In Anthony Shadid's extraordinary new book about the Iraq war, the Iraqis themselves finally speak. Their stories provide the most eloquent indictment yet of America's disastrous Middle East adventure.
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Sept. 13, 2005 |
government, its military, its press and its people have operated in
ignorance of Iraq from the beginning. The United States invaded Iraq
blindly, occupied it blindly and is now blindly trying to find a way to
escape. In this darkness, the publication of Anthony Shadid's "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War"
is an important event, a ray of light. This is the first book about the
Iraq war to tell the Iraqi side of the story. It is painful and
reporter for the Washington Post, takes readers into the homes, and
minds, of Iraqis of every stripe -- from a Baghdad doctor who loves
America but has no idea why America wants to invade his "pathetic"
country to an impoverished single mother trying to feed her eight
children; from a government minder who ends up becoming Shadid's best
Iraqi fixer -- and friend -- to a devoutly religious young peasant who
resolves to die fighting the occupiers. Informed, scrupulously
observed, elegantly written and deeply compassionate, "Night Draws
Near" is a classic not just of war reporting but of what we might call
frontline anthropology. Although it takes no sides and expresses no
partisan opinions, Shadid's book may be the most damning indictment yet
of the Iraq war.
of Lebanese descent who speaks fluent Arabic and has reported from the
Middle East for 10 years, Shadid was able to penetrate deeper into
Iraqi society during the war period than any other reporter I know of.
Most Western reporters in Iraq speak little or no Arabic and have to
learn Arab and Iraqi culture from scratch. Furthermore, few of them
have developed long and intimate relations with ordinary Iraqis, which
can result in clichÚs, wooden statements devoid of nuance, or
interviews in which the suspicion arises that the source is simply
telling the reporter what he thinks he wants to hear. Because Shadid
was able to develop long-term relationships and friendships with many
sources, he was able not only to penetrate beneath the surface but to
capture how Iraqis' feelings about the Americans evolved over time.
(They did not grow fonder of us.)
But perhaps even
more important than his skilled and intrepid reporting, for which he
was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2004, is Shadid's combination of
open-mindedness and sophistication, his willingness to simply listen to
what Iraqis say and report it with rare understanding. Perhaps because
of his ethnic background, Shadid does not exoticize his subjects. From
a perspective that combines journalism and anthropology, he has a deep
enough knowledge of Iraqis' culture, political beliefs and religion to
understand them and convey their shared humanity, but he is not so far
inside their worldview that he loses all critical perspective. Seen
through his eyes, a devout young man in Fallujah preparing to fight the
Americans is neither a cartoon "Islamofascist" -- the right-wing
version -- nor a cartoon revolutionary fighting the righteous fight
against American imperialism, the far-left version. Rather he is
something much easier and harder to understand: a Sunni Arab at a
certain place and time, the product of history yet a free individual,
at once familiar and strange.
architects of this disastrous war had tried to grasp these
complexities, and how they might play out in Iraqis' reaction to the
invasion, we might not find ourselves in our current plight. (To be
sure, those on the radical left should have listened, too. The
consequences of their failure to do so, however, were somewhat less
significant. The failures of the right led to a calamitous war; the
failures of the left led to bombast from the likes of International ANSWER.)
Most of the
events in "Night Draws Near" take place between March 2003, when Shadid
arrived in Iraq weeks before the invasion, and June 2004, when he left.
In the book's prologue, however, he recounts an event he witnessed in
2002, when Saddam Hussein, facing invasion and attempting to rally
popular support, suddenly released all of Iraq's untold thousands of
prisoners. Shadid was present at Saddam's largest and most notorious
prison, Abu Ghraib, when the prisoners emerged, in a wild eruption of
joy, furtive rage at Saddam, increasingly bold calls for justice and
emotional hysteria. "In the cathartic scenes that followed -- moments
unparalleled in Iraq's history, perhaps in any history -- the hidden
complexity of a country we knew only by its surface played out before
us," Shadid writes. "The powerful forces we saw fermenting beneath the
veneer of absolutism would reappear, five months later, during the
aftermath of the American invasion and Saddam's fall." Those fermenting
forces included some that Americans expected -- joy at liberation,
anger at Saddam -- but others were more unpredictable.
