December 2009, and then everything fell apart. The relatives who had offered aid were so infirm, Ahmed said, “that we had to help them.” Abeer discovered that she would have to pass two board exams and spend two years in a dental school before she would be allowed to drill American teeth. Ahmed applied for jobs at dozens of colleges, but they turned him down because he had no American teaching experience. Their sons, who attended an elementary school filled with Lebanese, Palestinian and Egyptian children, were bullied by some of those Arab American classmates. “2010 was the worst year of our lives,” Ahmed said.
He took a job as a deliveryman, signed up for food stamps and vowed to overcome the rejection. He eventually got a part-time job at a community college teaching algebra and physics. Abeer spent 10 hours a day studying for her dental board exams. The boys avoided the playground and buried themselves in books. Their inability to afford even a television proved a blessing, Ahmed said. “Everyone has to study,” he told his family.
As soon as he started receiving a paycheck from the college, Ahmed canceled their food stamps, even though they still qualified. “We want to be self-sufficient,” he said. “We don’t want to be one of those families that keeps taking from the government.”
Abeer finally passed both of her exams and was accepted into a one-month intensive course at Indiana University’s dental school designed to screen foreign students for admission. It cost $8,000. Although there was no guarantee that the course would get her into the school, Ahmed scraped up the family’s savings. He put the rest on credit cards.
In late June, Abeer, who is pregnant with the couple’s third child, was awarded admission. The family plans to move this month to Indianapolis, where Ahmed will begin studying for the GRE. He hopes to score well enough that he will receive a scholarship to a master’s program in applied mathematics and then a full-time teaching job at a four-year college.
“We have our dreams,” he said. “We’re not giving up.”
But Iraq haunts them. When he went to India, he had to provide Baghdad’s University of Technology with a list of sponsors who would be held liable if he didn’t return. It was a vestige from the Saddam days, when relatives and friends were used as pawns to ensure that students came home. He assumed that such contracts were null in the new Iraq.
Two weeks after arriving in Toledo, he received word from Baghdad that his 10 sponsors — all professors at the university whom he counts as his dearest friends — would have their wages garnished to pay for a debt the Iraqi government calculated at $50,000, even though he had received a full scholarship from India.
“The university took its revenge on me,” he said. He suspects it is because he is Sunni; the school is now run by Shiites.
Ahmed was forced to sell his share in his family’s house in Baghdad. His wife hawked her car and borrowed money from relatives. They cobbled together $30,000 and gave it to the sponsors, with a promise to pay the rest when they began to make money.
“We may be in America,” he said, “but Iraq is still hanging over our heads.”
In a city of garish Baathist mansions that combined Stalin’s love of cement with Louis XIV’s ornature, our bureau house was a refreshing oddity. It featured exposed brick, large windows, clean right angles and elegant wood paneling. The rear garden had a swimming pool in the shape of the letter P. I joked that it stood for “Post,” but it had been carved out by the original owner, Nadim Pachachi, who served as the country’s economics minister in the 1950s.
We didn’t erect signs that identified the house as The Post’s bureau, and we kept the address off our business cards. But there were no secrets in Baghdad. If you asked enough taxi drivers, you could find us.
Two months after the party, a bomb blast at dawn sheared off the front of an interpreter’s house. He, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter escaped unharmed because they were sleeping in a rear bedroom. Later that day, a black sedan carrying four young men drove up to the bureau. As it passed the house, the driver slowed and one of the passengers began taking photographs.
The message: You’re next.
We packed up and left the house in six hours.
When Kareem Sadoon slips into a deep sleep, his mind often drags him back to 2006, to the day he encountered an al-Qaeda checkpoint on the southern fringe of Baghdad. He is stopped by a band of men armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, their faces covered with checkered scarves. As they begin rifling though his Chevy Caprice, his heart races. Hidden in the trunk is a ballistic vest that Anthony Shadid wore in Basra. If the gunmen discover the vest, considered a sign of collaboration with U.S. troops, Kareem is sure he’ll wind up with a bullet in his head.
“Where are you coming from?” one of them asks.
“Basra,” Kareem replies. “I was there for a funeral.”
They miss the vest and wave him through. He exhales. His pulse slows. He is safe. And then he sees the road ahead: three children, shot up, their bodies splayed across a bloody patch of pavement. Cars on fire on the side of the road. More corpses on the embankment.
