BAGHDAD, IRAQ–A major blast ripped through the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad at around 8 P.M. local time Wednesday. At the time of the explosion, I was preparing to leave the media center at the Convention Center. The shockwaves rattled the windows with a rumble like distant thunder. Having been on the opposite side of the Tigris River from the blast, I was not aware of its full magnitude until, upon arriving at my hotel, I began receiving panicked e-mails from friends in New York inquiring into my safety. I then jumped into a taxi, and proceeded toward the bombsite.
When I arrived at the scene, some of the fires spawned by the blast were still burning. Melted and twisted hulks of what used to be cars dotted the street, which revealed its primary wound: An eight-foot-wide crater implanted where the 500-pound vehicle borne improvised explosive device had detonated.
While the hotel sustained substantial damage, attention was now focused on the shattered remains of a two-story home across the street. Workers dug furiously through the rubble, searching for what were inevitably casualties rather than survivors. When one was finally found, I was standing next to a group of soldiers who were preparing to assist with the unpleasant task of retrieving the body. It is the first time since arriving in Iraq that I have seen anything resembling fear in a soldier’s eyes–the fear of seeing what this bomb had wrought on another human body. The young men, about 19 years old, toward the front of the group were very cautious in moving forward. Clearly sensing this trepidation, one of the soldiers pulled the men together and said, “O.K., let’s do this guys. For First Platoon.” They slowly moved forward to do their somber duty. As of 11:30 P.M., the count stood at 16 dead and approximately 40 wounded, with two people unaccounted for. By morning, the death toll would rise to 29.
This terror attack struck an area known as the hospital district in Baghdad. There are a least three hospitals close to this street, with one located close enough to have sustained minor damage. But more importantly, this is a neighborhood that was prospering, which is undoubtedly why it was selected as a target.
One resident in the neighborhood is Mohannad Nasim, a 45-year-old man who lives about a block from the blast site. At the time of the explosion, Nasim was about ten meters outside his house, but his wife and 11-month-old girl were in the structure. When Nasim saw me in the street with my camera, he invited me into his home. Chunks of concrete filled his living room, which was now ventilated by an eight-foot gash in the ceiling. A broken window frame sat shorn from the wall in his baby’s crib, and a ceiling fan had dropped from its moorings to rest in the center of his bed. Shards of metal shrapnel from the exploded vehicle were scattered his home. And yet, Nasim was smiling. “I am happy because my wife and daughter are alive,” he beamed. Alive and unharmed.
It was about this time that Nasim walked over to his refrigerator and pulled out a bowl of fruit. “You are a guest in my home. You must have something to eat.” I tried to resist, but this was a losing battle. Indeed, before I left, I would also be given a soda to drink as well. There is something both unsettling and wonderful about standing in a man’s crumbling home and receiving such genuine hospitality.
I spoke with Nasim for some time. He speaks English very well, and is employed as an interpreter for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Even with his home in ruins, Nasim’s enthusiasm for the American effort was undeterred. “I like [the] CPA. I like the American people. I like the U.S. Army,” he explained. During the course of our conversation, Nasim mentioned at least twice that his daughter, Aayia, was born on April 9, 2003. The date is important to him: She was born after the Americans came. She was born in the new Iraq.
But his enthusiasm had its limits. When Al Jazeera camera crews appeared down the street, Nasim did not attempt to hide his contempt. “I hate Al Jazeera…. Al Jazeera is not representative of the Iraq people. They represent themselves.”
Not surprisingly, Nasim is concerned about the future given the increased number and intensity–not to mention proximity–of attacks which have occurred over the past two months. Yet in the face of this uncertainty, he is more determined to go on about his daily life, in defiance of terrorism. He will go to work translating for the Americans in the morning, and he will rebuild his home. This quiet resolve is the response of the majority of the Iraqi people. This is story of Iraq that has not been told. At the end of the evening, I walked away from the scene, my clothes thick with smoke, my pocket filled by the apple given to me, and in spite of the tragic events of the evening, my spirits lifted concerning the future of Iraq, thanks to Mr. Nasim.
–Robert D. Alt is a frequent contributor to NRO. He is a fellow in legal and international affairs at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, and is currently reporting from Iraq. He’s blogging from Iraq here.