Around midnight, I stood on a three-story rooftop in Baghdad, watching orange and yellow flashes from a distant artillery barrage far to the west. Earlier there had been a spirited firefight about a block from my position — crackling automatic-weapons fire, arcing tracers, and single shots between the two forces, with one side (the insurgents) eventually silenced by the rapid, heavy “boom, boom, boom, boom” of an American .50-caliber machine gun.Now, except for the occasional muffled, artillery “woomph” rolling in from the west, the city was quiet.
All at once, the most hellish sounding screeching and growling erupted on the street below me. As I walked toward the edge of the roof for a better view, I could see two Iraqi soldiers running toward the same sound.
Two wild dogs were fighting over a badly mangled cat; and both were tearing at it like a tug of war. When the Iraqis got there, they began shouting at the dogs, and one used the butt of his AK-47 rifle to knock the animals away. The dogs took off down the street, and the Iraqis began desperately trying to save the life of the suffering, dying cat. It was a terrible sight to witness. “But it’s just a cat,” I thought for a moment, as I watched the men find a cardboard box and some blankets to wrap it in. A few other soldiers soon gathered around.
You’d have thought the cat was a wounded child the way the men all helped one another trying to save it. Yet these are people many Westerners would argue place no value on life.
The next morning, I was downstairs in the kitchen of the house in which I was staying — a former residence of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals — looking for a clean cup for some coffee. I grabbed one and started washing it, when an Iraqi woman (one of the maids) came over to me, lightly slapped my hand, took the unwashed cup and handed me a clean one. She couldn’t speak English, but she smiled at me in a motherly fashion and pointed toward the brewing coffee.
Soon other women came into the house, one with a little boy who was playing with toy cars just like any American child might. All of them were talking and smiling, some laughing as the little boy asked something of his mother.
As I left the house for a planned interview with a Sunni businessman, some Iraqi soldiers on the street waved, smiled, and — in their best English — said, “Morning, sir.”
A block away, I strolled past a machine shop where mechanics and auto-body repairmen were busy replacing shot-up windshields, flat tires, and bullet-ridden, IED-blasted doors and panels. These were the vehicles I had been riding in everyday since I had been in Iraq, and the guys were patching them up from almost daily highway ambushes were Iraqis.
Point being: The Iraqi people are like everyone else in the world: They have families. They work. Their kids go to school. They value life as much as anyone else. And they want a safe and secure future for their kids. Right now, that’s something they don’t have.
“We have some freedom,” one interviewee told me, on condition that — for security reasons — I would not reveal his name. “But right now it is not useful to us. Yes, I can travel outside the country whenever I want. But I can’t go to my own neighborhood because I am afraid of being killed.”
That fear didn’t mean he blamed the Americans for his and his countrymen’s plight. On the contrary, he was grateful for America, and he said, “Ask any Iraqi — Sunni, Shiia, or Kurd — and most will tell you the same thing.”
I did ask, and he was right.
“Definitely freedom will mean something to us,” my interviewee said. “But it will take time because under Saddam’s dictatorial rule we were all in handcuffs so-to-speak. Now we are free. We have something we are not used to, and the terrorists are trying to prevent us from having it fully before we realize how good it really is.”