He floors the accelerator and then he wakes, drenched in sweat, out of breath, on a twin bed in the second-floor apartment he shares with a fellow Iraqi immigrant in Beaverton, Ore., a suburb of Portland. A Marlboro Light fails to quell his nerves. He has a second, and a third. Unable to sleep, he pulls off his blue polyester comforter, slips his feet into sandals and walks downstairs to the parking lot, where he paces in circles. Sometimes all night.
The nocturnal terror began when he arrived in Oregon in the spring of 2012. Why in the safety of America? Why not in the bedlam of Baghdad? He suspects it is because he left his family back home. The reason, he acknowledges now, was foolish. When a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad told him that his two young-adult sons would have to register for the Selective Service, he assumed they would be drafted to serve in the U.S. military and fight in Iraq. “So I told them to stay behind,” he said. “And I told my wife to stay with them.”
He also was reeling from Anthony’s death that February in Syria, where he was reporting. To Kareem — who drove Anthony on reporting trips that led to multiple Pulitzer Prizes and spent more time with him than anyone else in the bureau — it felt as if he had lost a brother. “I think about him all the time,” he said, sitting on the side of his bed when I visited him this spring. A tear grew in his right eye and rolled down his cheek.
Kareem began seeing a psychiatrist. She prescribed sleeping pills and an antidepressant. Now the nightmares don’t jar him awake as often, but he still is too tired and distracted to hold down a job. Sometimes an Iraqi friend will bring him along to the gas station where he works as a mechanic, and Kareem will putter around the shop. On other days, he sits in his room and listens to the Koran on his laptop, thinking of his family, of Anthony. He lives on food stamps and federal disability payments.
“My body is here,” he said, “but my mind is still in Iraq.”
As insurgent attacks became more frequent, I asked the paper’s foreign editor for an armored vehicle. Four weeks and $90,000 later, a shiny silver Jeep Cherokee with lead plates in the doors and baseboards — thick enough to stop an AK-47 round — arrived in Iraq. A month later, I requested another. My keepers in Washington quickly discovered that running a bureau in Baghdad made Paris and Tokyo seem cheap.
Guns were trickier. I didn’t want our guards carrying unreliable Iraqi-made handguns or cheap Chinese AK-47 rifles. Although Baghdad was awash in weapons, I could not do arms deals with insurgents or looters, and we didn’t have a permit to import firearms. A British private security contractor eventually hooked us up: two Czech-manufactured AK variants and two American-made Sig Sauer P220 pistols — for a thick wad of $100 bills. I buried the transaction in my vast expense report.
Soon after the 2003 party, I concluded that we required more than armored cars and guns — we needed someone to coordinate our security. Instead of hiring a foreign consultant, I wanted an Iraqi. To me, local knowledge was more valuable than experience in the U.S. or British special forces.
Muhanned proved to be the ideal candidate. Not only did he have a keen sense of Baghdad’s unique dangers, he had already worked for Americans, serving as an interlocutor with the 82nd Airborne Division. And he always seemed to have a creative answer to our predicaments.
When the U.S. military insisted that handguns be restricted, Muhanned talked his way into getting a license. When foreign contractors began driving armored Cherokees with the same silver paint as our two cars, he ordered our vehicles driven to a body shop in Sadr City. For $120, one had “Flower of Lebanon Taxi” painted on the sides. The other got blinged out, with carpet on the dashboard, fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror and Nike swoosh decals slapped on the sandblasted exterior. We were ready for the insurgents — and for a Baghdad version of “Pimp My Ride.”
By the time Muhanned was summoned by the International Organization for Migration for his resettlement interview in Baghdad’s Green Zone in 2010, those who had already made it to America offered to sponsor him. Rifaat urged him to come to Portland. Naseer suggested Maryland. A brother-in-law in San Diego advocated for California, while another brother-in-law wanted Muhanned to join him in Georgia.
He researched states on his computer. “I looked at only one thing,” Muhanned said. “Arizona has the best concealed-carry law.”
Fleeing a country thick with weapons, many from the bureau have opted to stay as far away from firearms as they can. Not Muhanned. He’s always loved guns, but now they’ve become a way for him to feel assimilated in the American West. When he leaves the house, he holsters a Springfield 9mm pistol on his hip. When he is on the Internet, he is likely to be visiting arms sites, and when he is sitting by the pool, his readings of choice are the magazines Guns & Ammo, American Handgunner and American Rifleman.
