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Iraq: Live from Baghdad

Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 13, 2004; 1:00 PM

For the past year, Washington Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid has been covering the war from Iraq. Last week, Shadid won a Pulitzer Prize for his work covering the U.S.-led war and its aftermath.

Shadid will be online, live from Baghdad, on Tuesday, April 13 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his reporting and the latest developments in Iraq.


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Anthony Shadid: Good afternoon everyone. It's a pleasure to join you all. I'll try to get to as many questions as I can over the next hour.

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Oklahoma City, Okla.: Hello Mr. Shadid,
I understand that not much is known about the transfer sovereignty coming up on June 30th. With that in mind, once the transfer is made, could the new government of Iraq just order the coalition forces to leave the country? Would this be the best way for them to establish legitimacy with the population there? If the U.S. refused, then what sovereignty was transferred or created?

Anthony Shadid: I can't pass up a question from my hometown. And it's a good one. The surge in violence over the past couple of weeks has overshadowed what is a very dramatic political struggle going on -- what shape the government after June 30 will take and what authority it will have. It's hard to imagine a government having the authority to order U.S. troops out or the U.S. government allowing that to happen. But I think you get at the possible impact of that -- a lack of credibility for that government and a prolonged period in which a real vacuum of authority exists. That's not a certainty, but it's a distinct possibility.

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: In your opinion, what toll has the "collateral damage," i.e. deaths of innocent bystanders in Iraq taken on Iraqi public opinion toward the U.S. occupation? Also, Paul Bremer recently said that the U.S. does not have a plan for turning over the Iraqi government on 6/30. How could that be possible if we intend to turn it over, anyway?

Anthony Shadid: In the past week, you've seen what appears to be a real shift in sentiments in Baghdad. I've spoken to very few people who are not upset by the casualties in Fallujah or the fighting in Sadr City, a Baghdad neighborhood. Many will also express profound disgust at the killing and mutilation of the contractors there. But often those words are followed by the line that the response has been disproportionate. That backlash had the potential to become very dangerous if a cease-fire hadn't been reached a few days ago. As for Bremer, it's a real concern. The U.N.-led process on finding an arrangement after June 30 doesn't seem to be making much headway, and there's a feeling among many Iraqis that the Governing Council -- a body that suffers badly from a lack of legitimacy -- may be the fall-back option. In other words, authority is turned over to it on June 30, perhaps after it is slightly expanded.

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Kennesaw, Ga.: Is it fair to say Iraq's senior Shiite clerics sought for months to have the Americans take care of their Sadr problem for them, and are now scrambling to restrain the passions he has unleashed?

Setting aside questions about coalition policy, it seems Sistani and his associates miscalculated badly, underestimating Sadr and his Iranian supporters' ability to put armed men into the streets. Is their error something they can recover from?

Anthony Shadid: It's a good question. Since the fall of Saddam's government, the more senior clergy have been reluctant to act against Sadr. One, they fear his street support. But also they recognize the weight that his father's name carries. The Sadr family is a real institution in Iraq, with a long history of both scholarship and sacrifice. Without the name, Muqtada would not be a force to reckon with. While I think you're right -- that the clergy did want the Americans to deal with Sadr -- I think they're also very worried about the impact of fighting between U.S. troops and his militia in Najaf. Given the city's sanctity, violence there has the potential to have a lasting, dangerous impact on attitudes here.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Congrats on your Pullitzer Prize: very well deserved. Surely it is obvious that the pursuit of the war in Iraq was a huge diversion from the goal of finding bin Laden in Afghanistan. Doesn't the war risk creating "100 bin Ladens" as many have suggested. I recently attended an excellent talk by Steve Coll on his book "Ghost Wars" in which he documents what a cancerous web of intrigue the Afghan-Pakistan nexus is (Steve Coll says that Al Qaeda has "metastasized" in describing its proliferation -- the Madrid train bombings seems to corroborate this). Do you see any chance that the war in Iraq and the planned "handover" after June can get back to a level whereby U.S. troop strength can be reduced to a level consistent with pursuit of other goals like the search for bin Laden? What does having a U.S. embassy of 3,000 strong in Iraq portend? What does the average Iraqi think about that?

