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Engel: ‘I’ve seen so many ugly things’

During hisyears of covering the war in Iraq, NBC News Middle East correspondent Richard Engel has survived bombings and kidnapping attempts, and has seen colleagues and friends injured, kidnapped, or killed by insurgents.

Editor's note: Below is a partial transcript to the MSNBC special report “War Zone Diary 2008.” For the complete documentary experience, we recommend watching the video online or in future MSNBC broadcasts.

RICHARD ENGEL: I was a freelancer and I’d snuck into Iraq”

ANNOUNCER: A gripping look at the realities of covering the war In Iraq

ENGEL: They call this intense urban fighting. All of this does have a psychological impact. I’ve seen so many ugly things”

ANNOUNCER: For five years, Richard Engel put his own life on hold to report from the war zone

ENGEL: I thought it would be important to document for my own sake what i was going through. It looks like a bullet may have just come through my window.  You can hear those bombings outside. I don’t even notice them anymore. You start to wonder, am I doing the right thing?  I did at some stage think i may have been recording my obituary.

VIDEO DIARY RICHARD ENGEL: Well, I’m hearing lots of anti-aircraft fire around me. It’s been the most intense so far.

March 21, 2003 9:00 PM EST    “Shock and Awe”

The building was shaking. I thought to myself, “I can’t keep this up much longer.  If it is gonna be like this every, single night I’m not gonna live through this.”

VIDEO DIARY: Whoa! Whoa! It’s okay. Uh, It’s going to be okay.

I thought it would be important to document for my own sake what I was going through. I’m now making a little dinner for myself.  Note to self, next time think of more knives and forks and spoons.

I thought, “If I’m gonna keep a journal in this digital age, I may as well keep a video journal so that I’ll have some sort of record of it

VIDEO DIARY: That’s me, filming.

Not only of what I was saying and what I was feeling but also what I was looking like, what the place where I was living looked like.

VIDEO DIARY: I have managed to rig this light.  The hotel has continued to operate as an emergency light.  I’ve managed to pull it out of wall, split the wires, and I am running a wire from it, to power an extension cord.

I did at some stage think I may have been recording my own obituary. 

VIDEO DIARY: So, we wait, huh.

I was a freelancer and I’d snuck into Iraq bribing some Iraqi officials with a few hundred dollars. They gave me an illegal visa, and then once I was here, I was very surprised.  Almost all of the other news organizations pulled their reporters out.

VIDEO DIARY: On this roof at one stage, there were many, many camera crews. They are all now unfortunately mostly gone

Suddenly, I was one of the few people left in the country.

VIDEO DIARY: I just spoke with my wife. She’s not very calm. She’s uh, she’s nervous she’s not telling me to leave but she’s saying that it’s been very difficult on her and the rest of my family. When you speak to your family, it brings it home and makes you think about the big picture and you start to wonder, am I doing the right thing?  Am I going to end up looking like some sort of foolish cowboy who, who stayed out?

I don’t think you can really prepare for an urban war.

VIDEO DIARY: I have here a helmet and a bullet proof jacket, a belt, a money belt with a zipper in the back to uh, there should be about a thousand dollars in there.A whole stack of local currency, it’s not worth as much as you’d think. All of this is about a hundred and, about a hundred and ten dollars or so.

I was just trying to think, what are the things I was going to need.

VIDEO DIARY: Here’s some extra food that I’ve stored up.. some peas.. some sort of chicken luncheon meat that I really hope I don’t have to eat.

I didn’t want to be dependant on any other people, if, if possible

VIDEO DIARY:This is something I really hope I don’t have to use.  It’s atropine.. You probably have seen this in other reports.  This is what you are supposed to take in case of a nerve agent attack these are little syringes. You undo this knob, this yellow knob, and then you stab yourself with the green end. If you do this when you’re not exposed to a nerve agent it can be lethal so you want to be very careful with that stuff. I hope to never open that little pouch.

