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Ordinary life in a broken country

Oliver Poole in Iraq

Oliver Poole, one of the few Western journalists who stuck it out in Baghdad for most of the five years since the US-led invasion, leaving only in November 2006, reflects on the impact of the war on Iraqi families.

The first time I reached Baghdad it was in the back of an American armoured vehicle, part of the invading force that had crossed the Kuwait border 16 days earlier.

Our arrival had not been a pleasant one. Soldiers in Iraq's Republican Guard, Saddam's most elite military unit, had dug lines of foxholes along the roads leading to the international airport that stands south-west of the city.

Our children's minds are being changed and we will have to change them back to stop Iraq's future from being a bloody one
Oliver's translator, Ahmed
Their weapons had been useless when facing the American tanks marshalled against them. Bullets and rocket-propelled grenades bounced off the side of the advancing army, which killed all opposition in its path.

From the hatch in the back of the vehicle, I could see the foxholes, one after the other, each filled with a dead body. The sky was a ruddy grey from the fires burning across the city.

Yet, next morning, I experienced for the first time something I encountered again and again during my years in Baghdad - the kindness and generosity of Iraqis amid adversity.

Pop Idol

On that first day in Baghdad, a man was standing at the entrance to his house bordering the wasteland where the American armoured vehicles had parked. I approached him, uncertain what reception I would get, and he invited me inside for a cup of tea.

Golden mosque in Samarra
The bombing of the Golden Mosque left ordered society in tatters
I thought his family would want to discuss the war or America's intentions. However when they discovered I was from England there was only one thing his 16-year-old son wanted to know: whether I had ever met David Beckham.

During the years that I lived in Baghdad, I found that people's concerns were utterly familiar, despite the extremity of their situation.

They worried for their children, they got stressed about how to pay their bills, they commuted to work, they made jokes about their hardships and they struggled to maintain good relationships with their spouses.

At one point, in 2004, there was even an Iraqi version of Pop Idol, the singing reality-TV show. No studio audience was permitted because of the risk of a suicide bomb, but thousands of people still risked a perilous journey to audition.

Coverage of the war inevitably focused on casualty counts and the intricacies of military and political strategies. Yet the effect on millions of innocent Iraqis is as important, or more so.

Breakdown

It is hard to conceive the extent to which Iraqi society has been shattered by the conflict.

Neighbours banded together to man barriers dragged at night across the entrances to their road
After the US authorities disbanded the Iraqi army and police in late 2003 criminality became endemic. At the same time, electricity and water supplies rapidly became spasmodic. Hospitals ran out of drugs.

When the sectarian fighting began in earnest after the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in 2006, the foundations of ordered society broke down to such an extent that individual streets began to turn to their own devices for protection.

Neighbourhood watch groups sprang up as neighbours banded together to man barriers dragged at night across the entrances to their road.

One member described to me what happened when the sectarian death squads had tried to break in. "We surrounded them. They were in a trap and gunfire on them was from everywhere," he said.

Before the war he had been a shopkeeper. Now, like millions of his countrymen, he had been required to become a killer.

Whatever happens next, whenever peace may come, the scars caused by actions like his will take a long time to fade. They are the unmeasurable cost of what has happened.

Playing jihad

I can remember one time in late 2005, when things were starting to get very bad. There had been a number of suicide bombings that day and political tensions were high as Iraq's new constitution was being forced through against Sunni objections.

child playing with gun
Parents worry that their children are being brutalised by war
Yet my translator, Ahmed, was worried primarily about something else. The previous evening he had seen his four-year-old daughter and a friend playing by holding sticks to their shoulders and pretending to be "jihadists", like the pictures she had seen on television.

"We are becoming a war culture and our children's playground has become a battlefield," Ahmed told me.

"Our children's minds are being changed and we will have to change them back to stop Iraq's future from being a bloody one. I wonder if I will be able to do this and if God will help me to get it done."

He could not bear the thought that his daughter could be brutalised by what had happened to his homeland. For him, that would have been the war's greatest tragedy.

We often think we know what war looks like but it is not until we get to war that we realise it looks like us.

Oliver Poole was the Iraq Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph newspaper. His new book, Red Zone: Five Bloody Years in Baghdad, is published by Reportage Press.


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