The Road Back to Baghdad: Retracing My Journey to Iraq Twenty years On

The Nusba sl-Shaheed, or Martyrs Monument, commissioned by Saddam Hussein during the height of his war with Iran in the early 1980s, was taken over by American troops rumbling around in M1 Abrams tanks as soon as they overan Baghdad in April 2003. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Al-Khobar- I’ve written this essay about my recent journey to Iraq which was a very personal milestone as it marked twenty years since I first visited the country. This was perhaps my twelfth visit to Iraq over the span of two decades and I was thrilled to see it rebuilding, pushing ahead against great odds.

I was unable to find an outlet for this deeply personal piece thus I am just posting it here despite the dearth of traffic to TWD. I suppose this is a love letter to a place that has meant to much to be for so long. The battles, the shrine cities, ancient ruins under threat, and close calls are all strung together in a memory sequence that no hard drive can contain.. But first and foremost it remains the people I’ve met along this long, trying journey that live with me everyday. The unfathomable warmth in the deepest adversity is something I still struggle to understand.

The photo above I shot on a Canon AE1 with Fujifilm Velvia at 27. The image below on an iPhone 8 at 47. What a time this has been.

The Abassid-nouveau sliced dome sits silently on the edge of the Tigris river, guarded today by Iraqi soldiers. ©2023 Derek Henry Flood

I was following an evolving narrative wherever it took me. I had been in Brooklyn when 9/11 struck the twin pillars of the city’s profile, At the time I had been quietly talking to the Taliban who had an office in a medical building in Flushing, Queens. I was trying to convince them to give me a visa in order to follow in the footsteps of some of my photography idols and document life in an isolated Afghanistan. Suddenly I had to make a hard pivot and document the American military intervention in the then ongoing Afghan civil war in that country’s far north. The Taliban were dislodged from power in the first salvo of the terror wars that would consume me for years to come. I made a vow to myself that I would follow this story with no geography too obscure nor risk too high. This would be the story of our lifetime, or at the very least mine even when it waned from the news cycle.

By the summer of 2002 I was hunting for the next chapter in this neoconservative noir. Often baseless assertions were being draped over a patchwork of highly complex societies that a group of beltway ideologues sought to remake as they saw fit. This landed me in Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus where I had hoped to travel to the Tigris river border where a small boat was reportedly willing to take intrepid journalists into Iraq’s Kurdish-controlled north to report well before the imminent US and UK invasion we all knew was coming. My contacts got cold feet and I ended up exploring Damascene souqs thinking about how I would reach Iraq, come the hell of war or high waters of the Tigris. I left Syria that summer, defeated without the scoop from the last of pre-war Iraq but no less determined to explore it .  

I arrived in Amman in mid-April 2003 with about $500 in cash and a pair of clunky film cameras shortly after US Marines had helped a group of Iraqi men assembled in Firdows Square in central Baghdad dramatically tear down a giant copper statue of Saddam Hussein. The images were seen around the world like a stage managed Cold War moment. When word got to Jordan that American soldiers had both reached the al-Karamah border crossing and were letting journalists in with little or no questions asked, I began networking as fast as I could. 

At a dinner held for foreign journalists who were in the same limbo state I met a Spanish reporter named Ana Alba Garcîa who covered the Middle East for a Catalan-language daily called Avui (‘Today’) and we decided to make the journey through the desert wilds of al-Anbar governorate together in a shared taxi to reach Iraq’s now war-torn capital. Ana was a soft spoken intellectual bound for Iraq to investigate the horrors of Ba’athism. Our driver, Osama, was happy his route was reopened and that the war seemed to have been short lived as its naive planners back at the Pentagon had sold it. When we reached the border I did the talking for the three of us. With the newly arrived American soldiers unsure of how the protocol for travelers from outside the region was supposed to function, I hoped my familiar semantics would help ease the process.