Shadid speaks of
the "combustible ambiguities of Iraq -- the ancient pride, the desire
for justice, the resilience" that "were emerging from beneath the fear,
conformity and silence" of Saddam's long rule. He never articulates
exactly what it was he witnessed that day at Abu Ghraib that ran
counter to America's received images of who Iraqis were and how they
were going to behave. Certainly the behavior he describes on that day,
however chaotic, was not as disconcerting to American assumptions as
the later massive Iraqi rejection of the occupation and the nearly
universal lack of gratitude for being freed from Saddam. His point is
larger, more rooted in the dark byways of history: Iraq was a strange
and culturally alien country and people, with an inconceivably long
history and a long list of grievances against the United States and the
West. It was arrogant folly for Americans to think they could predict
the outcome of invading such a place, of trying to change the course of history.
"When the Americans arrived, its soldiers, diplomats and aid workers
marched into an antique land built on layer upon layer of history, a
terrain littered with wars, marked by scars, seething with grievances
and ambitions," Shadid writes. "Willingly or not, they added their own
chapter to this chronicle. The Americans came as liberators and became
occupiers; but, most important, they served as a catalyst for
consequences they never foresaw."
to anticipate the bitter consequences of their intervention -- the rise
of Islamism, the bloody sectarian struggles, the rejection of the
occupation -- because of the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between
America and the Arab world, "two cultures so estranged that they cannot
occupy the same place." The painful, even tragic irony is that it was
precisely the most altruistic of America's numerous and shifting
motivations for the invasion that proved the superpower's fatal blind
spot. Americans, Shadid argues, were misled by their fixation on
Saddam's dreadful regime. "Our nearly absolute emphasis on the
all-encompassing tyranny blinded many of us to everything else that was
there," he writes. "Time and again, we envisioned, or were given, a
simple, two-dimensional portrait of a country, waiting for aid and
dreaming of freedom as it suffered under the unrelenting terror of a
dictator ... Once the dictator was removed, by force if need be, Iraq
would be free, a tabula rasa in which to build a new and different
This was, and is, the moral justification used by the Bush administration, and righteously proclaimed by the pro-war liberals
who made the fateful choice to sign up with the most reactionary, and
incompetent, administration in modern American history. Of course, as
Shadid points out, there were larger strategic reasons
for the invasion. "If we can change Iraq, George W. Bush and his
determined lieutenants maintained, we can change the Arab world, so
precariously adrift after decades of broken promises of progress and
prosperity. This rhetoric -- idealistic to Western ears, reminiscent of
century-old colonialism to a Third World audience -- envisioned the
dawn of a democratic and just Middle East, guided by a benevolent
United States. For the Americans, aroused by fears of terrorism,
Baghdad, the capital of the Arab world's potentially most important
state, was the obvious choice for a place to begin a wave of democratic
reform. This rationale for invasion ran at least as deep as the
illusory warnings about weapons of mass destruction or the rhetoric
emphasizing the tyranny of Saddam. Iraq was an instrument of change for
the U.S., a lever to pull, the first Middle Eastern domino to fall."
dreams, like pieces on a Risk board set up by a child in the middle of
a busy street, lie scattered today, as Islamist terrorists run amok,
the mullahs in Iran sit in the strategic driver's seat, America and its ally Israel are even more despised
throughout the region than before and Iraq hangs on the edge of a civil
war, its people traumatized by two and a half years of violence and
chaos. By deposing Saddam and removing all authority, the United States
opened the Pandora's box of Islamism. As in a nightmare, by trying to
prevent something from happening, America did exactly the reverse.