I would go out during the day with my camera and drivers and try and assess the situation, the mood.

There were a few times where I was nervous, U.S. forces had dropped a cruise missile into a crowded marketplace killing many civilians

When I got there some of them were quite aggressive.  They were holding up body parts in my face and screaming, “this is what the American government has done.  This is what your government has done.”

The Iraqi government had this bizarre attitude. The press conferences were completely ridiculous.  Most of the microphones that were in front of those podiums were not even plugged in. They were just taped to the podium itself and that was like the regime in general.  It was just a facade at this point.

April 3, 2003: Baghdad Blackout

It happened one night.  Power was cut in Baghdad.  I knew it then.  The Americans were coming. As the Americans were approaching I could see their air support coming in.  The apache attack helicopters and the a-10 warthog.  just laying waste to anything in front of the advancing American troops

VIDEO DIARY: You can hear those bombings outside.  I don’t even notice them anymore, hardly, and um they are sort of just background music

So the war was getting much, much closer and I think those were by far the most dangerous days.

VIDEO DIARY: Don’t know what just happened. It looks like a bullet may have just come through my window.

It went right through the balcony window and lodged into the ceiling. Had I been standing up it would’ve—it was about this level.  It would’ve gone right through my head. 

VIDEO DIARY: Why are they shooting bullets up at my ceiling?

The Iraqi, the government sort of faded into the background, it just disappeared.  The final moment was when the information minister was on the roof saying, “we’re winning.  The Americans aren’t even here in Baghdad but the tanks were behind him.”

“We’ve besieged them. And we killed most of them.  And I think we will finish them soon.  My feelings, as usual, we will slaughter them all.”

VIDEO DIARY: The camera is live, so you are going to be off me and then show is the streets, ok?

There was a tremendous sense of relief.  I remember when I first saw the marines rolling down into that square, I had this huge smile on my face. I had lived through it.  What people saw on television was that the statue was being pulled down by a crowd of Iraqis.  But what I was hearing was that those Iraqis were all Shiites.  They were not only celebrating the arrival of the Americans, but they were also cheering, “long live sadr.  Long live sadr.”  And (noise) it was clear then that this was just the start of a new conflict.

Immediately after American forces toppled Saddam’s government, there was chaos, so much looting. But the anarchy wasn’t aggressive, it was a time of discovery.

Iraqis wanted to talk to reporters. They wanted for the first time to be able to describe what they had gone through. I remember going down to Najaf.  I could just get in my car and drive there and see that shi’as were celebrating.  They were forming militias. 

ENGEL: All day these people have been lining up to add their names to this list.  They want to join an Islamic Army, which they say will counterbalance the American presence in Iraq.

This was the first they were in power for in thirteen hundred years

July 21, 2003: Najaf

But this is problematic for the U.S. administration because many of the Shiite leaders have close ties to Iran. Critics say the U.S. military got rid of Saddam only to open the door to the Ayotollahs.

Capture of Saddam... but then a change
For me almost nothing compared to the capture of Saddam Hussein. I just couldn’t believe that this dictator who lived in palaces was found hiding in a hole.

“And that’s when Saddam put his hands up and they assisted him out.”“There’s a light down here and very basic ventilation system. The entire crawl space is tiny and actually very well disguised. U.S. soldiers were standing right on top of it during the raid and didn’t even know it.”

After Saddam was captured, some of his supporters, other Sunnis, formed a terrible alliance with foreign fighters. And they had a more sinister agenda. Everyone became a target.

SEPTEMBER 25, 2003: NBC Baghdad Bureau Our hotel, our first bureau, was bombed. 

DAVID MOODIE, NBC EMPLOYEE: “When they offered to move me to the other side of the hotel I should have said yes.”

The guy, poor guy.  He was one of the hotel cleaning staff.  He was sleeping in the lobby.