Anthony Shadid: Thanks for the kind words. Given the forces in play, it's difficult to see the transition being a peaceful one. But your questions at the end strike at what will be a long-lasting challenge for any government that emerges. How do you guarantee legitimacy -- or credibility, for that matter -- when the government is operating under the shadow of a huge U.S. diplomatic and military presence? However benevolent that presence is, it will still give pause to many in this country who view U.S. policy with suspicion. Already, we're seeing leaders emerge whose authority largely comes through their independence from the U.S. occupation.

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Centreville, Va.: From where you sit and what you've seen, how skewed/biased is the al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera coverage?

Anthony Shadid: I'm probably a minority on this point, but I think Jazeera and Arabiya reflect attitudes more than they propel them. The coverage is striking, and some may very well say it incites people. But we're dealing with a climate both in Iraq and the Arab world that is angry. Besides, I've always been struck by the sophistication of Arab viewers. They're used to decades of censorship, and they always take into account who is sponsoring or who owns the station. I don't want to whitewash the impact of those stations on sentiments here. They have a huge impact. But I think we'd see a lot of the anger and unrest with or without their coverage.

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Washington, D.C.: About what percentage of the hundreds of Iraqis killed in Fallujah by American troops are women and children?

Independent eyewitness reports from Western reporters (e.g. Pacifica Radio's Rahul Maharajan) as well as Iraqi hospital workers attest to large numbers of civilian dead that the military are claiming to be combatant dead. Mr. Shadid's reports seem to lean toward the military's version of the story.

What has he seen?

Thanks.

Anthony Shadid: We simply don't know the real picture of casualties in Fallujah. Pam Constable has done a superb job, at great personal risk, but her movement is limited. As a result, we're having to rely on hospital officials, which we've quoted, and accounts of residents fleeing the city. They put the numbers at hundreds, many of them women and children. But until journalists can get in and investigate on their own, I don't think we're going to get a fuller picture of what's going on.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Because of the dangerous conditions, I get a strong feeling that correspondents in Iraq are staying in Baghdad, avoiding the highways. The sense I'm getting is that while the Fallujah and al-Sadr actions have inspired Baghdadis, I don't have a strong sense of how it's perceived in Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, etc. What can you tell us about that?

Anthony Shadid: Journalists definitely have scaled back on their travel. It's simply too dangerous to take some roads now. I was in Nasiriya a few days ago, and I got a similar sense of unease that I do in Baghdad. On one hand, you have people energized by what's going on in Fallujah, along the lines of the story Karl and I did today. Probably more dominant, though, is a sense of worry. The violence has shocked people, and the aftermath has not inspired confidence. You don't hear a lot of optimism these days in Baghdad. It's the same story in Nasiriya. As for other cities, I just can't tell you at this point.

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Glenmont, Md.: Is there any way for U.S. forces to restore order without killing the terrorist leaders like Sadr?

Anthony Shadid: Killing Sadr could prove explosive. What we saw over the past week was ignited by closing a newspaper and arresting one of his aides. His followers promise much more if he is killed. Is it a short-term backlash? Perhaps. But I think it's important to remember that Muqtada is more than a militia leader. He carries a name that resonates in this country. And there's a distinct disgust among many here with the prospect of killing or arresting clergy. Some say it smacks of Saddam, and it's hard to see how his death will play well.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Shadid,

I've been reading your sensitive, nuanced reporting from Iraq for quite some time. Just want to say how much it means to someone like me -- someone who can't abide the one-dimensional, "stand up and salute 'em" type of journalism such as on Fox -- that fine journalists like you risk their lives so that we can be informed back home. And I know I'm not alone in that sentiment.

Keep up the excellent work and be safe.

Anthony Shadid: I've received a lot of messages about the Pulitzer. I just want to thank everyone. It was a real honor, probably undeserved. Hopefully, it says more about what the Post has tried to do in covering this story. It's been a long haul, and I've been joined by a truly remarkable, brave set of colleagues. I think all the journalists are here doing work under difficult circumstances, but there is still a commitment to the story and a recognition of its importance. I hope conditions permit us to keep reporting it.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: How worried should we be? The impression I get is that conditions, while not good, are not terrible for the U.S. right now, but could rapidly spiral out of control at any moment. Is that an accurate assessment?

