Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 6, 2005 1:00 PM
In his new book, "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War," Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post Foreign Service tells stories of ordinary Iraqis caught up in conflict. Shadid, who speaks Arabic fluently, was not embedded during his time in Iraq and was able to gain insights on individual stories--from those who supported the U.S. action to those taking up arms as jihadists. Shadid's on the street approach merges the big picture of the war with the daily lives of Iraqis and provides an illustration for life in Iraq during and after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein .
The Washington Post's Anthony Shadid was online Tuesday, Sept. 6, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his book, "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War," and the impact of the war on ordinary Iraqis.
The transcript follows.
Anthony Shadid: Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to join you all today, and I'm looking forward to the discussion over the next hour. I see some questions already here, so I'll go ahead and get started.
Toronto, Canada: Mr. Shadid, I reside in Canada and receive my news from CBS, ABC, NBC but mostly Washington Post and CNN I should also mention PBS radio in Buffalo. My vantage point might not be as clear as most U.S. citizens who live with these concerns every day. My question is do you believe that most Americans have a good knowledge of the day to day war in Iraq, or are they fed the administrations message? What is the real deal in your opinion. Is the war message being sanitized for home consumption? if so by whom and for what purpose? Again in your opinion.
Anthony Shadid: That's a tough question. Since I spend most of my time in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, it's difficult to say how informed people are in the United States on Iraq. I guess my gut sense is that people seem better informed each time I visit. I think there is an attempt by all sides -- the U.S. government, the Iraqi government, insurgent leaders, etc. -- to define Iraq one way, to create a narrative that fits into their preconceptions of what Iraq is. I've always been struck by how Iraq defies those attempts. Even today, I don't think there's an easy way to describe the country. As a person spending time there, I guess I'm struck by how difficult life remains -- less electricity than ever before, days without water, the lurking threat of violence. Those issues, I think, dominate life there and define, for many, their attitudes and perceptions toward almost everything.
Washington, D.C.: What would happen to people like Amal's family if and when American troops withdraw?
Anthony Shadid: I wish I knew the answer to that. I think the general sense is that an American withdrawal would precipitate even worse violence, perhaps chaos. There's an alternative view out there, though, that only with an American withdrawal could a future government secure the legitimacy that remains fundamental in creating the institutions to move Iraq forward. My sense is that there's a bit of a no-win situation at work: Stability, at least for now, requires an American presence, while the American presence itself fuels strife.
Munich, Germany: I read a review of your book last weekend and I duly noted that you were described as a "Formidable Journalist". The review also mentioned that you're of Lebanese descent, born and raise in Oklahoma and fluent in Arabic.
With your fluency in Arabic, I was wondering how well you could assimilate yourself in Iraq.
Could you pass yourself off as Iraqi while walking the streets of Baghdad? Did you feel that you could venture to parts of Baghdad and Iraq that other journalists couldn't?
Anthony Shadid: No, I can't. I learned Arabic in Egypt and speak with an Egyptian accent. I've never been treated as an Iraqi while working in the country. But language has helped open doors there and allowed me some access I might not have had otherwise. As an Arab-American, I feel like I maybe blend in a little bit better in some places.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Mr. Shadid,
The most pressing question remains:
At what point will a withdrawal of U.S. forces result in the locals turning on foreign fighters WITHOUT devolving the conflict into a civil war?
Anthony Shadid: I think what you're suggesting here is a tantalizing question. To be honest, I don't necessarily see an answer right now to ending the strife in Iraq. At the same time, I don't see a bleak future as certain. Could Iraq be a functioning, if troubled democracy in 10 years? Perhaps. Could it be a version of early 1990's Afghanistan, with competing militias staking out turf and profits in a lawless environment. I think that's possible, too. There's a scenario, though, that you hint at -- what if an American withdrawal allowed Sunnis to fully join a political process no longer burdened by the image of a U.S. occupation? Would some Sunni elements then treat foreign insurgents differently? I don't know the answer. But it's difficult for me to see national reconciliation as long as the United States maintains the role it is playing now.