Though we had different agendas for what we were looking to witness or explore in Iraq, this trip together in those uteerly chaotic early days of the occupation created that rare bond in the often ultra competitive realm of war reporting. Baghdad was in the fragile, very short lived moment where many Iraqis—but most certainly not all—were thrilled that both the human architects and physical edifices of omnipresent  Ba’athism had been eviscerated. Many years later, Peter Arnett would describe this fitful period to me as Iraq’s “Halcyon days” when we shared our experiences of this moment in history. Osama dropped us off at the Palestine Hotel but balking at the prices we made our way to a small down at the heels place in nearby Karrada. We drifted apart as our interests diverged and I made my way to Najaf and Karbala at the invitation of the Shia seminary known in Iraq as al-Hawza who were offering free room and board to hungry freelancers like myself interested in this volcanic eruption of Shia religious revivalism. Like magma drifting into the sea, pilgrims began slowly walking on the roadways to the shrine cities to venerate the early imams following decades of B’athist oppression. I followed suit out of sheer curiosity in a cramped minibus. This was an incredibly visual moment that I was exhilarated to capture.

I had little interest in the American military itself in its new Iraqi context and never wanted to enter the ethically-problematic embedding system primarily because my interest lay in Iraqi society and both its 20th century and ancient history. I lived in a military town already back home and had friends enlisted in the navy while my father had served in the army during the height of the Cold War. The soldiers I interacted with felt more like friends of friends who had been mislead into a long war than the guilt ridden exoticism bestowed upon them by some of the big name Ivy league journalists who seemed to nearly fetishize the working class Americans fighting this needless war that they otherwise might’ve had difficulty relating to.

Aside from its government being violently overthrown, Iraq’s storied geography was now having labels thrust upon it by outsiders who seemed to know next to nothing about this deeply complex place. Its urban denizens inhabited an amorphous new place called “the Arab street” who were being ruled from walled off occupiers in “the Green Zone” who feared those residing in “the Sunni triangle” but were also weary of the emerging power in “the Shia crescent.” Its governorates were now occupied by clumsy English language terms that many still remember today. When I told a colleague in Beirut I was Baghdad-bound in early 2023, he recalled the most macabre of them all, “ah, the triangle of death!” which I always figured was a subconscious homage to the ‘highway of death’ from the 1991 Gulf War where this all began. The crude labeling and constitutionally codified ethnic and sectarian oversimplification only fuelled the chaos here. It was dehumanization on an industrial scale. Military-industrial that is.

These sudden exonyms came across as fatalistic monikers that indicated Iraq was doomed by its preexisting schisms. Deeply inept external  powers could not solve but rather could only attempt to manage until their leaders deemed the whole endeavor too costly and would inevitably abandon Iraq altogether. The prevalent neoconservative worldview that guided American foreign policy two decades ago broke the world down into dangerously simplistic binaries. The crass new language employed to describe Iraq seemed predestined to justify eventual imperial failure. Iraq was not some routine powerpoint presentation in the ‘Office of Special Plans.’ Itt was humanity itself. 

An incrementally uniting supranational Europe was now divided between “old” and “new” as whole societies were either with “us” or with “the terrorists.” Immediately after 9/11, Iraq was in the crosshairs of this mode of thinking. Similar to the evolving war in Afghanistan, the casus belli for invading and occupying Iraq seemed to keep shifting. From the illusive WMD to human rights to democratic state building to religious freedom, the goal posts would not stop moving even as the deaths mounted on all sides, though vastly disproportionately on the Iraqi civilian side.

When Kurds were gassed in Halabja, they were Saddam Hussein’s ‘own people’ but in the new trifurcated Iraq, they were one of the three distinct groups both the occupation authorities and the media would break the country down into along with Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs who were short handed as simply Sunni and Shia. Meanwhile the complex religious identities of the Kurdish minority were overlooked altogether as they were lumped into an ethnic grouping rather than a faith-based one.       

Ana and I eventually reconnected years later via Twitter, occasionally meeting up in her hometown of Barcelona when she was home from her post with El Periodico n Jerusalem and I typing up my findings on the then ongoing war against IS in taking in place in both Iraq and Syria. When I mentioned Iraq, we sometimes would slip into reminiscing at the tragedy and naivete of those first days in Baghdad. Of how awful and misguided the terror wars were. On how these militarized machinations shaped our adult lives in ways neither of us could’ve foreseen.

