Ali al-Shaheen — Baghdad Native

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Ali Yussef / AFP / Getty Images

A worker unloads cardboard boxes from a bus carrying returning Iraqi refugees at Baghdad's international bus station, Nov. 9, 2007

Shaheen left Iraq as a teenager to attend school in the United Kingdom. After graduation, he returned and served in the Iraqi Army as an officer for three years. He began working as a translator when U.S. forces invaded in 2003. He currently works as TIME's Baghdad bureau manager.

On Living Apart From His Family
I had a family — I have a wife and three kids — two daughters and one son, he is the youngest. I had to ask them to leave the country because I was worried about them, honestly. I was worried myself too, because I am in this line of business. Not just this line of business, I mean, in Iraq, you don't know when you're going to be killed: a car bomb, an accident, all these kinds of things, the militias. You have to minimize your appearance in some situations so I was worried about them. So I decided to send them to Amman in Jordan. I hope that the situation will get better and that, one day, I'll ask them to come back.

On both Gulf Wars
After the war with Kuwait — the first Gulf war — the economic situation went bad. There were a lot of people suffering. And it kept on. We stayed in Iraq. We didn't go out like other people because we managed to keep with it. We expected things to be good, because people had started talking that the Americans were coming, and we expected things to be good for us. Well, it's happened, and in the early days, it was good. You had freedom. You could talk, and then suddenly things started coming down. This is the way I would put it. It kept going down. And it didn't go the way America had promised it would happen, if you know what I mean. I don't know [what went wrong], but I will tell you something: America did plan the war very well, but they didn't plan to govern Iraq. And this is a problem.

On the idea of leaving
With this age of mine, I don't want to leave the country without having something in my hand. I'm trying to sell, not just me, all my brothers, are trying to sell the family heritage — land and some houses here and there. I personally don't believe I'll be living here in 10 years.

On the military presence
In the early days of the presence of the coalition forces, in Baghdad especially because I am from Baghdad, the military were welcomed. The Americans were seen in the streets and everybody cheered them. In 2004 and 2005, people started looking at them with another eye. They think, even now, the presence of American and coalition forces are trouble.

On troop withdrawal
It would be chaos in the country. A country with no power or control. I don't think America will leave the country. Out of experience, I don't think America will leave very soon. A regular Iraqi force that can keep the country, the army and the police, is in the process of building step by step. And as you know, there is the presence of a lot of militias — Shi'ite militias, Sunni militias and the presence of al-Qaeda. I think if the Americans were to leave in the next few months, everything will collapse.

On the surge
As an Iraqi, I believe the surge [had an effect]. But I cannot say it's only the surge. It was three things that really put the violence down: first, the Sunni awakening, second, the concrete barriers closing up areas in Baghdad. And the third is that Moqtada al-Sadra ordered his troops to stop their operations against multinational forces.

On the barriers around Baghdad
They're concrete walls like on the western bank. Areas cut from areas. It's not a very nice view to look at. You see all the people behind the barriers. Even in the area of the green zone, there are concrete barriers so high you wouldn't believe it. Probably about 3 or 4 meters. When you see this, you don't feel welcome. They wouldn't give you the impression that things would be good. Segregation of the areas won't give me, personally, a feeling ... of hope for the future.

On the war's fifth anniversary
I'm not really optimistic about what's going on. Personally, I believe the violence will pick up within the next 6 to 8 months. We can see car bombs coming back to the city. We can see a lot of suicides. There's a lot of assassinations. We had a period of a month or two of quietness, but it's picking up. I hope that my country will be safe again to bring my family back and live with them together in our house and nobody will harass them or hurt them, that's all I hope.