As you know if you've been reading these occasional updates, my friend Paul has been working as a reporter in Baghdad for the last year. He's based in Cairo, but has been spending six weeks at a stretch in Baghdad, with breaks of a week or two at home.
His Iraq shift has come to an end, and he's moving back to Egypt full-time. This is the final dispatch from Iraq, in which he reflects on his year as an interpid war correspondant.
So that was it. The plane took off, we did the familiar stomach churning spin and I looked out and watched the airport dip in and out of view, watched Camp Victory go by, idly pointed out too myself the various Saddam palaces that have become military headquarters and tried to remember which ones I'd been in.
It was a sick and tawdry story and I didn't want to tell it anymore. I walked into a bad situation one year ago and actually watched it get worse, with the fairly certain belief that it will continue to do so.
One year ago, I left Cairo as the Arab League was holding a reconciliation conference to bring together Iraq's disparate factions, to get them to talk to each other, to resolve the ever growing crisis.
The day before I left, my last journalistic endeavor in the country, I attended a reconciliation conference in the Green Zone between... I guess it must have been Iraq's disparate factions again. But the stakes were higher this time, the number of corpses even greater on the streets, because in between those two conferences what was once a disgruntled Sunni-fueled insurgency had turned into a full blown sectarian civil war.
For months the Sunni insurgency, Al Qaeda, whoever, blew up Shiites, until they finally nailed that shrine and that was just a little bit too much and what had until then been some occasional sectarian skirmishing, a bit of police brutality taken to extremes, turned into a concerted effort to drive the Sunnis out of mixed areas, with the inevitable violent reaction.
It wasn't just the Americans fault, though I almost don't want to read all the books coming out detailing just how badly the US forces screwed up in those extremely sensitive early days after the invasion when so much was possible and so little was done right.
The Iraqi political class does have to take its responsibility for the situation as well. These are politicians who could only see everything in a zero sum game. For the Shiites it was just a matter of settling scores, of killing off old Baathists, and humiliating the once dominant Sunnis. And for the Sunnis? They were convinced that they would soon be back in power - hadn't they always run the place? Those idiot, Mahdi-mad Shiites would eventually screw up and they would take power back, so why cooperate now? Why work together when you can have it all one day?
So everyone's taking it all, and not getting anything.
Even the Kurds, for the most part happy in the northern provinces, were playing a zero sum game in Kirkuk, which, stunningly, hasn't totally burst into flame, but when the time comes, they will probably just as vicious there as all the others.
This country has become a graveyard for so much, including the US neo- con ambitions for the Middle East, which would almost be cause for smugness and celebration if it hadn't come at such a high price.
I sympathize with fellow journalists who covered this conflict from the beginning and truly wanted the whole Bush project in Iraq to work because it would have meant peace and prosperity for the people there. I mean really, who is against democracy, free market, prosperity and social justice for a country? Instead, the utterly flawed nature of the whole enterprise has become starkly obvious in the body counts, corruption and total dysfunctional nature of the whole country.
Instead of becoming the beacon for democracy in the Middle East that the Bushie neo-cons envisioned to pressure the autocratic regimes of the region, it has become the warning to all. It justifies every warning given by every dictator in the region -- would you rather have autocracy and order or democracy and chaos?
So what if Iraq has had two elections and a referendum, it is also the most dangerous place on earth. People are fleeing en masse to Syria, of all places, a country with a terrible economy and a stupid dictatorial regime, that nevertheless looks good from Iraq.
It's almost like a case study of medieval Muslim political philosophy which recommended supporting the ruler, no matter how perfidious, because order was always better than chaos. As the guy at the Cairo airport said as I was haggling over my ride home, said, "here in Egypt... it is safe."
Way to go George.
The thing is, I know I will be back. As long as US troops are there, this will be one of the biggest stories in the world, and as soon as they leave, which they will over the next year because suddenly cut and run doesn't seem so bad, it is going to turn into the Middle East's version of the Congo, an ugly conflict that everyone meddles in but doesn't really attract many headlines.
It is so much easier to let them work their own problems out when no one's paying all that much attention.
I don't know how many people died in Iraq while I was there, probably thirty or forty thousand. I knew three, the office manager at our news agency, a cameraman for CBS who lived downstairs, and a US captain out in Ramadi.
There will be more.