I worked in Iraq numerous times after 2003 but primarily in Ninewa and Kirkuk governorates via the Kurdistan Regional Government’s visa loophole whereby I could get a visa on arrival either at the Habur border crossing from Turkey or simply flying into the Erbil airport from Istanbul. That initial road trip in 2003 always lingered in my mind but the dangers of al-Anbar with the arcane quasi-Ba’athist visa policy didn’t bring me back this way. But in mid-March 2021, Iraq somewhat stunningly liberalized its visa policy, at least for those with passports from the broadly post-industrial world. And hearing that Iraqi security forces had reasonably secured the major roads connecting Baghdad and Fallujah to Amman further incentivized me to retrace that journey twenty years ago. A friend in Amman helped me locate a cross border taxi service  with a fleet of late model Dodge Durangos making runs to Baghdad, Damascus, and even all the way to the distant UAE. I handed the saleswoman a crisp one-hundred dollar bill for a seat departing at 5am the following day. The excitement set in instantly. A window into the past. An Iraq finally at peace.

My first order of business was to get back to my hotel and surprise Ana with a Whatsapp text that I was recreating our old voyage before I began to pack my bags. I then planned to suggest she meet me in Baghdad to cover the anniversary of the fall of the regime. At the least it would be a sentimental exchange and post pandemic reconnection between two colleagues who were now old hands on this Levantine beat. But number was no longer tethered to Whatsapp. We hadn’t spoken since before the global covid shutdown so I thought nothing of it and turned to Twitter to send a direct message. “Hey remember this?” with the taxi service receipt. But her Twitter handle had seemingly vanished. A quick Google search will solve this.

Ana died of cancer on May 6, 2020 when Barcelona was under a draconian citywide lockdown. She was just 48. I slumped in my seat, crushed. When we had last met at a small Barcelona dive bar, she told me of her diagnosis but outwardly seemed ok to me from what astonishingly little I knew about this disease. It never occurred to me it would actually take her life. She had reportedly tirelessly from conflict zones, surely cancer could not be her undoing. She asked about my recent travels around Syria alongside the SDF while covering the war against IS.  My first thought was to forget the trip altogether and sit in Amman and sulk. How could I feign optimism knowing what I now knew? Why did I push it to that last minute to reach out?

I tried to come up with some allegorical mechanism pairing her life with the fate of Iraqis at the hands of menacing great powers but nothing quite fit.I then simply decided me coming this far and giving up was antithetical to the spirit of that first journey two decades ago. This was happening.

An hour after the agreed time, a late-model Dodge Durango with a very young driver from Irbid at the helm scooped me up from my hotel and we raced off toward the border before dawn. My fellow passengers were Abbas, a gregarious man in immaculately tailored blue dishdasha from Baquba and Hussayn, a soft-spoken man from Karbala in worn out loafers. I felt safe with them. The idea of being in the company of these men was somehow comforting. We would make this voyage together across not entirely insecure desert plains.This Is what I had hoped.

The two very very curious why I was going by road rather than simply fly to Baghdad international. Avoiding delving into my emotional state that far eclipsed my rudimentary Arabic, I related my other idea that I was traveling from Amman to Dubai without getting on an airplane in order to test out the new Iraqi and Saudi visa policies which was concomitantly true with my reasoning about the twentieth anniversary of the fall or liberation of Baghdad. This sleepless highway small talk ended up being incredibly useful the moment we arrived at the Jordanian customs post at al-Karamah where Mafraq governorate meets al-Anbar. Upon inspecting my passport, a befuddled officer said he was hesitant to let me go any further without having an Iraqi visa from the embassy back in Amman. After explaining that Iraq was opening up its borders to some degree, he somewhat reluctantly let us move forward into a series of inspections and offices, stamps thumping and nervous morning chatter between civilians and authorities.

Crossing to the Iraqi side of the equation, the vibe instantaneously shifted. Customs officers were openly being glad handed by ordinary Iraqis who were just trying to reach their destination with the consumer goods they had purchased in Jordan as efficiently as possible. I saw no such thing on the Jordanian side just moments before. Muhammed, our driver, whispered that if officers were caught taking bribes in Jordan there were harsh penalties whereas there was no such equivalent in what was one of Iraq’s most remote areas. The visa process was tense, time consuming, but it ultimately worked. The hard part was over. The visa liberalization declared in March 2021 meant in theory to help Iraq’s ailing economy was indeed working at a far flung land crossing and my passport was now proof.  The hard part was over.