He sought to buy his first gun three days after arriving in Arizona, before even obtaining a driver’s license or a Social Security card. He was ordered out of the store. He returned a month later, documentation in hand, and bought a pistol. He now owns two, plus a 12-gauge shotgun and a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle equipped with a sophisticated laser-targeting scope.
Most weekends include a visit to a shooting range. He changes into Army-issue camouflage and places his gear atop the dining table. Boxes of bullets. Ammunition magazines. Nomex gloves. Earplugs. Shooting glasses. He puts all of it in an Army backpack, arm-twists his family to accompany him and heads off to In-N-Out for a drive-through cheeseburger.
On a recent Sunday, the only takers were his wife and daughter Maldaa. Neither appeared keen to spend an hour in 106-degree heat popping rounds at silhouette targets in front of a cactus-covered hill. But Muhanned urged them to jump in his SUV. “It’ll be fun — I promise,” he said.
At the range, he loaded his AR-15 and pulled it to his shoulder with the muscle memory of a seasoned shooter. When he switched to the pistol, he urged Maldaa to fire off a clip. The 12-year-old landed most of her rounds on the target’s chest.
“Great aim,” he said, patting her on the back.
When they had expended 150 pistol rounds and 100 for the rifle, Muhanned placed his guns back into a camouflage case. As they walked to the car, Maldaa complained that her ears would be “ringing all night.” Her father turned to his wife and smiled.
“That was relaxing,” he said.
Our armored vehicles accelerated at the pace of a tank. If bullets started flying, you wanted to be inside, but my preference was to outrun the bad guys. To pull that off, you wanted Omar Asaad behind the wheel. He drove an eight-cylinder Mercedes, and he drove it fast. Before the war, he flew MiG-29 fighter jets in the Iraqi air force.
We called him Omar Two — interpreter Omar Fekeiki was hired first — and in the spring of 2004, he drove Naseer, photographer Andrea Bruce and me to interview city council candidates in Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad. On the way there, we were escorted by a prominent tribal sheik who ensured our passage through police checkpoints infiltrated by insurgent spies. On the way back, we were on our own, with one guard, cradling an AK-47, following at a discreet distance in another car.
Halfway through the return journey, as we neared an area called the Triangle of Death, the guard’s car got boxed behind a slow-moving truck. Moments later, Omar Two noticed that we were being followed. It was a gray Opel sedan, a favorite vehicle of insurgents because the back seat folds down, allowing easy access to weapons stored in the trunk.
Omar Two sped up. So did the Opel. Omar Two slowed down. So did the Opel. Omar Two weaved through traffic. So did the Opel. Then Omar Two found a stretch of open highway and gunned his engine. The speedometer nearly maxed out. Tires squealed. He swerved onto a side road to conceal us from our pursuers.
The next morning, Baghdad’s largest newspaper reported that 17 people had been murdered on the highway that afternoon.
Omar Two wants to flee Iraq and join his former colleagues in America. He was among the first in the bureau to apply for a U.S. refugee visa. That was five years ago. He has been interviewed and reinterviewed. He has been fingerprinted and examined by a physician.
But his application has been trapped in a “security review,” according to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. After two Iraqi refugees living in Kentucky were arrested in a 2011 FBI sting and charged with trying to send cash, explosives and antiaircraft missiles to insurgents back home, the Department of Homeland Security has subjected every applicant — even young children and the elderly — to additional screening, narrowing the pipeline of Iraqi refugees to a cocktail straw.
Iraqis in America believe the delay is part of an effort to restrict new arrivals. Officials fault bureaucratic inertia and rigorous security reviews. Applications are screened by multiple U.S. intelligence agencies, and any one of them can place a hold or issue a veto. Or, more commonly, they can act with torpor.
After Omar Two’s last interview for the visa, in 2011, a letter was dropped over the wall of his garden: “In the name of God, the most merciful. Life is a lesson for the faithful. We know you are still working with the Americans — the monkeys and pigs. You and your family will be punished because of your work.”
A few months later, the word “agent” was spray-painted on his car. His children have been threatened at school.