VIDEO DIARY: I have a theory as to why insurgents are now attacking journalists.  They are now making their own videos, posting them on the Internet. I have hundreds of them. Where they show their own attacks and kidnappings and mortars

The insurgents groups have evidently decided its not worth it to talk to western press; we are all infidels; we are just here to call them all terrorists; better they think to put their own message out, post it so everyone in the world can see it and then try and drive reporters out of the country.

They had no concern and made no distinction between contractors, soldiers or reporters.

Four contractors, Americans, were killed and then their bodies mutilated in Fallujah. After that everything had changed.  Al-Qaida had come to Iraq.

They started kidnapping for money.

May 11, 2004: Nicholas Berg Kidnapping

I have that image in my head right now. I know exactly what it looked like. It was an image that branded itself on our minds and left a scar, it was terrifying. We all thought, “That could be us one day.”

VIDEO DIARY: I’ve come to accept that fact that if I were to be kidnapped I would try and fight my way out of it.  Better to be die running away, shot in the back, than to be beheaded on my knees.

It became very difficult to get reporters. People, journalists from NBC and other networks simply didn’t want to come here anymore.

October 24, 2005: Palestine Hotel Bombed

KARL BOSTIC, PRODUCER: “Everything went orange around us. We felt the car rock and then lifted”

The Palestine hotel was bombed and our producer Karl was just down the street running errands, he almost didn’t make it back.

BOSTIC: “It’s not worth it. No story is worth any of this. No story is worth any of it.”

Then just a few weeks later, there was another attack targeting reporters, this time it was our hotel, our second bureau bombed

November 18, 2005: NBC Baghdad Bureau

First a minivan pulled up, we saw it on our security cameras. It was a white minivan.

TRUUS BOS, PRODUCER: “I woke up by a big bang.  There was glass all over my room. I mean I knew what it was because it had happened before. You don’t get used to it, no! No!”

Broke all of the windows. Collapsed in the ceilings. Trashed all of our offices.

Most of the casualties were people outside the hotel. They were Iraqi families; a lot of children.

We basically decided enough is enough. We have to rethink the way we’re going about our reporting. 

We hired a new security company.  Most of them were members of the British Special Forces. You accept the fact that you’re being hunted, then you want to have somebody protecting you, a fellow hunter.

It was a terrible adjustment to make.  We were used to going out and reporting and then suddenly to have our wings clipped. It was very frustrating.

It was starting to add up. I’d been sleeping on the floor. Concerned that there would be more bombings nearby. And then

Suddenly it happened again.

VIDEO DIARY: This is exactly where the explosion happened, there are now some humvees lined up, protecting the perimeter.

Here’s part of the window itself, and all the metal bits and pieces.  And this is my third hotel room in Iraq that has been damaged because of violence right next to me and it makes you wonder, am I just lucky so far? Or can you push your luck and when do you decide this is not worth it.

On the personal toll

I was hitting rock bottom at that stage. I thought we can’t go out, when we stay in, we’re getting attacked.

VIDEO DIARY: All of this does have a psychological impact. I’ve seen so many ugly things. So many memories I am not sure that people and images that people are equipped to deal with. Two weeks ago, I was walking around latLfiya and I was watching stray dogs eat a dead body, and just picking it to pieces.  And in Fallujah,  dogs again — stray dogs were carrying the severed head of some person who was killed in that city. 

Uh, what a life, what a life.  There it is

It was during this time that unfortunately my marriage fell apart. I think I wrongly blamed her for not understanding who I was and what I was doing.

Morale was at a all time low. Nobody wanted to come here anymore. The people who came were frightened

We were living on top of each other. It was very claustrophobic.

Then we started to find ways to get out of this situation to make ourselves feel better. We bought a pool table. We refurbished our kitchen and started cooking for ourselves. And re-built a gym for ourselves. So you can let out some of the stress.

I started going down for half an hour, an hour a day, and just beating this bag.

It’s very important. Even if it’s just the most confining thing of all, running up and down, and up and down the stairs. It helps.