Shadid's book is a gripping, on-the-ground report about how things went
so terribly wrong. The story Shadid tells does not entirely fit into
the ideological assumptions of either conservatives or liberals --
neither of which was particularly coherent. But it vindicates the
liberal position far more than the conservative.
begins with the American invasion, which he witnessed firsthand from
Baghdad. Before he arrived, he had been reporting from other countries
in the Middle East, where anti-American sentiment, largely muted in the
immediate aftermath of 9/11, was raging in response to subsequent U.S.
policies. "The American response to the destruction of that day -- the
martial rhetoric of the Bush administration; the dispatch of the U.S.
military to Afghanistan; and the detention of prisoners at the military
base in Guantanamo Bay -- had evoked Arab anger as the lopsided
conflict between Israel and the Palestinians accelerated further.
Anyone who defied the Americans was admired. Osama bin Laden, whose
venomous ideology actually alienates the vast majority of Arabs, had become an unlikely folk hero." When Shadid arrived in Iraq, this strident anti-Americanism (expressed in a hit pop song blasting the coming invasion
and invoking "Chechnya! Afghanistan! Palestine! Southern Lebanon! The
Golan Heights! And now Iraq, too?" with the refrain "Enough! Enough!
Enough!") was replaced by a nervous quiet. But later, after the
invasion was over, Iraqis began to voice the same bitter grievances. It
turned out Iraq, even after being liberated, was still an Arab country,
and a Muslim one.
Again and again,
when talking to Iraqis, Shadid found deep historical grievances against
the U.S and the West. Far more than Americans ever understood, Iraqis
remember and are bitterly resentful of British colonialism -- a view
that colored their attitudes toward the American invaders from the
start. It is not as if this was unknown: It is a central theme of
Rashid Khalidi's prescient "Resurrecting Empire,"
written before, during and immediately after the invasion. But the
neocons who plotted the war were ignorant of history and convinced that
the Americans' noble intentions would set them apart. In this belief,
they unwittingly followed in the footsteps of the British. Shadid
writes, "There's a line from history that nearly everyone in Baghdad
remembers: 'Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as
conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.' The speaker was Major
General Sir Stanley Maude, the British commander who in 1917 entered
the capital to end Ottoman rule ... The idea has proved memorable. So
has the aftermath, a legacy that Iraqis ruefully note. The British
remained in Iraq and in control of its oil for decades." The fact that
the Bush administration uttered almost exactly the same line about its intentions was, of course, also noted in Baghdad.
skepticism born of colonial rule was added profound distrust of
America. There are several reasons for this -- its role in the first
Gulf War, its support for the devastating U.N. sanctions (Shadid notes
that the sanctions doubled Iraq's infant mortality and led one-third of
6-year-olds to drop out of school), its betrayal of both the Kurds and
the Shiites during the first war -- but probably the biggest one is
America's nearly total support for Israel. The plight of the
Palestinians is the open wound of the Middle East,
the grievance felt most deeply and bitterly by Arabs and Muslims around
the world. And again to a far greater degree than Americans who have
not traveled in the Arab world realize, the issue of Palestine has
poisoned the goodwill Arabs once felt for America. Iraq is no
exception. Shadid notes that even the official American announcement,
in May 2003, that it was an occupying power deepened the rift between
the U.S. and Iraqis because for Arabs, the word "occupation," ihtilal,
conjures up searing images of Israeli tanks smashing through refugee
camps. Iraqi anger over the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, and
over America's unqualified support for Israel, boils up many times in
The views of Dr.
Adel Ghaffour are typical. As the war loomed, Shadid paid a visit to
Ghaffour's clinic, which he ran for mostly poor patients during off
hours from his faculty job at the University of Baghdad. Ghaffour was
born in Iraq but lived in America for 10 years and was married to an
American woman. Like many Iraqis, Ghaffour recalled the 1970s as a
golden age. "You could see that in a few years we were ready to leave
the developing world," he told Shadid. "It really is a human tragedy. I
doubt in history a nation has suffered like Iraq. For no good reason."
