By 2002, Ammar was a sociology student at London’s Westminster University and fluent in four languages. He and his circle of friends shared a dream: After the U.S.-led invasion the following year, these young students foresaw a new Iraq, united by a common democratic vision and not splintered by religion, ethnicity or corruption. It was a vision they were determined to turn into reality.
Some months after Hussein’s regime fell, my colleague Duncan Furey and I met Ammar for the first time in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. We were on a trip to establish a team for the London-based charity we work for, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), which strengthens local media and civil society groups in countries in crisis.
There was clearly a lot to be done in Iraq.
In a white T-shirt and jeans, Ammar looked very much a kid. We soon noticed his confident and inviting smile, which seemed to welcome and embrace everyone he met. As we sipped tea in the lobby and discussed how bewildered we were by Iraqi society, we marveled at this young man’s ability to work a room. Ammar knew everyone, and everyone knew Ammar.
There was our man. We knew we should hire him immediately.
Having already established the Baghdad office of the Iraq Foundation, Ammar joined IWPR and set to work, steadily building up a team that peaked at 150 local staffers, plus him as chief of mission. Over an extended period, the programming he developed was marked by great creativity — a groundbreaking TV series on human rights, a weekly women’s radio show, an advertising agency run by women, media pieces encouraging people to vote, and a major initiative for media policy and legal reform. And, of course, countless training and mentoring activities for Iraqi reporters and civil society groups.
He had an impact on an entire generation of Iraqi journalists. This would be a remarkable roll call of accomplishment in any country, let alone Iraq.
The initial calm after the war did not last long, and the country sank into a decade of terrible internecine conflict that left hundreds of thousands of dead, immense physical destruction, industrial-scale corruption, and more displacement and flight. After that, there was a crisis of government legitimacy, then the emergence of the Islamic State militant group.
Few outside Iraq would think the outlook is positive.
Ammar endured through it all, constantly traveling across the country – one day in the Kurdish north, the next in western Iraq, then back in the capital.
As violence in Baghdad spiked, many international nongovernmental organizations withdrew to the Kurdish region. But Ammar – with a talented and dedicated team – persevered, managing complex projects; meeting officials, civic leaders, editors and others; writing endless reports and proposals; and always offering information and advice to anyone who came calling.
I have worked with many colleagues in war zones, and strains are inevitable. Ammar was not immune, but I often felt that only in this kind of environment could he steal the freedom he craved. Throughout, he retained his positive demeanor, warm manner and that winning, sometimes mischievous smile.
He also developed a formidable expertise and intellect. Ministers and ambassadors, journalists and academics all had huge respect for Ammar, and his briefings were always informative and inspiring. I often attended events with him, and his insights into Iraq’s challenges and opportunities were fascinating.
Acting U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford spent several hours with Ammar and a number of trainees, hearing about IWPR’s work and discussing developments in Iraq. As they departed, Ford remarked to his State Department colleague Vitessa Del Prete, “Best day in Iraq, ever.” Ammar had that effect on many people.
Meanwhile, the vision of quick progress under Ahmed Chalabi never materialized. Bad leadership and poor decisions were rife, among Americans and Iraqis alike. The violence never abated; the deaths mounted. Three reporters involved with IWPR lost their lives, including Sahar al-Haidari, assassinated in Mosul for writing about the risks of Islamist extremism there.
We came to love our colleague and friend Ammar, though, in truth, there were times he also drove us nuts. Deadlines were just not his thing. He might disappear for days on end, only to reemerge to say he had been caught out by a sandstorm or a worn-out satellite phone battery. Yet his judgment of people, of politics and of Iraq was always unerring, and he never let you down in the end.
At one point some years ago, he was tempted to run for political office. It would have been an obvious progression. But after much soul-searching, he declined. Jumping into formal politics would only have limited his ability to contribute, and it would have constrained his free spirit.
Despite his growing family, he was determined to stay in Iraq. This was not easy, especially for his wife, Angela. They tried relocating to Baghdad, but it did not work. So he traveled back and forth from London regularly. Only a few months ago, Ammar and Angela celebrated the birth of their fourth child. He spent a very long time every day talking to them all via Skype.
Ammar stayed with IWPR and stayed in Iraq because despite everything, he never did lose his dream.
He believed passionately in working to make social and political change happen from the ground up. With his background in sociology, he was constantly thinking about how Iraq could be knitted together, how different groups could work across dividing lines and, above all, how women and youths could be encouraged to participate.
He helped keep alive the flame of hope and possibility for countless Iraqis, especially young people.
Most recently, he was seized by the plight of the Yazidi minority at the hands of Islamic State (including horrible stories of abuse against women), and he worked to mobilize Iraqi and international support to assist them.
We urged him to be careful, and he had a closetful of flak jackets and other safety equipment. His father – living back in Baghdad – and his wife begged him to limit his movements. But Ammar was smart and incredibly well connected, and he knew how to handle himself.
Though he felt under the weather, he could not refuse an invitation last Saturday afternoon to go to a concert by an Eagles cover band, of all things. In one of the last photographs ever taken of him, smiling in the audience, I know he is thinking about more than just the moment. For if Iraq cannot play music, it cannot move forward. And if he is not willing to turn up, who will?
Ammar, being Ammar, couldn’t not go. He took a photo at the concert and put it on Twitter; it was one of his final tweets. The lyrics of the song the band was playing, “Hotel California,” are sadly apt now: “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”
After a pleasant meal with friends at a nearby restaurant, he was walking down the street. A car bomb blast killed him instantly. A small piece of shrapnel embedded itself in his heart. Sixteen other people died in the attack, and another IWPR colleague was wounded but survived.
The reaction of all his good friends – whether in Iraq or Irbil, London or Malmo, Washington or New York and beyond – was the same: “No – not Ammar.”
The great survivor, the wise youngster, the rascal and the pro – Ammar was always there and always would be. No one could believe it. His tight group of Iraqi friends from London – the original young dreamers – are especially bereft. I still have difficulty accepting the fact, and will for some time.
“Ammar was very special,” Angela said in her agony. “But in Iraq, no one’s life is special.”
And yet, that may not be wholly true, after all. It is hard to really appreciate what you have until it is gone. This has never been more true than about Ammar.
The day after his death was World Press Freedom Day. For his many friends, including me, May 3 can never again be a celebration, only a commemoration.
Ammar’s funeral later that week (delayed so Angela, with her parents and all the children, could travel from London) and the official mourning in Baghdad attracted enormous support from leading politicians and religious figures, journalists and activists. Hundreds of people attended, including former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. There has been broad coverage in the Iraqi media, which Ammar did so much to help build. “Brother,” “hero” and “patriot,” he was called as friends and colleagues reminisced. “The pure soul of Iraq.”
“When I said I lost Ammar,” one of his close Iraqi colleagues wrote to me, “I mean I lost myself.”
Ammar was buried in Wadi al-Salaam, the vast cemetery in the holy city of Najaf. Friends who viewed the body said he was smiling.
In the worst of environments, Ammar gave hope. Will that hope be extinguished? Or is it just possible that his passing may inspire those he touched to recommit to that dream?