VIDEO DIARY: It feels like every time you’re out, or every time you’re here, you are trying to pull a fast one on history. That you are trying to get away with it, to get out, sneak out, and get information and get back alive. Or without being kidnapped or without losing an eye, or a limb and it feels like you are trying to get away with it but how many more can you get away with?  I don’t know.

Most often, the images that make it on television of the U.S. troops, of them running, kicking down doors, fighting insurgents. But when you embed with them, you’re doing what they do. You’re spending time with them also when they’re relaxing, getting their haircut, talking to their families over the phone. You get to see them as human beings

I remember in 2004 i was on an embed with marines in Ramadi.  We were on this terrible combat outpost.  It was dusty, and they were attacked every day.  One guy told us, “it’s not about hearts and minds out here, but finding the enemy and putting two in his heart and one in his mind.”

I met this young marine lieutenant, Brian Iglesias, a very tough guy.  He had this Marine slogan tattooed across his chest.  The first time I saw him, he was standing over the body of a dead insurgent.

“It’s a good day!”

And we say a good day not because we enjoy walking around and killing people but these bad guys attack us on a daily basis.

It is very brutal, but after some time, you do start to see things from their perspective.  And I’ve always been amazed at what these guys are willing to sacrifice for each other.

That night, Iglesias and his men went out looking for a lost soldier.  There’d been an attack.  A soldier had been killed.  And another amid all the chaos had been accidentally left behind.  He was alone in Ramadi.

“Last time he was seen was at the government center”

“You gotta move slow, move stealthy cuz you know those sons of bitches are out there. This ain’t a hurry up race. Stay in the shadows—stay outta the light.”

And just these Marines, just a few guys in some pick-up trucks were calling out his name, searching for him.

I couldn’t believe it.  After searching pretty much through the night, they found him alive.

“Roger—got him. We got him—got the kid”

“We don’t have beer or cake or ice cream or soda.  But we’ll still celebrate.  We have some strawberry milk.”

Even more amazing just a few hours later, the Marines were sitting around playing poker as if nothing had happened.

GUNNERY SERGEANT PATRICK TRACY: “You go over there to Fox Company, can ask any Marine in that company—hey, do you wanna go home right now—give you a ticket—no harm done—i don’t think one man would take that—not one. Except maybe Robert, they might joke about it but if it really ever came down to it walk away from their Marines? Walk away from the people their with?  I wouldn’t.”

Ramadi was very tough, but i found this same bond almost everywhere I went.  There was another time i was with Marine Reservists in this town called hit.

Back home, these were normal guys, plumbers and cops.  Now they were marching miles a day.  Most had lost 40 or 50 pounds. 

MARINE CAPTAIN SEAN O'NEILL:  In the end, you share socks, you share baby powder, you share baby wipes, you share everything. So, when times get necessary, you share everything. It makes for a tight platoon.”

Their feet were rotting.

“I don’t know what’s going on here. I got some cracks, a little bleeding going on.”

There was this one lance corporal, Anton Ozoni.  Back home, he worked in the ladies department at Saks Fifth Avenue.

“I sell shoes, purses, dresses, everything. No matter. The whole store.”

But here he was a machine gunner, a warrior, and they called him animal mother.  He had shrapnel on his back

“The other 10 guys in your squad, that’s what keeps you going.”

But embedding with the troops does have serious risks.

January 10, 2005: Mosul

VIDEO DIARY:There is still a lot of fire coming at us.  Some of it is exploding in the car that was hit by an improvised explosive device.  U.S. troops are retaliating; trying to fight off what they think could be an intense ambush.

A soldier saved my life that day.  Amid all the gunfire, this guy came up, stood in front of me, protecting me with his body, raised his rifle and started firing back.  Then he just walked away.  I never saw him again.

I’ve been personally very lucky.  But we have lost one soundman, Jeremy Little.  He was killed in Fallujah.  CBS’s correspondent, Kimberly Dosier was badly injured, her crew killed.  ABC’s anchorman, Bob Woodruff was also badly injured.