Adel was no
enemy of the U.S. "'I love that country,'" Adel told me. 'If there is a
paradise, it is there' ... Like others in Baghdad, he insisted that of
the Arabs, the Iraqis were the most similar to the Americans -- in the
way they worked, the way they lived, the way they enjoyed themselves
... His affection didn't extend to U.S. foreign policy, though. Adel,
like nearly all Arabs, blamed the United States for its unswerving
support for Israel, a stance that defied logic to most in the region.
The support was so unrelenting, so unqualified that Adel, like many
here, relied upon complicated conspiracies to explain it."
memories of a supposedly "liberating" colonial occupation and a deep
distrust of America's intentions, Iraqis did not have a reservoir of
goodwill to grant its new occupiers. And as Shadid learned, certain
national traits did not predispose them to welcome the Americans with
open arms, either.
Shadid had during the first week of the war with an educated Iraqi
family revealed some of these characteristics, and presaged many of the
problems to come. Shadid's friend Omar invited him to have lunch with
Omar's family in their middle-class home in Baghdad. The party was made
up of Omar's father, Faruq Ahmed Saadedin, an urbane former diplomat;
his wife, Mona; their adult daughter, Yasmeen; and Omar's wife, Nadeen.
The family was Sunni, but did not dwell on sectarian differences and
regarded it as rude to bring them up -- a civilized attitude that
Shadid writes was common among Baghdadis.
severely strained nerves -- the family had been kept up night after
night by U.S. airstrikes, and an air raid siren sounded during Shadid's
visit -- Omar's family put on a lavish traditional Iraqi lunch, over
which the conversation turned to politics. Faruq, who had quit the
Baath Party in 1968 (a decision he blamed for his failure to become an
ambassador), dared to openly criticize Saddam as rash. "Iraq is ready
for change," he said. "The people want it, they want more freedom."
For Shadid, this
unusually open conversation with Omar and his family provided a crucial
insight into Iraqi attitudes. "Omar and Faruq came to embody broader
assumptions at work in their embattled country. Each represented
currents, their depth yet unknown, that would greet U.S. soldiers on
their imminent entry into Baghdad."
"American promises of liberation were no more than rhetorical
flourishes to a policy bent on domination, furthering U.S. and Israeli
interests in the Middle East." His father was less bitter, more nuanced
in his thinking: "He was no less skeptical, no less suspicious, but he
saw the shades of the moment before him. Iraq was changing, and Faruq
was already struggling to see the direction it would take.
"But the men
converged in their denunciations of the very rationale of the American
invasion," Shadid writes. "Their words reminded me of something I had
long felt in Iraq. Perhaps more than any other Arab country, it seemed
to dwell on traditions of pride, honor, and dignity. To Faruq and Omar,
the assault was an insult. It was not Saddam under attack, but Iraq,
and they insisted that pride and patriotism prevented them from putting
their destiny in the hands of another country. 'We complain about
things, but complaining doesn't mean cooperating with foreign
governments,' Faruq said as if stating a self-evident truth. 'When
somebody comes to attack Iraq, we stand up for Iraq. That doesn't mean
we love Saddam Hussein, but there are priorities.'"
Not all Iraqis
shared these sentiments. Fuad Musa Mohammad, a psychiatrist and a
Shiite, "was the kind of Iraqi the United States had hoped to encounter
once in Baghdad": He despised Saddam, loved America and welcomed the
invasion. But even Fuad warned Shadid that the U.S. would have only a
"perilously brief" opportunity to prove to skeptical Iraqis that its
intentions were good. "'I like America, really. I like the American way
of life. I like democracy and everything it offers,' he said. 'But at
the same time, we don't know ... If they say, 'Okay, this is your
country, we can give you all that you need, and then we'll leave,' that
would be great. But when you hear that American generals are coming to
govern Iraq and that it will last one year, two years, three years, six
months, this view, when you explain it to simple people, the majority,
that will be very difficult. They can't digest it ... They'll say,
'Who's better, Saddam or the Americans? ... At least Saddam's from the
country, and they're from the outside. I may understand it,' he added,
'but the majority won't.'" By the end of the book, even Fuad has grown
painfully disillusioned with the Americans.