With his aviator glasses and fighter-jockey swagger, Omar Two was always the coolest and calmest of our drivers. No longer. His fear, once bottled inside, now spills forth in e-mails and phone calls. “We are scared,” he told me over the phone recently. “I have been marked, probably for death, because of my work for you.”
Although he served in the Iraqi air force, he never attacked Americans. A lack of spare parts had grounded the fleet by the time the U.S. invasion commenced, and he fled his barracks before U.S. troops made it halfway to Baghdad.
Unlike the two Iraqis in Kentucky, a dozen Americans have known and trusted Omar Two for a decade. This spring, I urged the Department of Homeland Security to expedite visas for him and his family. “His actions were heroic,” I wrote, telling the tale of the highway from Hilla. “I believe I would not be alive . . . if not for his quick and skillful reaction to the threat.”
My letter received no response.
The Iraqis in the bureau were a men’s club, and often a bawdy one. Naseer tested our satellite connection to the Internet by timing how long it took to load his favorite swingers site. Married drivers boasted about their girlfriends. The guards drooled over our neighbor’s young wife.
Huda Lazim, our first female interpreter, entered this den with a maroon headscarf and mental armor. She told me she wanted to help us tell the world about Iraq. Before the war, she had ignored the concerns of her family and traveled to Libya to work as a translator. With Iraq supposedly on the path to democracy, she wasn’t willing to let sexist guards and drivers foil her.
She became our secret weapon. She enabled our correspondents to talk to women, many of whom never would have been willing to speak with a male interpreter, and she negotiated her way past more burly guards than any of the guys.
Two months before the party, my colleague Peter Finn heard a gruesome story: Saddam’s henchmen had executed an entire class of high-schoolers in the early 1980s for scrawling anti-government graffiti on a wall. But when Peter and Huda went to the school, the administrators were unwilling to provide the records they needed to corroborate the tale.
Huda returned by herself the next day, and two more times that week. She cajoled the principal. She tried to guilt-trip the registrar. “These families deserve to know what happened to their children,” she said.
School officials eventually learned what our guards and drivers had grasped months earlier: Don’t get in Huda’s way.
She led Peter to a tear-welling front-page story.
Huda arrived in America not as a refugee but as a recipient of a prestigious year-long fellowship at MIT, followed by stints at the Boston Globe and the New York Times. She then spent a year as a visiting scholar at Stanford University and, in 2008, enrolled in the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley. Along the way, she doffed her headscarf, letting her curly, auburn locks flow free.
At the universities and in the newsrooms, she was welcomed with awe and curiosity. Here was a real, live Iraqi. A woman, to boot. And an outspoken one. She smashed preconceived notions about her homeland, enthralled those advocating for women’s rights and quelled the guilt of those who had supported the invasion.
In those years, as she was feted at parties and queried about the latest machinations in Baghdad, her prospects seemed limitless. She spent the summer after her first year of journalism school interning at an NPR affiliate in Boston.
“I kept asking myself, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” she recalled. “I was living a life that was better than a dream.”
Soon after she graduated from Berkeley in May 2010, she got a call from her brother Dhia, a driver for the bureau. He, his family, their mother and their sister were nearing approval to resettle in the United States. Huda was thrilled, but she worried that if they joined her in Northern California, they would be placed in the same cheap apartment complex in a rough part of Oakland as other Iraqi refugees. “You don’t take families from one war zone and put them in another war zone,” she said. She urged Dhia to choose Portland instead.
Concerned that they couldn’t fend for themselves, she moved to Oregon and crammed in with them in the same weather-beaten apartment complex where Kareem lives. Portland may be safer than Oakland, but the market for work in journalism is far worse. The city’s newspaper, the Oregonian, has been hemorrhaging jobs. Other news outlets aren’t hiring. And these days, nobody seeks her out to opine about Iraq and the war. Most Americans no longer care.
She supports her family by toiling the night shift at a food-products company, entering inventory data into a computer.
“I feel like I’m going backward instead of forward,” she said, with her face in her hands, when we met in May at a Starbucks near her apartment. “I feel like I’m dying every day.”
Omar Fekeiki was the bureau’s Mister Rogers. Every morning, he would remove whatever shirt he wore to work and put on one from Old Navy, which he then left hanging in the office closet overnight — not for comfort but safety. His self-assigned bureau uniform featured a large American flag.
