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Those Who Face Death

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I never once considered whether I would cover the Iraq war. The only question was on which front. After a couple of weeks of waiting around in Kuwait, I decided to pull off assignment and fly to Tehran to slip into northern Iraq. An Iranian government official met another Time correspondent and I at Tehran airport, and organized immediate transportation for us to the Iran-Iraq border. I spent the early months of the war in the snowy mountains of Kurdistan, covering the ongoing battle between the Sunni Islamist group Ansar al-Islam and the Kurdish armed forces called peshmerga, which literally means "those who face death."

By summer, I had made my way south to cover the rising insurgency. In August, I traveled to the city of Najaf to take pictures of the Shiite religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, when a massive car bomb detonated at the Tomb of Imam Ali. I jumped out of my car in traffic, my camera straps tangled up with my headscarf, to race toward the scene. As I turned the corner, before my eyes was a scene straight out of hell. Cars were burning. Charred remains of people lay in the street. A man held a dismembered leg up to the sky with a questioning gaze as if he wanted me to tell him what to do.

The following week, colleagues congratulated me on the six pages of pictures published in Time. Yet I had never felt so unhappy about my success.

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Blood flows through the street at the Tomb of Imam Ali. The bombing killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, a prominent Iraqi politician, who had just delivered a sermon calling for Iraqi unity and nearly 100 others.

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A teenage boy lies on the emergency room after the bombing at the Tomb of Imam Ali in Najaf.

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In keeping with Iraqi tradition, a corner shopkeeper marked his generator in the blood of a slaughtered sheep, petitioning Allah for continued protection after witnessing a family be shot to death by U.S. forces next to his shop.

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As we attempted to drive into Saddam's hometown of Tikrit the morning the city fell, a large group of heavily armed, angry Arabs stepped into the street and blocked the way. They spoke about their fear of the Kurds coming into their area to loot, though we knew full well that no Kurd in their right mind would be coming to Saddam's stronghold to pillage. One of the captors perversely forced our Kurdish fixer to translate "We hate Kurds" into English from Arabic, creating even more tension.

Above left: A torn poster of Saddam Hussein hangs in Tikrit. Right: The body of a Baath party member lies in the streets of Kirkuk, while the local Baathist party office burns in the background.

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Kurdish soldiers stand over a body of a member of Ansar al Islam killed by U.S. Special Forces. Ansar is an al Qaeda-linked group that had started an insurgency in 2001 against the local population on the outskirts of Halabja, the city where Saddam had gassed the Kurdish population 15 years earlier.

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As Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed, I rushed to Kirkuk to witness its liberation. I caught up with a traffic jam of people who were streaming into the disputed Kurdish city. A couple of random Kurds hitched a ride in my car. When I declared with a sigh of relief, "I've waited two months for this moment," one man replied, "I've waited 12 years."

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Above three bodies of militants from Komal, an Ansar al Islam splinter group, are laid out on display following the assassination.

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Here, residents of the Kurdish city of Chamchamal, who lived in close proximity to Saddam's Republican Guard positions, take refuge from the fighting in a makeshift shelter amongst the rocks.

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