Lost in the numbers were the details: people who'd been tortured, their skin scraped off, fingernails ripped out, sometimes decapitated. Also lost were those left behind: a child who won't ever hug her father again; a mother who won't see her son's wedding day.
'Out of the game'
Nahla al-Nadawi is tall, slender, elegantly dressed, with a firm handshake. She worked at a local Baghdad radio station in the years after the invasion. Part of her job was to read the daily death toll.
"The numbers game, you always think that you are exempt from the numbers," she said. "You're pained by them, but you're outside of them."
That is, until her husband became one of the numbers.
"I feel like it's a game of musical chairs -- one time you are tapped, another time someone else is," she said. "Now my son and I are out of the game, completely, completely ..."
She pauses, reflecting, trying to navigate her own pain, trying to understand how life can be so cruel.
The image of her husband -- tall and proud -- a doctor who moved his family back to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein because he believed his country needed him, a father who doted on their 6-year-old autistic son -- was forever changed in April 2007.
Etched into her memory is the vision of his charred body, melted together with nine others after a car bomb exploded, leaving a twisted pile of scorched flesh.
"Truly life was in color, and now it's in black and white."
Her voice is soft and even. The words she chooses thoughtful, emotive, graceful -- even while speaking of what she saw of her husband and the others in the morgue that day.
"I remember a blue-colored sheet covering something. At one end the pigtails of a little girl with red ribbons, at the other a tiny foot. The sheet was drenched in blood. At that moment I forgot why I was standing there. I was crying for all those other people."
I saw her a year ago. She looked almost radiant, as if the cloak of death had lifted. In some ways it had been -- or perhaps it was that she had learned to live with the pain.
"I have the courage to say that I was happy when the Americans arrived, but then I have hundreds of questions," she said. "Why did the Americans make so many mistakes? Was it out of ignorance about Iraq, or was it deliberate?"
But on this trip, when we called her, she said she didn't want to speak on camera. She said she didn't want to appear weak and defeated -- the story of so many Iraqis, just surviving day to day, as if they've been anesthetized.
Courage amid the carnage
Mohammed Rejeb cradled his grandson in his arms, filing out of his home with the rest of his family. Marines entered guns drawn, going from room to room in search of terrorists.
It was November 2005 in the small dusty town of Husayba, tucked against the Syrian border in al-Anbar province, a vast sprawling land along the Euphrates River valley and part of al Qaeda's kingdom.
U.S. troops conducted these searches in cities, villages and towns across Iraq. It was an unconventional battleground, but typical of the war in Iraq. Entire streets and homes were booby-trapped. Washing-machine timers were hooked up to artillery shells in yards. Gunmen lurked in alleys, hiding behind doors. They were effectively on suicide missions, wanting to kill as many Americans before being gunned down.
Civilians never wanted to talk about al Qaeda. Doing so would bring a death sentence.
But I'll never forget what Mohammed told me while while waiting for U.S. forces to search his home that day in 2005: "We want the Americans to save us from the terrorists."
It floored me. I stared at the baby in his arms and was stunned by his courage. He could be killed for those simple words. Al Qaeda was known to slaughter anyone who dared speak against them.
A few hours later, I was crouched on a rooftop as rocket-propelled grenades fired by insurgents flew overhead and a U.S. soldier called in targets for air strikes. The heavy American bombardment reduced buildings to dust, explosions so powerful they would catapult an entire roof toward the sky as if it were cardboard.
Two days later, I saw Mohammed again, standing atop the rubble of one of the homes I might have seen bombed. He was among those digging through the wreckage, looking for one last body, that of a little boy, in what was once his cousin's house.
The remains of 16 people had already been pulled out. All but one were women and children. They were later buried in a garden nearby; a curfew prevented people from taking the bodies to the graveyard.