But as long as the soldiers are here, I think reporters have an absolute obligation to go out with them.  Otherwise, people back home will have no idea what the war actually looks like from the ground level for the troops.

As these deployments have been adding up it does take a toll on the soldier.  No matter how tough they are, it’s affecting not only them but also their families.

ENGEL: “You’re on your second wife already?”

HARRIS:(laughs) “Yeah second”

ENGEL: “And some kids? Two kids how old are they?”

HARRIS: “I have a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son”

ENGEL: “And how are they holding up?”

HARRIS: “Their holding up pretty good, yeah my son going strong you know you have your, my nine year old is kinda being rebellious because you know father not home”

“There’s been several occasions where you know soldiers will have a girlfriend back home, and all of a sudden they don’t have a girlfriend any more and they get down about it.”

“A jody is the guy that’s back home with your wife or girlfriend. That’s what a jody is. You never want that to happen to you, and you try not to be a jody yourself.”

The war has changed on the soldiers.  Initially, they were fighting, they were told, to try and protect their families back home from a terrorist attack.  Then it was to support democracy and then to try and protect the Iraqi people from a civil war.  It’s gotten more and more vague and more complicated.  And no one has bothered to explain to the soldiers that they’re fighting a different war.

This war has been tough on the troops, dangerous for western journalists.  But try being an Iraqi.

It has been incredibly difficult on our local staff.

If we didn’t have the locals going out with their cameras to places where we can’t go, we would be completely blind. They want people to see what is going on in their country.  But they are doing it at an incredible risk to themselves.

Since the start of the war there are two people I’ve worked most closely with Ali and Zohair. We’ve formed this little team.  It’s almost like a family.

Ali was my driver during the war.

ALI: “I expected that life was going to change back then, I expected security, I expected everything, our dreams to become a reality.”

He’s supporting his family working for us. He’s very quiet.  And he has the kind of personality where he can go into a dangerous neighborhood and then just disappear before anyone even notices he was there.

Ali has to operate in secret.  He has a small camera.  He hides it in his car.  He has his press credentials that he hides in a tissue box.  He never tells anyone what he does, where he goes.  He’s living a—a double life.

Zohair is an operator.  He’s the ultimate fixer.  If you need anything any time of the day whether it’s a gun or a bottle of whiskey or a contact with the prime minister

He was originally a soldier—in Saddam’s army and then was once sentenced to death for going absent without leave, but he managed to bribe his way out.  He’d actually been tied to the stake about to be shot and then was released in the very last minute.

ZOHAIR: “when I meet people in the streets, I try to be as vague about what I do. I don’t trust anyone.

I feel very torn and guilty that I’m asking them to go to places where I can’t go myself, where it’s too dangerous for me to go. And I worry about them every time they leave this building.  We’ve created a protective bubble for ourselves, but can’t provide that security where they’re out reporting.

Ali’s father, a Shiite was kidnapped and is still missing.  And Ali used to go everyday to what i think must be the worst place in the world, Baghdad’s Tubadali morgue.  It’s where they bring all of the unidentified bodies and just dump them.  Most of them are tortured and have their hands bound.

And everyday this morgue fills up. That is the reality of what is going on in Baghdad every single day.

ALI: It hurts to look at all those bodies. I thought to myself, my father could be one of them and I may not even recognize him because the bodies are so mutilated.”

Then, while covering demonstrations in Sadr city, Ali himself was kidnapped

Ali: “They accused me of being collaborator with the Americans they took me to a dark room and tortured me.  They put tissue in my mouth, then hung me upside down on a hook and beat me with a bat for eight hours. I told them, I have just one request please tell my family where to find my body.”

Ali was eventually released. A militia leader vouched for him. It’s affecting Ali emotionally and physically.  He’s starting to lose his hair. He literally expects that he could die at any moment.