Anthony Shadid: This is my own opinion, but I think it's pretty bad here. From my own experience, we're dealing with the greatest insecurity since the fall of Saddam. Is it a crisis? It feels that way. Can the U.S. administration recover? Probably. But you definitely hear Iraqis calling for a decisive change in the approach -- perhaps less of a military response, more of a political one, and a greater reliance on Iraqi voices than those embodied by the Governing Council.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Anthony:
First of all, congratulations on your well deserved Pulitzer. You have really helped all of us understand the situation. Your report in The Post this morning points to a surge of anti-U.S. sentiment in Baghdad. Where does this leave Iraqis who have been willing to work with the U.S. toward democracy, such as the political movements represented on the Governing Council? Are they likely to shift to an anti-U.S. stance? Also, the Iraqi opinion polls have shown that Ahmed Chalabi is the most unpopular political figure in post-Saddam Iraq. Do the Pentagon and CPA still view him as a potential prime minister or president of Iraq after June 30?

washingtonpost.com: Fallujah Gains Mythic Air, (Post, April 13)

Anthony Shadid: Chalabi is definitely not a well-liked figure here. For a time, he was the only recognized personality on the council, but the recognition was usually negative. As for U.
S. engagement with him, I just don't know the answer to that. I do think your question hits at what may have been the most strategic shift in sentiments here the past week -- there's a very great backlash against the Governing Council. In fact, one member who suspended his membership --Abdel-Karim Mohammadawi -- has taken on a national profile as a result of his denunciations of the U.S. military response.

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Falls Church, Va.: Congratulations on your Pulitzer. What does Bagdad feel like? Tense? antagonistic? Are there many residents "sitting on the fence" or is a majority in favor of the insurgent action?

Anthony Shadid: Baghdad feels tense, though the past day or so have been better. It's a good question on sentiments here. As is so often the case, they're all over the map. The bloodshed in Fallujah -- and reports of hundreds dead there -- has created a very clear backlash. For a time, that anger felt explosive. I should note, though, that anger doesn't necessarily mean support for the insurgents. The outpouring of aid from Baghdad was, I thought, more sympathy for residents' plight than outright endorsement of the insurgents' action. I think there's also deep unease about where things are headed in the country, and that's probably the sentiment you hear most often. Finally, there's a lot of disillusionment with the occupation and its allies. It's been there for a while, but I get the sense it has sharpened and deepened over the past couple of weeks.

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Anonymous: How deep is the new-found unity between the Shiites and the Sunni? Was it only temporary and tactical?

Anthony Shadid: I've heard time and again over the past week in interviews that the prospect of civil war seems farther away than any time since the collapse of Saddam's government. The simultaneous U.S. crackdown on both Sunni and Shiite strongholds -- Fallujah and Sadr City -- generalized the violence, in a way. When neighbors come under attack, ideology takes a back seat to survival and cooperation. Is it long-lasting? I don't know. There are still potentially explosive questions, shadowed by issues of sect and ethnicity, that have to be resolved before a permanent government takes power. But what we've witnessed over the past week, in terms of Sunni-Shiite cooperation, is remarkable. You once could go through neighborhoods and know immediately who you were talking to -- a Sunni or a Shiite. You can't do that anymore. And in a way I think it gives substance to what many Iraqis have said to me in conversations over the past year. The Sunni-Shiite divide is there -- no question about it -- but perhaps it's significance is exaggerated. To many, it represents a facile way for people to analyze the situation.

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Austin, Tex.: Mr. Shadid,

Congratulations on the Pulitzer. You deserve it.

A lot of people are criticizing the U.S. military for being "heavy-handed" or "too aggressive." Yet, even as somebody who thinks this war was a terrible mistake, I have a different reaction. I'm actually a little surprised that they have been so willing to talk to people and negotiate ceasefires. I can't help thinking that if a Fallujah-type event had happened in some past wars, Fallujah might not exist any more by this point.

