THE FALL OF BAGHDAD

By Jon Lee Anderson. Penguin Press. 389 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by John Whiteclay Chambers II

On the seventh day of the U.S. bombardment of Baghdad in March 2003, an Iraqi Ministry of Information bus took Jon Lee Anderson and a group of other reporters to al Shaab, a working-class district that had been bombed the previous evening. As a family carried their remaining belongings out to a small truck, some men stared wordlessly into the charred wreckage. Others, holding up Kalashnikov assault rifles, danced around blackened cars and chanted praise for Saddam Hussein and epithets against George W. Bush and Tony Blair for the reporters' benefit. No one seemed angered by the arrival of the Westerners. Nearby, a few youths -- one wracked by dry heaves -- were staring at a gory hand, "severed below the knuckles, sitting like a kind of macabre prop on a green metal window shutter that was lying atop some steps.... Scarlet blood had drenched the steps below."

A smiling student of English politely welcomed Anderson when the journalist identified himself as an American. The young man reported that perhaps 30 people had died, including a family of five whose apartment had been scorched by the bombs.

An older man told Anderson that one of his friends, a mechanic, had been killed underneath a car. Not knowing how to respond, Anderson nodded his sympathy. The old man said, "Bush and Blair ... they said this would be a clean war.... This is not clean. This is dirty -- a dirty war." When told that Anderson was American, the man turned away momentarily, only to look back and say, "Welcome." Anderson murmured his condolences. "No, don't be sorry," the man replied. "It's not the American people.... Most are against this war, we know this."

As Anderson left, a young man, wearing a kaffiyeh over his face and carrying a Kalashnikov, repeated the word -- so strange, after such carnage -- "Welcome." As the reporter waved and walked past, another youth ran up and pointed out that his notebook, sticking out of his back pocket, was getting wet in the rain.

In this and scores of other such encounters, Anderson, an intrepid, independent journalist, artfully captures the often surprising ambiguity and complexity in human relationships between Iraqi civilians and Americans in Iraq. Throughout what is partly perceptive journal and partly chilling travelogue, Anderson provides a highly readable firsthand view of Iraq before, during and after the U.S.-led invasion. Never before have we seen Iraq's changing society from this perspective and in such depth.

As one of only a dozen American reporters in Baghdad during the war, Anderson dispatched widely acclaimed eyewitness accounts to the New Yorker from the besieged Iraqi capital. The current book is far more extensive than these earlier articles, covering Anderson's many visits to Iraq between November 2002 and June 2004 and providing vivid insights into a society being transformed from without and within.

On the eve of war, the Iraqi society he describes was suffused by an almost passive sense of inevitability about the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. But Iraqis worried about the results. "After the liberation of Kuwait," one Iraqi Shiite told Anderson, "the U.S. changed their minds and ended up supporting Saddam. . . . But now we see that there is a new American seriousness about the change of regime in Iraq. What we worry about is what comes after the change." Most Iraqis whom Anderson interviewed before the war -- whether inside Iraq or in exile in Jordan or Iran -- did not view the prospect of a U.S. occupation kindly. Many suspected that Washington's real goals were to control Iraq's massive oil reserves and to protect Israel.

The book really springs to life when the war starts. Most riveting is Anderson's account of his experiences in Baghdad during the invasion. When the "shock and awe" bombardment began, he was at his hotel with other reporters. "The first bombs hit precisely at nine o'clock," he writes, "and we had a front-row view of the conflagration from our balcony. There were huge blasts, simultaneous concussions with aftershocks that knocked us back on our feet and made us shout involuntarily with the shock.... Fireballs were followed by white flashes that lit up the sky."

Anderson also describes the devastating effects: government buildings blasted by precision-guided weapons, but also civilian casualties caused by presumably errant munitions. In one emergency room, he found half a dozen victims, including several children -- so badly wounded that doctors and nurses were in tears. In another, a 12-year-old boy was somehow still alive after having his torso entirely blackened and both arms burned off. As the fear and casualties grew, Anderson's sidekick, his driver Sabah, moaned, "OK bombing for Saddam, but not Iraqi people."

On April 7, U.S. ground forces plunged into central Baghdad. "On the Jumhuriyah Bridge, two tanks emerged into the open," Anderson writes. "They advanced tentatively and then stopped, crouching there like great predatory beasts, swiveling their guns to and fro." The fighting continued intensely but briefly. Two days later, Anderson awoke to find the city strangely quiet. The old dictatorship's soldiers, police and officials were gone.