The violence was having an impact even on Zohair. He started drinking more and bought a ladder he put by the window in his house in case he needed to escape in the middle of the night.

He also bought a gun, but it wasn’t to defend himself.

ZOHAIR: “if I was about to get kidnapped, I would turn it on my head and not let them take me”

Zohair’s wife now has a way to keep herself sane.  She pretends that she goes out. Everyday she dresses three or four times a day putting on her jewelry, putting on her makeup and plays make believe that she’s going to the movies that night, that she’s going out to dinner.  But she never goes.

It’s true that most of the stories that we’ve reported from Iraq have been negative. But i don’t think it’s a fact that we’re looking for the bad news stories.

Iraq is not a thriving, pro-western democracy that is the model for the rest of the region. Instead of exporting democracy to the rest of the region, it’s exporting terrorism.

And it is a situation where, instead of the regional powers afraid of the Iraqi democratic model, they are sending in money and militiamen to fight a proxy war in this country.

Over time, it does just start to blend together, and (sirens) you get what’s called ‘compassion fatigue.’  And the difference between ten Iraqis killed in a car bombing or 30 killed in a double car bombing, all starts to sound the same.

In the office we have this dry erase board we cynically call the ‘board of death.’  And one of our local staff, rose, comes, and after talking to Iraqi police, will come and put all of the assassinations and car bombings, and it—it fills fast.

ENGEL: Do you need a bigger board?

ROSE: Yah, I need one, or at lest two, two boards. Sometimes I fill all the board and I can’t have more space to fill more events and more accidents.

But you have to focus on smaller stories.  And I remember one time we went to an orphanage and we met these three young girls, three sisters. their parents had both been killed in sectarian fighting.

All the girls in this orphanage were so frightened.  They had stopped serving drinks at night because all the girls were wetting their beds. 

It’s clear that these girls are really starved for affection.  They’ve been coming up all day and taking our hands.  One little girl called our cameraman Daddy. The director of this organization said what they missed most was tenderness, their mother’ touch.

So many viewers wrote in saying that they wanted to help.  They wanted to adopt the girls.  But, in the end, it wasn’t possible.  It’s not legal, under Iraqi law

I think about this place a lot.  I wonder, have they benefited at all from this war?  I don’t think so.

Four years into the fighting soldiers were starting to feel like they were caught in the middle of somebody else’s war.

February 9, 2007: Roadside Bomb

VIDEO DIARY: An IED just exploded next to our vehicle.  Inside here, it still smells like gunpowder.  Luckily, we were able to drive through it and no one in this convoy was injured, but uh, we’re still assessing, checking if there are any other bombs in this area.

What’s shocking is that I was talking to the other guys and they all felt very lucky to have survived this attack, but all of them have been through this kind of experience before. It happens almost every day in this neighborhood and a lot of the soldiers are asking why?

SGT. COPELY:“It’s pretty much almost a lost cause.  I mean it seems like nothing we do, is doing any good.  The sectarian violence, we can’t stop it.  Every country goes through a civil war, so maybe it would be better for them to have a civil war and hash it out and then help them after that.”

VIDEO DIARY: So, this is the new shopping mall where they are now going to set up a...

It smells like crap, literally, in here.  The Iraqi soldiers have been going to the bathroom in these empty rooms.

And this is the new uh home for a platoon of soldiers and they are going to be living in this for a year, trying to uh stand between the Sunnis and Shiites.

PFC JASON TALBOT: “They’ve just got to hash it out for themselves, but it’s a complicated issue, I’m not really knowledgeable, I just know that they’re fighting, I don’t want to get in the middle, but if that’s the way I am told to go, it’s the way I’m going to go, you know?”

VIDEO DIARY: Where does this go?  How much longer does this war go on?  This strategy of US troops trying to keep the two sides apart, pushing them back.  You could do this for years; you could do this for decades even.

