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On the road back, Americans go missing in Iraq

Justin Balding, producer of the Dateline report 'The Road Back', writes from his personal perspective about how the story came to be over the course of eight years.

I have been to Iraq numerous times but I'll never forget the Summer of 2003 in Iraq.

The country's head was spinning after the US invasion in March. After all, it had taken only about three weeks of American military power to throw out Saddam Hussein and change Iraq forever. 

Living under American occupation was confusing for ordinary Iraqis. For 35 years Saddam had been an almost omnipresent, terrorizing reality in their lives. He controlled the economy, the media and especially bloodthirsty security forces. All of a sudden he was gone…and on the run.

As Iraqis tried to comprehend their new reality, there was an uneasy calm in the country as many wondered: what comes next?

It was in this uncertain atmosphere that the Naama family traveled to Iraq. The Naamas are Iraqi Americans who returned to help rebuild Iraq; and they agreed to let me travel with them.

Abbas Naama had been one of the leaders of the Shi'ite uprising against Saddam in the Spring of 1991 -- an uprising the US did not support and which Saddam put down in typically bloody fashion. As tens of thousands of Shi'ites were slaughtered by Saddam's forces, Abbas and his wife Sabria managed to escaped to Saudi Arabia with their children and eventually made it to the United States. Living in San Diego, California, the family quickly became successful and lived the quintessential American life. Abbas might have been a soft-spoken pharmacist with a kind and gentle manner, but he possessed a steely determination and his revolutionary fervor never left him. As a second Iraq war became a distinct possibility in 2002, Abbas rallied his fellow Iraqis to support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.    

Twelve years later, in July 2003, I met the family in Kuwait as they prepared to return to Iraq. Sabria was accompanied by her very articulate daughter Esra and her sons Mustafa and Mahmood, who were so full of curiosity. The would join Abbas, who had already returned to Iraq as a member of its temporary administration -- the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

In the 130 degree heat I crossed the Kuwait-Iraq border with them. As they passed through no man's land, quite suddenly tears mingled with broad smiles as they spotted relatives they hadn't seen in 12 years.  They ran to embrace them.

A few hours later, when they returned to their southern hometown, Diwaniyah, more relatives showered them traditional candies, with screams of joy and wrapped in hugs. It was an amazingly emotional reunion that affected our whole camera team, and it carried with it so much optimism for the future of Iraq.

I stayed in touch with the family off and on for the next two years through a bumpy transition to Iraqi rule. And then, in late 2005, Esra

Her father Abbas had set off to work in Baghdad's Green Zone. He'd left home at seven in the morning, drove two blocks and then bought a newspaper. Just then, two cars sped up and boxed Abbas's car in.  Gunmen fired shots.  They dragged Abbas from his car and bundled him into a trunk of one of their own. Then they took off.

Esra was beside herself with fear, with grief, and simply without knowing what to do. She struggled with telling her story publicly as it was tempered by important practical considerations: a ransom to collect, information to give to security services, and the search for leads that might lead to her father.

Six years have passed since she called to tell me all of this and after so many efforts to find Abbas, the Naama family seems no closer to finding him. But the pain of their loss seems as fresh as it was in 2005. As I remember the optimism and joy of this very dignified family when they returned to Iraq, it's impossible not to be affected by their loss. I hope someone will step forward and give them the help they need.

Abbas Naama is one of 14 Americans missing in Iraq.

For any additional information, please email: dateline@nbcuni.com