Whitefish, Mont.: Mr. Shadid,
Thanks so much for your great insight in the past....it's always enlightening to read your work. Perhaps this is an impossible question to answer briefly, but could you explain the basic difference between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in terms of their religious beliefs? Or, is the current Sunni / Shiite power struggle a purely political one? (i.e. old grudges or wealth or oil reserves or land....) Any insight will be greatly appreciated!
Anthony Shadid: I'll give it a shot in a few sentences. The two dominant Muslim sects in Iraq are Shiite and Sunni Islam. The majority of Arabs in Iraq are Shiite, though traditionally, Sunnis have played a bigger role in the government and security forces. The majority of Kurds, a minority themselves, are Sunni, although there are smaller communities of Shiite Kurds. The division between Sunni and Shiite Islam dates to a 7th century dispute over the succession to the Prophet Mohammed. Over the centuries, that dispute has evolved into differences in doctrine, worship and the communities' sense of themselves. In Iraq today, the differences are far more political than religious. To a greater degree than in past years, religious Shiites are acting as a community motivated, primarily, by politics (or, more bluntly, power). That's part of a transformation we've seen over the past few years, in which sect and ethnicity are becoming the crucial elements in political bargaining, negotiation and compromise. Sect and ethnicity always played a huge role in Iraqi life, but I think increasingly, they now define it.
Clinton, Iowa: Is there any feeling by the Iraqi population, that the U.S. troops are helping them? Are we just seen as an occupation army as some have said?
Anthony Shadid: I always hesitate to speak with any authority about sentiments across the country. I'm sure there are places where people are happy with the U.S. presence, and there is no question that projects designed at improving life have been completed across Iraq. But I think if you honestly ask what is the prevailing sense about the presence of U.S. troops it would be this: We expected far more and we're frustrated with how little has been achieved. Life has improved in some ways, but worsened in so many others.
Charlottesville, Va.: How long do you think American troops will have to stay? That is, when will the Iraqis be able to provide their own security and govern themselves?
Anthony Shadid: I think that's a question that a lot of Americans ask, and to be honest, I don't know the answer. I guess we'll have a better sense once a clear criteria for their departure is set: Is it, like you said, when the government can provide security? Is it when Iraqi security forces are somewhat evenly matched with insurgents? Is it when domestic political demands require a departure before either occurs? I'm just not sure.
New York, N.Y.: Could you elaborate on a point Spencer Ackerman made about your book in his review in The American Prospect, namely that al-Sistani and Sadr are much closer in their views than the U.S. government and media tend to credit them?
Anthony Shadid: Sure. In terms of religious doctrine and ideology, Sadr and Sistani are both part of what Iraqis call the Hawza, the Shiite religious establishment. Both remain very unclear on what shape a future government will take. Neither would suggest that Islamic law should somehow be ignored, neither are opposed to the idea of elections, neither would say the clergy should have no political role. What they do disagree on is engagement with the U.S. presence. Sadr has opposed it, fighting twice against U.S. troops. Sistani has grudgingly accepted it, as a means to an end. Some people have remarked that Sistani's endorsement of elections was revolutionary. I think it is interesting, but if we look back at those months in 2003-4, it was actually Sadr that first called for elections. My sense was that then and at other moments, Sistani was reacting to sentiments on the ground. And, I think if you get down to it, both see those elections as guaranteeing a Shiite majority that would defer to the Hawza on crucial questions. It's as tactical as it is strategic.
Vienna, Va.: Mr. Shadid,
Do you think the Insurgency is in it's last throes as Dick Cheney said few months ago? and secondly, how long do you think it will go on? Commander in Iraq recently said he sees the possibility of withdrawing significant number of troops in spring, what is your take on it?
Anthony Shadid: No, I don't think it's in its last throes. If anything, I'm struck by the ways in which it evolves, becoming more complex, more violent and more durable. My sense is that it will continue as long as their is a U.S. military presence. I think there may be a withdrawal in the spring, but I'm not sure that will reflect success against the insurgency.