I think there are four stages of stress that people go through covering the war in Iraq. The first one is; I’m superman.  Nothing can happen to me.  Second one is; hey, this is dangerous.  I might get hurt over here. Third stage; I’ve been over here a long time.  I’m pushing my luck. I’m probably gonna get hurt over here.  And the fourth stage is: I’ve used up all my 9 lives.  I’m gonna die in this conflict.

I’m definitely in stage 3.  And maybe some days, I’m stage 4. 

VIDEO DIARY: I got very lucky today.  It could have been much worse. Had that IED just been a few feet closer to where I was sitting in the vehicle.  I may not be here right now.  And you wonder, am I gonna keep doing this?  One of these IED’s eventually is going to tear through the vehicle.

The war and coverage of the war over time has become much more political.  Especially as criticism in the United States has intensified.  The soldiers here understand that criticism.  They hear it.  And they take it personally.  They don’t want anyone declaring all of their hard work to be a failure. That means what they’ve been doing, what they’ve been dying for, has been for nothing.

ENGEL:  “A lot of people at home now say, love the troops, hate the war.  Does that argument work with you guys?”

SOLDIER: “No, if you’re going to support us, support us all the way, support the war. Uh, if not, go along with your lives and we’ll take care of it here.  You can’t support, you know, the troops and not what we are doing over here. Cuz people are dying. You know what I’m saying? You may support—‘Oh, we support the troops,’ but you’re not supporting what they do, what they share and sweat for, what they believe for, what we die for. It just don’t make sense to me. If they don’t think we’re doing a good job, everything that we’ve done here is all in vain.”

But in 2007 there was a new general in town, David Petreaus and he brought in 30,000 extra troops, President Bush’s surge

Petreaus had two new strategies. One to build more small bases all over Baghdad. Spreading the troops out so they could patrol more neighborhoods.

U.S. commanders say the key to the new security plan in Baghdad is presence, putting troops back on the battlefield and keeping them here as long as possible.

The other change was to sit down and negotiate with former insurgents.

Even paying the men who used put bombs in the roads to man checkpoints and rebuild destroyed buildings

And it started to work. Violence dropped 70 - 80 percent for the first time in years. Markets were filling up. I saw children back at amusement parks.

Personally, the greatest change, a Chinese restaurant opened up just a few blocks from the bureau. It was actually pretty good.

For the soldiers, it was huge morale boost. To see finally, things were getting better.

“People are waving at us.  They are giving us information.  You see them out on the streets, now.  You don’t see the dead bodies on the streets like we did before.”

“I do believe at our level we are definitely winning the war “

ENGEL: “do you think we’ve reached a turning point? Do you think we’ve reached a point of no return?”

PETRAEUS: “we have repeatedly said that there are no lights at the end of the tunnel. We certainly aren’t dancing in the end zone or anything like that. You can see the considerable progress that’s been made in this area and this is representative of many areas but there is still a good bit to go.”

VIDEO DIARY: It feels like almost the war is starting over again.  but I think the political will back home is no longer going to allow them to stay here for the years that most soldiers and commanders believe is necessary if they are really going to try and improve security in this city

April 4, 2008: Sadr City Gun Battle

I’m still here because this story is no way over.

I was with troops in Sadr City. They were building this wall to pen in Shiite militias.

And as they put up every single slab of concrete, they were under constant gun fire, from snipers and rpg’s, it lasted five hours

They fired the Bradleys so much cannon smoke filled the air.

They’ve had to fight to put up every inch of this wall. They call this intense urban fighting.”

But this one very brave soldier had the worst job. He had to climb up a ladder, totally exposed and unhook each slab of concrete. We could literally hear the incoming rounds hitting the ground, hitting the wall behind us.

ENGEL:  It’s pretty intense out here, is this what it’s like every day.

SOLDIER:  This is is nothing, you should have been out here about 6 days ago.