The only times I saw him get angry were when reporters would return from an embed with the U.S. military and not bring him a spare ration pack. He would savor the preservative-laced comestibles in plastic pouches, spreading dollops of peanut butter and processed cheese on crackers as if they were foie gras, drooling over congealed chili mac as if it was filet mignon.
“I could eat this every day,” he pronounced to the bureau. “I love the taste of America.”
Omar joined The Post eight days after the statue of Saddam was pulled down in Firdaus Square. As he was walking near the Palestine Hotel, he spotted a Western journalist struggling to communicate with a group of Iraqis. Omar, who had graduated from college the previous year with a degree in English literature, offered to interpret. The journalist, Post correspondent Mary Beth Sheridan, was so impressed that she brought him to meet me. After a brief conversation, I offered him a job. That’s how the bureau was built: You either happened upon a reporter in need, or you happened to be a friend, relative or neighbor of someone who had.
Omar was the first to leave the bureau for America. His path here began in one of Iraq’s most violent cities.
In the autumn of 2004, he spent several weeks helping to cover a massive U.S. Marine assault to purge insurgents from Fallujah. When the fighting subsided, one of my colleagues proposed sending him on a trip to the United States as a gesture of appreciation. His visit included a stop in Berkeley to speak on a panel about the war, which led to an offer to enroll in the journalism school there.
Omar was ecstatic — he hoped to get a master’s degree and then return to Baghdad to reopen his uncle’s newspaper, which Saddam had shut down in the 1990s — but his acceptance was contingent on paying a $30,000 tuition bill for the first year. My colleagues chipped in, and The Post matched our donations two-to-one. The university gave him a room in the International House and a part-time job to pay for his board and books.
In early 2008, a few months before his graduation, Iraqi police found Omar’s name on a list of kidnapping targets in an al-Qaeda safe house in his Baghdad neighborhood. Our Post colleague Salih Saif Aldin had been assassinated five months earlier while reporting in the city.
After anguished conversations with his relatives, Omar sought asylum in the United States. “I fear I will be kidnapped, beaten, tortured or killed if I return to Iraq,” he wrote in his petition.
He was accepted two weeks later.
Early this January, four years and nine months after Omar obtained his green card, he applied for citizenship, hoping to receive it as soon as he met the five-year eligibility requirement. During his citizenship test in May, he was asked two questions: What is the name of the national anthem, and what is the rule of law? To the second, he was tempted to answer, “Something we don’t have in Iraq,” but he smiled instead. “My country of 28 years pushed me out,” he told his interviewer. “The only place that respected me for who I am is America.”
On June 14, he took a day off from his work as an assignment editor at Radio Sawa, a U.S.-funded station that beams pop music interspersed with news across the Arab world. He donned a gray blazer and navy slacks and drove to the federal building in downtown Baltimore, where he was ushered to a seventh-floor room festooned with red-white-and-blue bunting. He sat in the front row, surrounded by four dozen fellow applicants.
“You’ll soon receive the most important gift this country can bestow,” an immigration services officer told them.
He stood for the anthem, holding a small flag in his left hand. Then he raised his right. And he began repeating the words he never dreamed of saying a decade ago: “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America . . .”
As he took the oath, becoming the bureau’s first U.S. citizen, he thought about the commitment to fight for his new nation. In Iraq, he had been drafted into the army in the months before the U.S. invasion, but he could not bring himself to defend Saddam’s regime, so he deserted.
I knew Omar did not relish bearing arms. “For this government, it is different,” he told me after the ceremony. “I will protect it.”
Instead of reopening the family newspaper, he now wants to spend part of each year in the Kurdish-controlled north, which is far safer than Baghdad, teaching journalism. “Iraq has lost all of its journalistic talent,” he said. “We’re all here now. Some of us need to return and help the next generation.”
As we drove back to Washington on I-95 under a cloudless spring sky, he paused in awe. One act of kindness — offering to interpret for Mary Beth — sent him hurtling toward adventures with American reporters, a master’s from Berkeley, a new life in suburban Washington.
He looked over at me and smiled as he did at the party a decade ago.
“I’m one of you guys now.”
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent and associate editor of The Washington Post, was The Post’s Baghdad bureau chief from 2003 to 2004. He is the author of “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” and “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.”