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A life, a friend lost in Iraq's ruins

June 23, 2007|The writer is an Iraqi reporter in The Times' Baghdad Bureau. His name is being withheld for his safety.

The writer is an Iraqi reporter in The Times' Baghdad Bureau. His name is being withheld for his safety.


baghdad -- "Have you heard from Mohammed-Ali recently?" my friend Sami asked me over the phone.

"No, I think he is out of the country," I said. "I have been trying to call him, but his mobile has been out of coverage."

"Mohammed-Ali has passed away," Sami blurted out. "He went to Egypt, and he died there of a heart attack. He was buried there as well."

My immediate thought was not to get too emotional, so as not to upset Sami any further. He is in his late 60s, and he already has suffered two blood clots in the last year that probably were brought on by the stress of the sectarian violence creeping into his neighborhood.

"We keep hearing about the deaths of people we know, don't we?" I said, sadly.

"Yes we do. This is life, and we have to accept it," he replied. "Mighty God, who would have ever thought he would die there?"

I quickly changed the subject, and even made him laugh at the tricks that I and the girl I love have been playing on each other.

After we finished talking, I tried not to think about Mohammed-Ali's death too much, afraid I would get no sleep that night. I needed all my strength to face the new day in Baghdad.

The next morning, I was relieved that the commute to The Times' office took only about 50 minutes. Usually it takes twice that because of the traffic jams caused by checkpoints. I had enough time for a breakfast with friends from another news organization in the building.

Yet, grief for my friend was building up, and I was flooded with memories of him.

Mohammed-Ali was a great man. (I won't mention his last name. I don't want to put his family at risk.) He was a navy admiral from a proud military family -- the son of a general, the grandson of a general and the great-grandson of a general. He spoke good English and Russian, in addition to Arabic, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the world. He was sensitive, and this made the 60-plus years he lived more difficult than usual.

He was also a great friend. I was pleased to have a person like him to talk to, most of the time in English, about my problems, dreams and our shared interest in modern technology.

I still remember him saying, "Where the hell have you been?" after not seeing me for a while. Now I wish I could have spent some more time with him.

Mohammed-Ali was a proud patriot who hated the Saddam Hussein regime and trusted me enough to criticize it in my hearing. He complained about the bad leadership, but I know there was something deeper troubling him. His father was tortured by Hussein's henchmen, which left him with a lasting brain injury.

I still remember when Mohammed-Ali came to visit me after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. I'd never seen him so happy, and when I asked why, he spread his arms wide and said, "Freedom!"

Some time later, I visited him with Disa Hastad of the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. We sat in his living room, and he proudly introduced his family. I think he was trying to tell us, "Here is a decent family that survived the Saddam era."

Jonathan Steele, with the British newspaper the Guardian, was the next journalist I took for a visit with Mohammed-Ali. By then, his thoughts seemed a bit disorganized. He spoke of his frustration with the mistakes that the U.S. administration and its forces were making in Iraq.

I think after that it was The Times' Peter Spiegel, then working for the Financial Times. Mohammed-Ali told Peter how his family, generation after generation, chose the military life, and that most of them had rebellious tendencies that caused them problems with different governments. He had tears in his eyes when he told Peter, "The military staff college was like a second home to me and my family. Now it is destroyed, and the buildings are ruined."

I remember him telling one of the journalists that he had been contacted by Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, when he headed all U.S. forces in the Middle East, and was asked to help build the new Iraqi army. But his pride would not allow him to work with an occupation force.

Instead, Mohammed-Ali isolated himself in his home and kept busy by reading books from his library and articles on the Internet. He was a good carpenter and liked to do home improvements. He designed and built the house he lived in. He had fun chatting with foreigners on the Internet about Iraq's miseries, something he couldn't do under Hussein. But I guess he got fed up with that eventually, because it did not bring the magical solution he was hoping for.

His activities outside the home were mostly confined to shopping and brief visits with family and friends. He didn't visit me like he used to. I called him once and asked how he was doing. His answer was a bit abrupt.

"Look, this is not a question to be asked in Iraq," he said. "How the hell do you think I am?"

Looking back now, I don't know when exactly I lost him. Was it when we mostly lost touch after 2003? Was it when he left Iraq without contacting me? Or was it when he died abroad, and I didn't hear about it until a month later?

Maybe I can say more about why he is gone. I believe my friend's proud heart was broken by seeing his country destroyed, first by a brutal dictatorship and then by a ruinous invasion.

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