VIDEO DIARY: After a big fire fight like that you start to think it’s been over five years now and the soldiers are still getting into close quarter fights and I didn’t expect that at all and you start to think aren’t there Iraqi forces that could be doing this?

And for many, the scars of this conflict simply will not heal.

I remember this boy, Ahmed, he had his leg blown off while selling pickles by the side of the road. His mother couldn’t afford a prosthetic limb. He was alone almost all of the time and would play this video game on his cell phone and had to drag himself around the house.

For Ahmed and many Iraqis, there’s been no support from the government or any international aid agencies.  His mother said she’s spent all of her savings on his four operations.

When he was lucky his brother would carry him outside and he is just one of thousands of people who’s lives have been affected by this war

Ali, my old friend finally decided he had had enough. He moved to Sweden he paid a smuggler all of his money to get him out of Iraq.

He’s doing fairly well; he’s struggling to learn Swedish. Lives by a lake, has some friends but he can’t find a job, feels totally trapped and out of place

PAUL NASSAR: “I decided to leave because life is Iraq was getting intolerable. In my dreams I find myself back in Baghdad, and back at my job.  Here, I feel like my life is on hold, like I’m not living.

But other refugees have it much worse, one of the saddest stories I’ve covered was at a nightclub in Syria. It was full of these little Iraqi girls.  They were so young, we couldn’t even show their faces and they were dancing on a stage for money.

A few years ago, this area on the outskirts of Damascus was just desert.  Now it’s packed with dozens of nightclubs.  Each one with 50 to 100 young girls, most Iraqi refugees, forced into the sex trade to support their families.

They seemed like they were in a trance and would just circle and circle this stage all night and it was just disgusting to watch them on this stage being showered with money

The war has changed everything in the region

ENGEL: “Fifteen minutes ago, Saddam Hussein was brought to the execution chamber, led to the gallows and then executed.”

The last words he heard on the gallows were the guards taunting him, yelling out the name of an Iranian backed militia leader.

And then to celebrate, the government had a little party showing off Saddam’s body.

I watched the same government then greet the Iranian president like a hero, with a full honor guard and a band. It was clear that Iran now had tremendous influence in Iraq.

In the spring of 2008, I had the chance to ask President Bush how he felt about what has happened.

ENGEL: A lot of Iran’s empowerment is a result of the war in Iraq.  How do you feel that Iran is; its position in the world is rising because of your actions in Iraq?

PRESIDENT BUSH: See, I’m not so sure I agree with that.  That’s a premise I don’t necessarily agree with.  As a matter of fact, I think Iran is troubled by the fact that a young democracy is growing in Iraq.  You know, this notion about somehow if Saddam Hussein were in power everything would be fine in the Middle East is a ludicrous notion. 

ENGEL: You still view Iraq as a success?  Because on the ground it looks very bleak; people still want to leave the country, and people are...

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, that’s interesting you said that’s a little different from the surveys I’ve seen and a little different from the attitude of the actual Iraqis I’ve talked to, but you’re entitled to your opinion. What you’re watching is an Iraqi government take care of extremists in their midst so that a democracy can survive.  And it’s essential that the democracy survive for our own security, as well as the stability of the Middle East.

After five years, i went back to the Palestine hotel, back to my old room. It had been destroyed by a truck bomb

VIDEO DIARY: “I wonder if I look much different”

There’s been a bomb blast near the hotel and it’s damaged the hotel significantly. This whole entire floor has been abandoned.Everything has been covered in a thick layer of dust.

Here we are again, here we are again. I don’t know why, I didn’t expect it would be so emotional to be back here, but uh, five years later so much has changed for me, for this country, for this room, uh

One of the bigges changes is five years ago when I was watching shock and awe, the world wanted to know what was going on. Any kind of detail, picture, sound that we could get out of Iraq, the world wanted to hear and see.  Now the world has moved on and people don’t want to hear about Iraq anymore.

So many people want to just forget about this war but its consequences are going to be felt for a long time

But I’m still here and that’s good for me