No, wait. We got to the last checkpoint before being allowed to drive freely onto Highway 1 toward Baghdad when a soldier poked his head in our vehicle and spotted a traveler from well outside the region. Stop.

Muhammed was informed that because of the nature of my visa or passport or a mix of both we would have to wait for an unspecified time for an armed escort to lead us. After about twenty minutes of sitting around tired and frustrated, Abbas and Hussayn wished me good luck and jumped in another Durango on which no such limitations were being imposed. Finally a well worn Humvee pulled up and instructed us to tail them, very slowly, for a few dozen kilometers. We would periodically stop and hang around the next checkpoint while we waited for another escort in another vehicle type. For a while we followed an up armored Toyota Hilux, and so forth, until the road was deemed safe enough for us to move ahead unaccompanied. This resulted in Mohammed driving more than double the speed we had been going with the Hummers and Hiluxes to make up for lost time and get to Baghdad in time for the iftaar meal.

Blazing past acre after acre of new construction in what had been until quite recently the world’s most feared geography where IS ruled with impunity, we were relieved to have returned spans of human settlement. A place that still connotes suicide car bombings and cities under siege was rising from the ashes and fast.Then we hit traffic in western Baghdad and plenty of it. After a few urban custom checkpoints we were in. In contrast to Osama dropping Ana and I off in the parking lot of the Palestine Hotel and wishing us good luck, Muhammed put my hotel on Saddoun Street into the GPS on his dash mounted Android phone in 2023 and dropped me off exactly where I needed to be. We took the requisite selfie, parting ways with a bond on what we had just experienced together. exhausted, I fell into a chair in a down at the heels Ezidi-run place a freelancer friend had recommended. It was walking distance to Firdows Square and Karrada and exactly what I needed. The young Ezidis from Dohuk governorate were not fasting, giving me a hot chai and cold water simultaneously to welcome me after the prolonged al-Anbar run.

After tossing my bags into a musty, sunlit room, I wasted no time going for a walk around Karrada. En route, I passed by Firdows Square noticing the plinth upon which the giant Saddam Hussein statue was pulled down on April 9, 2003 was gone as if the remnants of that history had been wiped away to start anew. It was now just a flat traffic circle with fountains thrusting up into the dusky horizon before the iconic Ramadan mosque. No one was coming in or out of the now secured lot of the Palestine. It towered silently over the square withKalashnikov-totiing federal policemen quietly on watch. A massive billboard of the late Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis joined by Imam Hussayn and looking over the golden dome of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem  looms overhead.

I turned onto Omar bin Yasir street to witness Karrada teeming with life. Construction crews were erecting new storefronts from rubble-strewn lots like they couldn’t work fast enough. Masons hammered in new sidewalks. ATMs, which like the internet and mobile phones, didn’t exist when I first came here, were now in abundance. The mood on this ramadan night was seemingly carefree as Baghdadis strolled, laughed, and bantered about politics over shisha. I thought perhaps I should not be complacent after years of reporting in this country but the mood was too joyous. On a ramadan night such as this, in July 2016 IS had struck with a truck bomb two weeks after it lost control of Fallujah in this festive neighborhood killing over 250, the single deadliest terror attach in Iraq since 2003. But that was already almost seven years ago I told myself. Iraq had come so far in such a short time as far as securing its major population centers.This is not then.

 I tried to balance keeping in mind the fact that IS attacks in rural areas of al-Anbar, Kirkuk, and Ninewa are still ongoing, out of sight of the media. The countervailing narratives of the salafi-jihadis vs those of Hashd al-Shaabi and the central government fight it out in lightly populated rural districts coupled with social media as proof.

A lot had transpired in the past twenty years, much of it absolutely agonizing. Many civilians, soldiers and journalists didn’t make it this far. In this moment however, a vulnerable peace feels as if it is at hand. This legendary city, this essential country, must be allowed to flourish.