Anything you can say in a sentence or two to help me understand?

Anthony Shadid: If this was clearly a military situation, you might be right. But it's far from that, and even U.S. generals will point out that what they're doing has to be accompanied by a political process. That seems to be lagging right now. But to give it any success, you have to have at least a shred of popular support for it, and the bloodshed in Fallujah and earlier in Sadr City has done to much to undermine that support. It's a critical situation right now. The sense among many is that what we've witnessed over the past week or so may be the most decisive turn of events since even before the war began. I don't say that lightly.

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McLean, Va.: I have seen many articles you have written about Iraq so far. I have not seen one article about positive things U.S. had done for Iraqi people so far from you? Why do you so much focused on the negative aspect of Iraq?
Thanks

Anthony Shadid: Well, I'm not sure I'd agree with your take on the coverage, but everyone's entitled to their opinion. What I've tried to do is get a fix on the forces, sentiments and changes that are shaping the experience in Iraq. Is the revival of the Shiite clergy a negative story? I don't think so. In fact, in a way, the new-found power of the Shiite majority is one of the occupation's most striking achievements. But why look at it as positive or negative? It's simply one of the forces determining what this country will look like in the months and years ahead.

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Two questions: 1: (Via Juan Cole) The Iranian paper Baztab is reporting that Sistani has warned the U.S. not to attack Najaf and Karbala. Is an attack on either of those cities imminent and/or inevitable?

2: There have been reports of several large explosions in Baghdad in or near the green zone. Do you know of any credible explanation concerning the source and impacts of those explosions?

Anthony Shadid: A quick kudos to Juan Cole's web site, which I recommend to anyone interested in what's going on in Iraq. Sistani's position is interesting. He held back for several days. In part, I think he feared acting as a mediator on behalf of the occupation. Since yesterday, though, his son and the representatives of other grand ayatollahs have entered into talks. That in itself is striking. For a year now, Sadr -- with little clerical standing and too young to be treated as an equal -- has sought recognition from the establishment. The meeting changes that dynamic, however subtly. The latest we've heard from Najaf is that U.S. forces have massed around the city, and that insurgents attacked the Spanish base inside tonight. Our stringer there said he believes an attack may occur, but I think that's more a hunch than informed opinion. As for the explosions in Baghdad, I'm not sure anyone knows exactly where they're coming from. They've certainly picked up pace in recent days.

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Helsinki, Finland: Given the already widespread anger at the U.S. actions in Fallujah, do you think it is still politically possible to resume the offensive? Wouldn't that risk permanently alienating the population? Assuming that the fighters in Fallujah don't outright surrender, is it possible to NOT to resume the offensive?

Anthony Shadid: I think your question hits at the precise difficulty both sides face right now. It's not clear to me how that conflict gets resolved. But the dangers either way -- a devastating military offensive or a resurgent guerrilla campaign -- will have far-reaching effects.

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Austin, Tex.: Sadr is characterized by our government as a Thug, Brown Shirt, Terrorist, etc.

I realize he is the son of a important martyr in Iraq. How is he more than what our government is characterizing him as?

Anthony Shadid: It's a good question. Let me put it this way -- he's a street guy, and that's where his support comes from. He can turn out 10,000, 20,000 worshipers on Friday prayers in Baghdad. His rhetoric leaves little room for nuance. And he carries his family's name. But let me make one point -- and this is something I heard time and again in Sadr City. At some level, particularly among the unemployed, jobless, less educated, there are not a lot of distinctions drawn between Sadr and the rest of the clergy. In fact, many thought Sadr was working on behalf of Ayatollah Sistani. That's the danger in the crackdown. Sadr may be a thug, but he's also a cleric, and many Shiites have long memories of Saddam's treatment of the clergy. I don't know how many times I've heard the line, "You can't touch the clergy." Maybe there's no alternative, but the implications are vast.

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Anthony Shadid: I have to sign off now. I really appreciate all the questions, and I apologize that I didn't get to probably half of them. I really enjoyed the chat and the kind words.

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