The regime had vanished overnight, and so had law and order. Anderson reports that looting began immediately -- and quickly metastasized as mobs ransacked government buildings, warehouses and then commercial establishments. A group of Marines set up a roadblock at a bridge between Baghdad and its eastern slum, Saddam City, but the Marines did not stop most of the looters. Down the street, however, Marines protected the Oil Ministry. Later, at the request of a physician, Anderson persuaded a colonel to let a Marine platoon follow him and rescue a hospital from looters.

On the other side of the city, the U.S. Army withdrew its tanks from the bridges over the Tigris River on April 11. Almost immediately, vehicles filled with looters surged across the river, and the plundering of western Baghdad began. "Why, Mr. Jon Lee?" Sabah asked. In one of the few places where Anderson expresses his personal views, he writes, "I had no answers for him. I was dismayed and angry that my countrymen were simply standing by and watching as Baghdad was sacked and burned. It made no sense at all."

Still, Anderson tries to make at least some sense of the postwar challenges in conversations with Iraqis. On April 19, a prominent physician decried the country's burgeoning religious and ethnic fractionalization, warning that the real problems were just starting. "The Americans have now conquered or liberated Iraq, or whatever it is, but now they have a really tough job. I think it is going to be very, very difficult for the Americans to deal with all of the parties and the ethnic groups. They need to move fast to get things working again and to prevent these different groups from moving into the vacuum." But by the end of June 2003, as every imaginable political party, religious faith and ethnic group jockeyed for position and power, Anderson concluded that "Baghdad had become a Tower of Babel."

On a visit beginning in March 2004, a year after the war started, Anderson found Iraq a much more dangerous place than it had been 12 months before. "The Iraqis had been liberated from dictatorship by Operation Iraqi Freedom," he reported, "but their newfound liberty was not something they could easily cherish.... Freedom has only notional value unless a state is capable of harnessing its benefits for its citizens. For that to be possible, there must be security. It seems like a simple formula, but it was the essential ingredient still missing in Iraq a year after George W. Bush declared it to have been delivered from evil. No Iraqi I knew felt comforted or protected by the continued presence of 130,000 American soldiers in the country. Quite the contrary."

Anderson's kaleidoscopic view of Iraqi society is filled with such paradoxes. His reporting offers many perspectives, but it does not pretend to be an opinion poll. Good as his legwork is, it has its limitations -- particularly a focus on alienated, middle-class, Arab Iraqis and the relative absence of Kurds and Turkomen. While he visited some mid-level insurgent clerics, he did not talk with anti-U.S. guerrillas on the one hand or representatives of the Iraqi interim government or the U.S.-led coalition on the other.

Still, The Fall of Baghdad demonstrates -- like Anderson's incisive books on the war in Afghanistan, contemporary guerrilla movements and Che Guevara -- his knack for interviews, observations and finely crafted, powerful narratives. The great value of this book is that Anderson takes us beyond sound bites or official statements to hear the authentic voices of thoughtful, educated Iraqi civilians in interviews and vignettes that capture the chaos of wartime and its aftermath.

This is not a military history of the war in Iraq. Nor, except for few instances, does it deal with American soldiers, unlike Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson's oral history from "embedded" journalists. But the haunting intensity of Anderson's vibrant account of his experiences is reminiscent of the best war literature, such as John Hersey's Hiroshima, Michael Herr's Dispatches and Michael Kelly's journal of America's first Iraq war in 1991, Martyrs' Day: Chronicle of a Small War.

Anderson strives to be evenhanded and nonpartisan. He neither advocates nor (often) judges. From the melange of facts, he offers little interpretation and few conclusions of his own, generally preferring to let his contemporaneous observations and the stories of the Iraqis he met speak for themselves. He also seems particularly interested in evoking a mood, and he does so artfully. It is not a mood of celebration, however, but one of confusion, pessimism and sometimes despair.

This is the rich, raw material of history -- that beguiling but elusive muse -- an account by a skillful observer and reporter, and a sheaf of extended testimony about daily life and contemporary attitudes by concerned Iraqis during the historic remaking of their country. Anderson's book may not tell us how long American forces will be in Iraq -- a decision that will be made in Washington, not Baghdad -- but it is indispensable for understanding what is going on inside Iraqi society today.

John Whiteclay Chambers II teaches history at Rutgers University and is editor-in-chief of "The Oxford Companion to American Military History."