And Fuad is
decidedly in the minority, even among educated Iraqis with
sophisticated political views and no particular hatred of the United
States. Wamidh Nadhme is a 62-year-old professor who is able to openly
criticize Saddam without having nails driven through his head because
he once visited the dictator in a Cairo hospital. On the eve of the
invasion, Wamidh says, "I won't hide my feelings -- the American
invasion has nothing to do with democracy and human rights. It is
basically an angry response to the events of Sept. 11, an angry
response to the survival of Saddam Hussein, and it has something to do
with oil interests in the area." A year later, when the fighting in
Fallujah broke out, Wamidh "took pride in the resistance ... A man
steeped in honor and dignity, he, like most Iraqis, considered the
fight legitimate, even heroic."
These are the
"dead-enders," the "terrorist sympathizers"? Of the Bush
administration's increasingly ludicrous pronouncements about the
insurgents and their sympathizers, Shadid says, "It was as if
acknowledging the enemy's significance called into question America's
role as a liberator." No one who reads "Night Draws Near" will be able
to ever again believe the White House's simplistic fables about who is
fighting us in Iraq.
One of the more
peculiar ironies of the Bush administration's case for war is that its
officials, anxious to appear as enlightened, post-colonial liberators,
refused to acknowledge the vast cultural and religious differences
between Iraq and the U.S. and the problems those could create in
installing democracy there. Take Iraq's tribes,
with their fierce ethic of loyalty and honor. Of the most chilling
episodes in "Night Draws Near" is one concerning the aftermath of an
American raid in the Sunni triangle that killed three people. After the
raid, an Iraqi informer walked among detainees, pointing them out to
U.S. troops. Despite being disguised with a bag over his head, the
informer was recognized by his fellow villagers by his yellow sandals
and his amputated thumb. His name was Sabah. The town, Thuluyah,
seethed with rage: Sabah had violated the unforgiving tribal code.
asked some villagers what would happen to Sabah, he was greeted with
stony silence -- men belonging to different tribes, potential enemies
if the matter turned into a vendetta, were present and no one wanted to
discuss it. Trying to be polite, one man softly whispered to Shadid,
"Of course he'll be killed, but not yet." When Sabah fled, relatives of
two of the men killed in the raid gave Sabah's family a choice: "Either
they kill Sabah, or villagers would murder the rest of his family."
That could set off a vendetta that might last for years.
and uncle brought Sabah back to Thuluyah. The next day, his father and
brother, carrying AK-47s, entered his room before dawn and took him
behind the house. With trembling hands, the father fired twice. Shot
through the leg and the torso, Sabah fell, still breathing. Some
witnesses told Shadid that the father collapsed. Sabah's brother then
fired three times, once at his brother's head, killing him.
Sitting with the
father later, Shadid found himself unable to ask the question he knew
that as a journalist he had to ask: Had he killed his son? "In a moment
so tragic, so wretched, there still had to be decency. I didn't want to
hear him say yes. I didn't want to humiliate him any further. In the
end, I didn't have to."
"'I have the
heart of a father, and he's my son,' he told me, his eyes cast to the
ground. 'Even the prophet Abraham didn't have to kill his son.' He
stopped, steadying his voice. 'There was no other choice.'"
(After Shadid's account of the killing appeared in the Washington Post, the U.S. military began searching for the father. In a speech Shadid gave in July 2004, he said the man was still in hiding, protected by his fellow villagers.)
most poignant of Shadid's tales takes place far below such grand
geostrategic concerns. It is the story of Karima Salman and her family.
