PORTLAND, Maine — A violent insurgency by Sunni rebels — in which the militant Islamist State of Iraq and Syria seized control of northern Iraq and surged toward Baghdad — signals the “collapse of the new Iraq, the collapse of the institutional democratic Iraq,” according to an Iraqi journalist who moved to Portland earlier this year.
“They toppled an elected government. Though it is not doing well, we had an elected government, an elected council, but it was toppled by ISIS,” said Ali Al Mshakheel, who reported from Baghdad in 2005 when that country’s residents held purple thumbs in the air after casting their first votes in free elections following the fall of Saddam Hussein.
He was also there in 2008 when another Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at then-U.S. President George W. Bush during Bush’s final visit to the country. Despite that show of Iraqi disdain for the U.S. leader who authorized military intervention in his country, Al Mshakheel believes Bush’s successor must act to quell the current factional uprising that could swell into civil war in Iraq — and pose a terrorist threat on U.S. soil.
Without intervention by the United States — Al Mshakheel advocates the use of drones rather than soldiers — ISIS will gain a foothold, he said.
“President Obama has to take action now. If we hit them once, they will go back to their holes,” he said. “American intervention will stop ISIS and any militia in the state.”
“You cannot have negotiations with these people,” he said. “The only language they know is killing. They killed innocent people with knives like sheep. If they control this place for long, they will go to New York, to D.C. … they will do whatever it takes to destroy the new world.”
Embedded with the U.S. Army, Al Mshakheel covered the U.S.-led invasion that removed Hussein from power for The Times of London, and was among those nominated for an Emmy award for the ABC News series “Iraq Five Years Later: Where Things Stand.”
Although he loves his native land, Al Mshakheel said the country was never able to rebuild after the fall of Hussein.
“I could see we had all the riches, all the minds, all the brains,” he said. “Iraq had the chance to rebuild our nation, but we didn’t. We were not built with the right democratic structure. I wanted this change in my country, but we Iraqis were not up to the mission.”
In March, seeking security and stability, Al Mshakheel and his family left his war-ravaged homeland and immigrated as refugees to Portland. Here, he hopes to find new lives for his family and to “leave a thumbprint.”
He thinks often of Willy Loman of the Arthur Miller play “Death of a Salesman,” “who tried to put his thumbprint on a cake of ice on a hot July day. I want to put my thumbprint on concrete, on oak.”
Perhaps it will be in the form of a book about his experiences — he continues to write about his life in Iraq, sometimes waking up at night and typing his thoughts and stories with his thumbs on his cellphone.
Al Mshakheel has many stories. He was kidnapped on a rural road outside Baghdad. He purchased a coffin to report on Iraq’s booming wartime coffin trade — and learned later he was followed by soldiers. His first assignment for The Times of London was counting bodies in a morgue.
That task was horrific, Al Mshakheel said.
The night after his first day of work, he couldn’t eat or sleep. Worse, he said, on the second day, he was able to eat and soon he could sleep. He pleaded to be sent anywhere — even into danger — other than the morgue.
“It was taking part of my soul,” he said. “I don’t want to lose my humanity. If I see something bad, I want to feel it. I don’t want to lose that.”
Al Mshakheel co-wrote “ Coffin trade thrives in the city of death” under the name Ali al-Khafaji.
From Iraq, Al Mshakheel reported for Voices of Iraq, National Public Radio and Japanese and Iraqi newspapers. For more than four years, he worked for the Baghdad bureau of ABC News.
Journalism is a dangerous business in Iraq, where car bombs, kidnappings and improvised explosive devices are all too common. The threat for journalists is even greater, particularly in Baghdad.
Al Mshakheel didn’t reveal he was a journalist, even to his neighbors. He was careful not to come home after dark and often used taxis to make the trip.
At one point, as Al Mshakheel traveled in a taxi with a group of others, the driver took a rural road to avoid the thick Baghdad traffic. Suddenly, the taxi was surrounded by men with guns.
But Al Mshakheel did not speak, and finally a woman in their party convinced the men to release them.
His wife would tell him, “Anything wrong could happen at any time, and you should never think that you are safe.”
In September, the family was notified by the International Organization of Migration they were prepared to leave Iraq, but the departure was canceled a week later.
“We lived the last six months in fear because people knew I was leaving,” he said.
In March, they finally left the country — a dream for many Iraqis, he said, who hope “to leave Iraq, immigrate any place on Earth, preferably to the U.S. or Europe, and start a new life, even if it is from scratch.”
He continues his quest to “leave a thumbprint” in Portland. Al Mshakheel has taken an exam to become a court reporter, and on Friday interviewed for a job as an interpreter.
He’s also spoken to various Portland groups about Iraq, sharing his perspective as an eyewitness to that country’s strife and the latest threat, which he characterizes as a “global enemy.”
When asked if his perspective on the latest turmoil might be affected by his allegiance to either the Sunni or Shiite branches of Islam, which have traditionally fought for control of Iraq, he declined to answer other than to say, “I am an Iraqi Muslim.”