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Review of Anthony Shadid’s “Night Draws Near”

Former Washington Post foreign correspondent and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid died Thursday while reporting from Syria for the New York Times. His 2005 book, “Night Draws Near,” was one of the few to chronicle the war in Iraq through the eyes of Iraqis. Sen. James Webb, a former combat Marine and secretary of the Navy, reviewed the book for The Post. Excerpts:

Reporting with great freedom of movement and without being embedded in a U.S. military unit, Shadid covered the entire period from before the invasion to events following Iraq’s January elections. The Arabic-speaking Shadid walks us through Iraq, giving us a set of eyes with which to gauge the country for ourselves. Some of this is “grunt reporting,” where Shadid witnesses many of the country’s more gruesome catastrophes, both during and after the initial fighting that toppled the Baath regime. Much of the book is almost novelistic; he introduces Iraqis of widely varying beliefs and backgrounds, revisiting many of them several times from the American invasion to the period following the 2004 battles in Najaf and Fallujah, thus allowing us to see . . . through their eyes. Now and then, we are treated to historical essays that provide a vital backdrop to understanding just how the Iraqis view the Americans — and, indeed, each other. In high journalistic fashion, rarely does Shadid cross the line between reporting and personal opinion, especially political opinion.

Throughout all of this, one gets a sense that Shadid, perhaps uniquely among American journalists, knows how to operate in that difficult and often dangerous environment. His Arab background and mastery of the language no doubt helped him move about and get Iraqis to talk openly. His affection for the region and its people is palpable. And in addition, he navigated many intricacies with the help of his erstwhile Iraqi government handler, whom Shadid decided to retain as a trusted employee after Saddam Hussein’s fall. The two became great friends. One wonders what might have happened if American authorities had taken such an approach after the invasion, cultivating the best and brightest from among the old regime rather than banishing Baath Party members from further government service. . . .

Shadid breaks new ground in offering us a much-needed look at the human face of the Iraqi people, as well as an acute analysis of the variegated cultural and historical forces that ultimately are going to decide the political fate of Iraq. In one gruesome but illuminating scene, we see a father being forced by angry fellow villagers to kill his own son, who had turned into an informer for the Americans, lest failure to do so set off years of “blood-soaked vendettas.” Whatever an American politician may wish to make of this event, it graphically debunks the notion that resistance to the American occupation has been merely the work of “dead-enders” or “foreign terrorists.” As Shadid points out, in Sunni regions “tribal authority had grown in the wake of the government’s fall . . . tribal code stipulated a brutal frontier justice, which had come to fill a lawless void. This code, rigorous and unforgiving, was paramount.”

Indeed, through Shadid’s eyes, we see clearly the chasm between occupier and occupied — a rift that runs far deeper than the usual ethnic divisions between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that dominate U.S. debates about the country’s future. “The Americans in Baghdad framed the tumult in Iraq from the perspective of their own heritage and expressed them in the familiar vocabulary of democratic ideals,” he writes. “They had come as liberators.” But the Iraqis’ own “vocabulary was shaped less by a reflexive celebration of democracy and freedom and more by their own religion, nationalism, and material circumstance.” For Iraqis, “justice” trumps “freedom.” . . .

Mixed in with such fresh, hard-won insights are passages that combine acute reporting skills and novelistic phrasing, giving the reader a true sense of people and place. During the battle for Baghdad, Shadid noticed “the buses that still, spectacularly, ran their routes, even during the most pitched fighting on the capital’s streets.” And after a gruesome bombing in Najaf that killed more than 80 people near a Shiite shrine, “the wood stalls lay splintered in blackened pools of grime and blood mixed with charred metal and brick. Along one sidewalk, men sifted with their hands through shards of glass for silver rings blown from their display cases.” . . .

As a piece of reporting on the forces that are shaping today’s Iraq, this is as fine a book as one could hope to read.

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