Karima, a desperately poor mother of eight, lived in a squalid,
cockroach-infested apartment in Baghdad. The first story Shadid tells
about her takes place before the war. Most of her family and friends
had already fled Baghdad. She was exhausted, lonely, unable to pay the
rent, faced with skyrocketing food prices. Her 21-year-old son, Ali,
who had been working as a plumber, had been sent north days earlier to
man an antiaircraft battery.
parting, movingly recounted by Shadid, Karima and Ali simply exchanged
the basic phrases of Islam. "There is no God but God," she told Ali as
he boarded a bus. "Muhammad is the messenger of God," Ali replied,
completing the phrase. Her final words to him were prayers of farewell:
"God be with you. God protect you." As she recounted their parting,
tears ran down her cheeks. "A mother's heart rests on her son's heart,"
she told Shadid. "Every hour, I cry for him."
Karima and her family was not a matter of religious zealotry," Shadid
writes. "It was not even piety, really. It gave their lives cadence ...
It spoke with clarity, offered simplicity, and served as a familiar
refuge in troubled times." As Karima sat with her five daughters on old
mattresses on a tile floor and waited for the war to begin, "in her
voice was the hopelessness that forced so many in the once-proud city
to put their faith and future in God's hands. 'We only have God,' she
told me. 'Thanks be to him' ... To Karima, the war that had begun was a
play; on its grand stage, people were mere actors. 'Life's not good,
it's not bad,' she told me, as we sipped the bitter coffee. 'It's just
The fate of
small people like Karima and her family, unknown, of no political
consequence, is easy to forget as nations rush to war and powerful men
plan and redraw maps. "Ordinary people are, as Karima recognized, only
pawns on a giant board; if one or one thousand of them are swept off,
no one notices." It is one of the functions of journalism, perhaps the
noblest, simply to bear witness to these forgotten ones.
daughter Amal, about to turn 14, kept a diary during the bombing,
invasion and occupation. In it, Shadid writes, "Amal never spoke of the
war in political terms. There was only a young girl who did not
understand why people were dying. Death in itself was wrong, whoever
the victim; angry, she could see no justification." Looking at images
of dead GIs, Amal wrote, "Why? What's the fault of those soldiers who
were killed? What's the fault of the families of the dead, or their
mothers, who must be crying over their sons? Why is this war happening?
... I saw on TV the injured in the south. I saw dead children, one
without a hand, it was cut off. They were five or six years old, and
the young men were aged 16 or 17, injured in their legs. How were they
at fault? Why is there fighting? Oh God, have mercy on our dead."
As time goes on,
Amal's voice grows surer, her questions deeper. "Her questions and her
search for meaning were a measure of her own emerging freedom," Shadid
writes. Amal's diary runs like a moving threnody throughout the book,
heartbreaking and yet, in its portrayal of an innocent young girl
coming of age, offering a ray of hope that crosses all boundaries.
everyone who observed the post-invasion period, Shadid lays much of the
blame for the disaster on the Bush administration's total failure to
plan for the day after. "There was never really a plan for post-Saddam
Iraq," he writes. "There was never a realistic view of what might ensue
after the fall. There was hope that became faith, and delusions that
became fatal." But Shadid goes beyond generalities to reveal how that
failure actually impacted ordinary Iraqis.
The fortunes of
the Salman family reflect the general collapse of Iraqi life under the
occupation, a degeneration that was probably the most decisive
practical factor in leading Iraqis to turn against the United States.
The U.S. was never able to restore electricity and water to their
prewar levels, which led many Iraqis, who thought of the U.S. as
omnipotent after its lightning-quick military victory, to believe that
the failure was intentional. (Shadid points out that it did not help
that everyone remembered that Saddam was able to get the power more or
less back within two months after the first Gulf War.) Having no power
is no small matter in a country cursed with one of the most brutal
summer climates on earth: As Amal tries to write in her diary, sweat
pouring down onto the page during yet another interminable outage, her
feet swollen from carrying buckets of water up several stories from the
street, you can feel the whole country slipping away from the
Americans, drop by drop.
