Interview with Anthony Shadid, author of "Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War."

Anthony Shadid, the Islamic affairs correspondent for the Washington Post, is the only reporter to win a Pulitzer for his coverage of Iraq; he is also one of the few U.S. reporters who speaks Arabic and who is able to discuss the fate of the country directly with Iraqis. Shadid was in Iraq when the bombs started falling in March 2003 and remained there reporting front-page stories, except for three months last summer when he wrote Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War .

He recently spoke with

What surprised you the most when you went to Iraq?

I underestimated Shi’ite opposition to Saddam Hussein and Sunni support for him.

There has been talk that the U.S. attacked Iraq to serve Israel’s political self-interest. What do you think?

It was an American show with Israel in the background, although, especially in 2003, there were suspicions of covert Israeli insurgency. Oil, get rid of Saddam, for Israel’s interests–”there were many motives.

With all that Iraq has suffered, what is the mood of the Iraqi public?

In 2003, my friend Karim was optimistic about the Americans coming. This August when I saw him he was despondent. The young who have money have left. The young who have stayed are cynical. It’s a generational thing. Will Iraq have scars 10-15 years from now? I don’t know. It’s hard to reconcile what happens on the ground with what people feel.

From the 1970s onward, the society suffered degradation because of the war with Iran and the international sanctions in the 1990s. That hardship was as great as the repression itself. The sanctions wiped out the middle class and infrastructure, yet, there is no visceral hatred among Iraqis. What strikes me most about them is their resilience. After the repression, sanctions, civil war, I’m amazed that Iraqis get through to the next day. Remember, Lebanon came back from civil war.

Is there any difference in how the occupation is enforced throughout the country?

There is a difference in attitude between the Tigris Valley north of Baghdad and the South, where the British are in control. There, the occupation felt to a different degree. British soldiers carry guns openly–””showing the flag,” so to speak–”and their policy is more tolerant. They don’t bother the Iraqis if the Iraqis don’t bother them. In general, though, the occupation forces have been ceding territory since 2004. They no longer cover Fallujah, and Basra in August was very scary.

What has been the greatest failure of the Western forces?

We didn’t understand Iraq’s history. From 1991 to 2003, there was a profound sense of abandonment, because during the Iran/Iraq War the U.S. was with Saddam.

The U.S. has downplayed the role of Muqtada al-Sadr in marshalling opposition to the occupation, What is your view of him?

I don’t understand the West’s reaction to him. He is the head of the first popular movement after the fall of Saddam, and in a country where it is rare to have a national voice that makes him a major player. He’s always good at keeping up his street credentials and redressing grievances. He gains trust by degrees. I spent a lot of time on Sadr’s movement in the book.

Is Iraq even governable now?

It is difficult to see any government attaining legitimacy as long as the military presence is there. Yet if we look ahead 10 years with the U.S. out, my greatest fear is that forces beyond anyone’s control will be unleashed.

Anthony Shadid is a native of Oklahoma City, where his grandparents emigrated from Lebanon. In 2004, he won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2004 for his dispatches from Iraq, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ award for deadline writing, and the Overseas Press Club’s Hal Boyle Award for best newspaper or wire service reporting. In 1997, Shadid was awarded a citation by the Overseas Press Club for his work on “Islam’s Challenge.” The four-part series, published by the AP in December 1996, formed the basis of his first book Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats and the New Politics of Islam , published by Westview Press in December 2000.