A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning Iraq War Correspondent and Author of "Night Draws Near" Anthony Shadid

I originally conducted the following interview in the Fall of 2005. Anthony’s recent and unexpected passing nudged me to look this again. Nobody’s insights had affected me on the issue of Iraq more than Anthony. His words continue to be relevant today, particularly his answer to the last question.
RIP Anthony. What a tremendous loss to the world of journalism and humanity, as a whole.

The name of the book is “Night Draws Near” and its look into the ordinary lives of Iraqis during not so ordinary times is most illuminating for anyone who wants to understand a conflict that is shaded with many more grays than the black and white scenario often portrayed by decision-makers in Washington.

“Night Draws Near” appropriately begins with the day of amnesty at the infamous Abu Ghreib prison when Saddam Hussein released all the prisoners. From this day on, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Anthony Shadid gets his first peek into deep-seated complaints and the long history of Iraqis, hardened by modern events but always proud of their identity.

Shadid, a 36-year-old Washington Post correspondent who chose not to be embedded with the military when the 2003 war was launched, takes us on a journey into the lives of numerous Iraqis. From the young girl Amal who writes a diary about the war and death she doesn’t understand to Iraqi sculptor Mohamed Ghani who laments the looting and destruction of Iraqi historical artifacts to the clairvoyant Islamic mystic Hazem who provided comfort to Shadid’s friend, Nasir Mehdawi, Shadid helps us to understand a society that was clearly misunderstood by the architects of the Iraq War. Not only does Shadid humanize the conflict, but he also explores the intersection of Eastern and Western cultures at a time of conflict.

Political Islamic activism and the differences between Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and junior Shia clerk Muqtada Sadr are simplified, as is the ascent of the latter. Undoubtedly, it is clear that the Iraqi’s history of intensely resisting foreigners dampens the shock at the resistance to American occupation we see on the daily news.

An American of Lebanese descent, Shadid speaks and reads Arabic –” skills that offered him an insight into the conflict not available to most Western journalists working in the Middle East. “Night Draws Near” is a wonderful display of those insights!

You’ve said that the longer you are in Iraq, the less you understand this story. Why is this situation so complicated?

I think as we understand a place better and as we learn more about it, we realize how much deeper the story is, how much deeper the history, the background, the conflicts themselves are. Before I went to Iraq, I didn’t know a lot about the country. Like most people, policy makers, officials, readers, anyone: there was this notion that it was all about the repression, dictatorship and tyranny. And it was at a certain level. Saddam’s dictatorship was incredibly overwhelming to the country. But that’s not all that was there. As I spent more time the and spent all those months as a reporter, I started to peel back the layers that were there, to understand the deeper forces that were at work, and to see the broader context of the country. As the process went on, you realized how much left there was to learn.

In your book, you talk about the increasing effectiveness of spreading Islamism by combining these Islamic movements with offering social services for populations that are in need. Can you talk about this?

I see the pliability of political Islam in two different ways. There was one phenomenon that you saw with Muqtada Sadr’s movement that developed trademarks of political Islamic activism which I saw elsewhere in the region played out over the years and even decades. And Iraq under Sadr, it played out over weeks and sometimes months. In other words, the use of social services, the building of iconography, the cultivation of support in the streets, all of these things were happening really quickly. In a lot of ways, the Sadr movement was the first popular movement to emerge after the fall of Saddam. The other side is the way political Islam was tailored toward insurgency that grew in Western and parts of Northern Iraq, in terms of the message and ideology. It was an ideology that tailored itself very well with an anti-occupation message, and in some ways an anti-American message. It often served as a very powerful rallying cry to fuel that insurgency and to push it forward.

How much of a role has the perceived humiliation of the Arab and Islamic world by colonialists contributed to the increasing support?

The feelings of powerlessness, the feelings of historic grievances, the accumulation of resentments –” I think they play a decisive role often. Understanding the occupation is the key to understanding all this. I think when we understand the conflicts that go on in the Middle East, and I think in much of the world, the question of identity is at the heart. Who we are, how we defend who we are, what threats we are….understanding those questions would explain a lot about the evolution of these conflicts.

A mid-Michigan Catholic priest returning from post-war Iraq compared the Sunnis and Shia to Catholics and Protestants. He jokingly said they don’t agree with each other but they have found ways to co-exist, intermarry, and so on. He felt that the US was actually instigating the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shia. An Iraqi professor on the lecture circuit recently echoed the same sentiments.

I think that’s an important point. I don’t think the United States is necessarily doing that consciously but I think before the war, the US saw Iraq as a country of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. One of the biggest legacies of the occupation and the aftermath is how our preconception became a reality, and politics is exclusively defined by communities at this point, by being Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd. But Iraq is a lot more complicated than that. There’s a lot of intermarriage, people reluctant to identify themselves as solely Sunni or Shiite….The legacy we’re leaving is this kind of exclusive identification that wasn’t necessarily there before the war.

The statement British Major General Stanley Maude made back in 1917, “We came as liberators, not as conquerors” has proved to be memorable even if the author is not, because the British remained for decades. Are Iraqis worried about déjà vu happening?

I think very much so, in fact. When President Bush said those words that we’re coming in as liberators and not occupiers and not as conquerors, he meant what he said and was sincere in what he said. But he also didn’t realize that we, in a sense, echoed the words of the British 85 years before. Post-war Iraqis understood the echo of those words and I think they drew conclusions of what happened to them when the British entered Iraq. There is a similar ambivalence and anxiety over American intentions given that history.

According to a recent Knight Ridder article, there is an e-mail circulating about the unsung gains in Iraq since the War. Reaction?

I find it delusional. Can people really see what’s happening in places like Baghdad and much of Iraq today and say it’s a good situation? I think of Karima Salman’s family who I visited in the summer. They had three days of no electricity and it was 120 degrees outside; no running water and they had to carry buckets of water up two flights of stairs; one daughter was almost kidnapped; three car bombs went off in front of their house; and I wonder from their perspective –” where’s the good news?
Are some things better than they were under Saddam? No question about that. There’s not Saddam’s tyranny. But there is something different that’s also menacing. Maybe not as menacing, but still menacing. And it’s not a present that most Iraqis would choose.
Why do we have to see this through good news and bad news? Why can’t we just appreciate the situation as it is, and then go forward from there?

If President Bush was sitting in front of you right now and you could tell him anything about what you’ve seen in Iraq, what would you tell him?

Reporters take great personal risk to write about what’s going on in the country. We do it to help inform the people of this country about what’s happening there, and we hope that people take the time to read it.

When all is said and done, what do you believe the future of the Iraqis will be?

I see a lot of futures. I see one future where there might be a relatively stable government where there’s a functioning democracy. There might be some kind of recovery propelled forward by old revenues. I think there’s another future of what is a civil war turning into a full-fledged civil war. If somebody were to ask me what’s going to happen in this short medium term, I guess I see Iraq more and more controlled by men with guns. I see not necessarily a war that pits Sunnis against Shiites or Shiites against Kurds but instead a war that pits rival militias, sometimes within communities against each other. And they vie for territory and they vie for power. They vie for control of their respective communities. That’s my fear. You might have a functioning government in Baghdad with ministries and with a legislature and a lot of debate, but once you get out in the hinterland, you see men with guns in control.