Columbia, Mo.: How much, if any, ethnic and sectarian displacement occurred since the U.S. invasion? Particularly in towns with both Sunni and Shia and towns with Kurdish, Assyrians, Turkomens, Arabs, etc.
Anthony Shadid: My sense is that most of the displacement has occurred along the frontier between Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq and the rest of the country. Despite denials, there is a redrawing of the border going on in northern Iraq, an attempt, it seems, by the Kurds to create facts on the ground before that border is eventually negotiated. Most of the displacement has occurred in that respect.
Alexandria, Va.: How do you move about Iraq to interview ordinary Iraqis? Do you have a military escort?
Anthony Shadid: I travel in a car with two men I've worked with for more than two years now. We have a car that follows us at a distance, in case we run into trouble or break down. We don't have a military escort. You'd really only have that if you were embedded.
Baltimore, Md.: Thanks for your excellent coverage. As a journalist, can you talk about your experience not being embedded, both early and recently? Your relative ease of access to the people of Iraq has clearly been an advantage, but has it tried you in any ways?
Anthony Shadid: It's interesting. I look back to that period between Saddam's fall in April 2003 and the Sadr uprising and first attack on Fallujah in April 2004 as a period of some of the most remarkable access I've ever encountered. In a way, it was the first time in 10 years that I felt you could report completely unencumbered in an Arab country. Back then, it was just a matter of endurance -- if you could spend the time, you could almost always get to the story. That's obviously not the case anymore. I think we're limited to Kurdish regions, parts of Baghdad and parts of southern Iraq. Even in southern Iraq, though, I've found parts of it becoming more and more dangerous as militias run by Shiite religious parties broaden their sway. Basra, in fact, has become one of the riskier places to work.
Rockville, Md.: It is sometimes sarcastically asserted that the country whose national security has most unambiguously benefited from the Iraq invasion is Iran.
Sarcasm aside, do you think there is much truth to this?
(If true, how bitterly ironic for our "war on terror.")
Anthony Shadid: I hesitate to say anything on a strategic level, but I am struck by the degree of Iranian involvement in southern Iraq. There's a definitely a sense in Basra, the second-largest city, that Iranian intelligence has a pretty free hand there. Often heard is the remark that if relations drastically worsened between the United States and Iran, southern Iraq might be the battlefield. I don't want to suggest all this is insidious. Iran has an understandable national interest in Iraq, its neighbor. But if you look at parts of the south, especially Basra, the Iranian have far greater sway than either the United States or Britain.
Vienna, Va.: Mr. Shadid
What is your sense of Iraqis' opinions about the most popular of Bush's comments--Iraq war is a war against terrorism and that we fight them on the streets of Baghdad rather than the streets of our cities? I recently saw a comment from a professor in Baghdad University who said "Bush would rather have Iraqis die to make his city safer".
Anthony Shadid: I've heard that often, though perhaps more a year ago than now. I mentioned earlier this distrust and suspicion that sometimes spills over into conspiracy. That's an example -- I think there's definitely a sense among a certain constituency that the Americans have brought the war to Iraq so that they don't have to fight it in the United States. In that vein, some suggest that without the Americans there, the foreigners wouldn't have anything to fight about. I'm not saying I agree. It's just what you hear.
Palatine, Ill.: With Saddam Hussein's removal, has there been a significant return of Iraqis who had left the country under Saddam's rule?
Anthony Shadid: Not really. In fact, I think there's been a lot of emigration from Iraq, especially to Jordan and Syria. There are whole neighborhoods these days in Amman that are basically Iraqi.
New York, N.Y.: Ackerman also implied that your book suggests Sadr is more of a power among Shi'ites in Iraq than Sistani--or at least more of a power than the media and U.S. are able or willing to admit. (Or did I read him wrong?)
Your book sounds fascinating, by the way, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it.