Then there was
the shocking, sickening collapse of security, which Shadid chronicles:
Someone attempts to kidnap Amal and her sister; a thief pulls a man
from his car at a market and shoots him for his satellite phone while a
crowd of bystanders does nothing; a professor is riddled with bullets
for no known reason. As Shadid puts it, "The looting had diminished but
it was like a knife dragged across the city, digging wounds that would
Less well known
than the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure and its security was the
demise of simple civility, of the bonds that bound people together.
While during the bombing the Salman family's neighbors helped them, a
few months later, "all vestiges of this mutuality had by now
disappeared; the crisis had gone on so long. The civility and
solidarity that Karima and her family recalled from the invasion were
nowhere to be found among their fellow Baghdadis. Now reigned
confusion, chaos, and most often, pettiness. The same families who had
prayed with them in war, creating bonds that had not before existed,
refused to help Karima and her family hijack electricity from other
buildings. At times, Karima's was the only apartment in the building
that couldn't secure an electrical connection. The family had to sit in
the dimly lit hallway if they wanted light." When Karima asked the
family of her late husband's sister for money for food and rent, the
family fought her and tried to get U.S. soldiers to arrest her.
The last story
Shadid tells about the Salman family takes place a year after the
invasion. Karima has found work as a maid at a hotel, taking home $33 a
month. Ali made it home safely after deserting from the army; he found
work serving tea in a real estate office, making about a dollar a day.
As for Amal, she has grown confident enough to criticize both Saddam
and the Americans. (Shadid points out the irony of the fact that it was
the American invasion that made it possible for Amal to criticize the
occupiers.) "If I say the Americans are better, someone asks, What have
the Americans done? What have they done for us? All the Americans have
done is bring the tanks," she tells Shadid. "If I said the time of
Saddam was better, they say, What? If he didn't like you, he would cut
off your head. He was a tyrant. I don't know what to say."
A few days
later, Shadid returns and Amal continues their conversation. After
opining that no government, Arab or foreign, is just, that all rulers
are both good and bad, she adds, "There must be hope. Even the Quran
says we must be optimistic. If you hope, you can get an answer. If you
study more, you will find more success. If you have more hope, you can
be assured of more and more progress. If not for my generation, then
the generation that's coming."
After which Karima says softly to Shadid, "They're still young. They don't know what's ahead."
What lay ahead,
we now know, was even worse. Shadid left in June 2004, returning in
January 2005 to cover the elections. The window of hope offered by the
elections quickly closed as Iraq descended into a hell of sectarian violence and insurgent attacks.
Considering how bad the situation was even in the summer of 2004, it's
hard to believe that Iraqis, despite their storied toughness, have not
since suffered a collective nervous breakdown.
Near" does not assign blame for the ongoing tragedy in Iraq. Nor does
Shadid attempt to compare the lives of Iraqis under Saddam with the
lives of those under the U.S. occupation -- although many of his
sources tell him that things are far worse under the Americans than
under Saddam, and few if any say the opposite. In the largest sense, it
is axiomatic that America is responsible for everything that has
happened to Iraq since the invasion. But were the Iraqi people
themselves partly responsible for their fate as well?
several Iraqis who say that Saddam, with his endless wars and
brutality, destroyed the Iraqi soul and spirit. Others say that Iraq
needs a strongman to lead it, that it is simply not suited for
democracy. What is indisputable is that over the years, Iraqis had
become dependent on a Stalinist bureaucracy. "Some of the less
charitable [Americans] grew angry at people they characterized as
unprepared to help themselves," Shadid notes. "There was, of course, an
element of truth in this. Iraqi society was battered and beaten down by
wars and dictatorship. Sometimes it seemed that the initiative of
Iraqis had been entirely vitiated by Saddam's government, which didn't
sanction resourcefulness or originality and which fostered a dependency
that many in Iraq were willing to embrace ... The U.S. administration
may have complained that the Iraqis expected too much too soon, given
the state of the country, the resources at hand and the challenges
inherent in a postwar environment. But the Americans had to take, or at
least share, responsibility for raising the people's expectations in
the first place ... When [President Bush] promised that 'the life of
the Iraqi citizen is going to dramatically improve,' his words were not
forgotten. One of those who remembered was young Amal:
us, when are we going to live a life of security and stability? Listen
to us, hear us, you people out there, we have cried and shouted. What
else can we do? ... They talk about democracy. Where is democracy? Is
it that people die of hunger and deprivation and fear? Is that
Was the American
intervention doomed from the start? Or if we had made all the right
decisions -- preventing looting, restoring services, not disbanding the
army, treading lightly in the Sunni triangle -- could it have worked?
