In the summer of 2004 I found myself in Najaf during fierce fighting between American troops reinforced by Iraqi government soldiers and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shia militant Mahdi army. The combat was intense and left the centre of town around the city’s holy shrine in ruins. On the last day of the fighting, with Dexter Filkins of the New York Times and Stephen Farrell of The Times, I worked my way through the rubble-strewn streets, past donkeys shot by snipers to prevent the militants resupplying, past American tanks firing at point-blank range into their opponents’ makeshift bunkers, into the centre of the city where the militia appeared to be having lunch. Teenagers carried steel basins full of rice and curried vegetables to resting fighters, running under the bullets and shrapnel that chipped away at the walls. The narrow alleys shook with explosions and a wounded man was carried past us with blood pumping from a stomach wound. We stayed fifteen minutes and then headed out of the city, reaching the relative safety of the hotel on its outskirts several hours later.
Filkins describes the episode, in typically lapidary, laconic language, on pages 248–9 of his new book. I described it in my own On the Road to Kandahar: Travels through Conflict in the Islamic World. Reading The Forever War brought many such moments of recognition. The titles of our books are