Anthony Shadid: I wouldn't argue that Sadr has more religious influence than Sistani. Sistani remains the marja, the supreme Shiite religious authority in Iraq, and that carries tremendous weight. But I think there are a couple of levels to that influence. Even today, Sistani is criticized for not speaking out enough. I actually heard that as recently as a few weeks ago in Najaf. Sadr is extremely outspoken, and that is one of his sources of support. The other is guns. Sadr has them; Sistani, in a formal sense, doesn't. Sadr may not have more influence in a religious sense than Sistani in Diwaniya, Amara or Nasiriya. But his militia could probably seize control of any of those cities in a matter of days. On your last question, I think Sadr has been consistently underestimated.
Washington, D.C.: Was the chaos in Iraq inevitable or do you believe it is due to a lack of planning on the part of the U.S.?
Anthony Shadid: That's a great question and, again, I hate to say this, but I'm just not sure. I do think that much of what we see today in Iraq was decided in the first few weeks after Saddam's fall. Baghdad was wrecked, views toward the United States were formed and credibility was ruptured. Could the United States have gotten through that? Perhaps. It probably would have required not only an infusion of aid, but effectiveness in spending it; a massive troop presence; a somewhat quick transfer to U.N. authority; a rapid handover to an Iraqi government. But even if that had happened, would it have worked? I just don't know. So much that has happened in Iraq felt inevitable to me, as though forces were unleashed that had been there for decades, even centuries.
Washington, D.C.: Hi, Thanks for your great reporting. If there is one persistent theme I have noticed in your work, it is the observation that most Iraqis have been concerned more by the basic security and living issues--ability to walk streets, have electricity, etc--rather than relatively chimerical developments such as a constitution. The question: To what extent has the lack of these basic amenities fueled the insurgency thus far?
Anthony Shadid: I do think that's right. Living conditions, it seems, to me are by far the priority in Baghdad and elsewhere. That can be defined loosely -- politics are the key to stability and stability affects everything. But I think the overwhelming ambition for many Iraqis was an improvement in the lives, an end to what had been almost 25 years of deprivation. It didn't follow. Did that have a direct impact on the insurgency? I don't know. But I think it did have a huge effect on the atmosphere and climate in which the insurgency was fought. There is a lot of anger toward militants, particularly over the killing of civilians. But that anger doesn't translate into support for the U.S. military, itself a source of suspicion, mistrust and anger.
Columbia, Mo.: In a general sense what is Sistani's current health? What would be the implications of his death with respect to the power base among shia? Would Sadr benefit or is there a well known spokesmen who would step in to represent Sistani?
Anthony Shadid: I asked that question in Najaf a few weeks ago. From what I heard, his health is good, but I suspect any problems he might be having would be kept a closely guarded secret by his men. I think the transition would be relatively smooth. The successor mentioned most often is Mohammed Saeed Hakim, one of the four men generally recognized as grand ayatollahs in Najaf. It would take him time to build up his credibility, influence and power, though, and I'm sure in a vacuum Sadr and others would have greater leeway to act.
Doylestown, Pa.: Greetings, I'm curious what the Iraqi civilians have to tell about those eight or nine U.S. military bases being built by the Pentagon around Iraq?
Anthony Shadid: I think many people see construction at U.S. bases as a sign of American intentions to stay in Iraq for a long time.
La Paz, Bolivia: What is the sentiment of most Iraqis to whom you speak regarding political repression and violence but stability of Saddam's regime versus the political chaos and everyday violence? If they could turn back the clock, would they?
Anthony Shadid: Again, I think there are so many perspectives on this. I guess if I had to say what I hear most often it would be that there is frustration and resentment with both -- a loathing of Saddam and a deep disenchantment with what followed. People do speak nostalgically about the lack of crime under Saddam, but it's rare to hear people say sincerely they want him back. At the same time, I hear a lot of frustration with today, probably more than at any point since Saddam's fall. I guess I'm always struck by resilience in Iraq. As bad as it was, as bad as it is, there still is hope that it will get better. So in a roundabout way, I guess that's the answer -- they don't want what they had, or what they have now, but what they could have, and I think there's definitely still hope for that.
Anthony Shadid: Well, I think time's up. I want to thank everyone for their questions, and I'm really sorry I didn't get to most of them. I hope I can do this again soon.
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