It is estimated that there are at least 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria today. I believe it. Walking down the streets of Damascus, you can hear the Iraqi accent everywhere. There are areas like Geramana and Qudsiya that are packed full of Iraqi refugees.
We live in an apartment building where two other Iraqis are renting. The people in the floor above us are a Christian family from northern Iraq who got chased out of their village by Peshmerga and the family on our floor is a Kurdish family who lost their home in Baghdad to militias and were waiting for immigration to Sweden or Switzerland or some such European refugee haven.
The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative – a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, “We’re Abu Mohammed’s house- across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask- this is our number. Abu Dalia’s family live upstairs, this is their number. We’re all Iraqi too... Welcome to the building.”
I cried that night because for the first time in a long time, so far away from home, I felt the unity that had been stolen from us in 2003.
At the same time, here's a piece by NPR's Tom Bullock, who's ending his time as their Baghdad correspondent. It, too, reflects the human tragedy of Iraq:
At a pizza parlor not far from where we use to live there was a piano and an Iraqi-Armenian who had an amazing ear for music. You'd walk in and he'd hand you a dog eared copy of the songs he could play and demand you make a request. He spoke almost no English and the song titles showed it. "Fly Me to the Moon" became "Fling Me at the Moon." Whatever the name, the guy could play – and the pizza was great.
On a regular basis American troops would show up there to buy dozens of pies to go, then throw them in the back of their armored vehicles and drive them back to their base — basically the world's most heavily protected pizza delivery service.
That world was brilliant, brief, and, is no more.
As the violence increased everything in Baghdad changed. The Americans became isolated behind barriers in the Green Zone and U.S. bases. All of Baghdad turned into 12-foot high concrete blast walls and razor wire that spread through the city like kudzu.
Our reporting changed too. Dominated by stories of car bombs, insurgent attacks and then civil war, millions of Iraqis fleeing and thousands dying as Shiites and Sunnis cleansed neighborhoods and bombed markets.
Kidnappings became commonplace.
I became a prisoner in our bureau. To go out meant putting not only my own life at risk, but the lives of my translators and drivers as well. So we taught the Iraqis we work with our trade, and they became journalists.
Our entire Iraqi staff is now made up of refugees. Each one has been forced to flee his or her home and seek safety in another neighborhood. Not because they work with us, but because they prayed slightly differently than the militia on their street.
Working in Baghdad is a strange thing. You get accustomed to the long days and constant work. You learn to live with having no where to let off steam. The cycle is simple: wake up, work, repeat.
You weed through press releases and sit through press conferences, which seem at odds with the reality we — living the Red Zone, the real world — know all too well.
Some of my favorites: a series of statements from the Iraqi government saying reconciliation is at hand. Read the fine print and make some phone calls, and you found out there's been a meeting to agree on a more important meeting on some unknown day in Iraq's very unknowable future.
Or, the US military saying Iraqi forces will be able to take over security in the country in 12 to 18 months. I've been told that regularly for the last three plus years.
Some press releases are just plain strange: U.S. troops defuse an explosive device strapped to a donkey. I'm pleased to report the donkey was unharmed by the way.
Have I been harmed? I've come close. But after 21 tours my body and mind seem to have held up OK.
My last view of Baghdad will be of the city by air. I will leave frustrated at that death of that golden era of pizza parlors and barber shops; frustrated with Iraqi's I've talked to who proudly say "we are all brothers," then take up arms against each other; frustrated with American military and civilian officials who stand up and say everything in Iraq is working, then when they leave write books about how everything in Iraq has failed and its not their fault.
And I'm pained by the number of people I've personally known who've been killed here: journalists, Iraqis and American soldiers.
There is nothing left to "win" in Iraq. The longer we stay, the worse it will get. We can't put Humpty-Dumpty back together.
Added: And airstrikes don't make the situation better:
Bombs targeted Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad on Monday, killing at least seven people and wounding two dozen, while Iraqi police reported that a woman and her daughter were wounded in an American airstrike against the Shiite enclave of Sadr City.
The airstrike leveled a small shop selling engine oil, wounding a woman and her daughter who were in their house nearby, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. The U.S. military said it was checking on the report.
The number killed in Baghdad's main Shiite enclave was one of the highest tolls for a single operation since President Bush declared an end to active combat in 2003.
I've read a lot of speculation about what will happen if we leave Iraq. But look what is happening now as we stay. When we are conducting airstrikes on civilians, we are committing war crimes. Is this what we have achieved?