Shadid is agnostic at best. "Another scenario for life after Saddam was
perhaps possible: the ruler falls, to the joy of many; a curfew is
imposed in the capital, and a provisional government is quickly
constituted; basic services -- electricity, water, and sewage -- are
rapidly restored; security, at times draconian, is imposed in the
streets; and aid starts pouring into Baghdad, as foreign and Iraqi
companies compete for the bounty of the reconstruction of a country
awash in oil. The occupation might have unfolded that way -- but it
condemned the project from the start," Shadid goes on. "A grim warning
lay in Iraq's modern record, shaped as it was by deprivation --
Saddam's tyranny, his wars, and the expectations of Baghdadis that they
deserved better. The Iraqi impression of America was no less a problem.
Whatever its intentions, the United States was a non-Muslim invader in
a Muslim land. For a generation, its reputation had been molded by its
alliance with Israel, its record in the 1991 Gulf War, and its support
for the U.N. sanctions. Not insubstantial were decades over which the
United States had grown as an antagonist in the eyes of many Arabs.
Iraq had long been removed from the Arab world, isolated by
dictatorship, war, and the sanctions, but it remained Arab."
American troops entering Baghdad for the first time, Shadid is nearly
overwhelmed by the historical magnitude of what he was witnessing. In
an eloquent passage, he writes, "The United States now controlled
Iraq's destiny; we would now decide its fate. And we understood
remarkably little about it. Deep down, I worried we would never try to
know it, either. At best, we would try to force it into our construct
and preconception of what a country should be. At worst, we would not
care, giving in to overly emotional impressions distorted by
differences in language, culture, and traditions, and by conceit. In
between, the ambiguity that so defined Iraq for me -- the uncertainty,
the ambivalence, the legacy of its history -- would become too
complicated to unravel."
helped us understand. Cutting through cultural and religious
differences, he is able to convey the humanity of the Iraqi people.
This may seem like a modest achievement, but it is in fact a major one.
In an unspoken rebuke of the Clash of Civilization theorists who see
cosmic gulfs between cultures and monstrous totems instead of knowable
beliefs, he walks through the streets, talking and listening to people.
His Iraq is a land of human beings, people who desire a decent life,
who raise children and go to work and laugh and cry. They have their
own religion and culture, which they do not want anyone to trample.
There are fanatics and criminals among them, but they do not define who
Iraqis are. Without their consent, we freed them from one nightmare
only to plunge them into another one. They have suffered for far too
The day after Saddam fell, I wrote a piece of celebration.
It concluded, "Those who opposed this war in part because they feared
what it would do to the Iraqi people must now make every effort to
protect and raise up those people. And to do that, they must pay
attention to what is happening to them -- the good, the bad and the
in-between. This is the most compelling reason to celebrate the end of
Saddam. Call that celebration a leap of faith, if you will -- but you
could also call it a binding contract, American to Iraqi, human heart
to human heart. We smashed your country and we killed your people and
we freed you from a monster: We are bound together now by blood. We owe
each other, but we owe you more because we are stronger and because we
came into your country."
inexcusable incompetence and folly, we broke that contract. We owed the
Iraqi people better. "There must be hope," Amal said, and her words
must not go unanswered. The tragedy is that there may no longer be any
way for us to help her. The future of Iraq is unknowable, and history's
judgment on America's war cannot yet be rendered. But if that judgment
is harsh, we will carry the shame of it forever.
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About the writer
Gary Kamiya is Salon's executive editor.