Shadid's Night Draws Near
Source Marvin Gandall
Date 05/08/26/22:37

The Collapse
By Spencer Ackerman
The American Prospect
Issue Date: 09.10.05

Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near is the first book to explain Iraqis to
their occupiers.

Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War by Anthony
Shadid (Henry Holt & Co., 448 pages, $26.00)

The relentless carnage and rising illiberalism of Iraq are inducing
shellshock in the advocates of the war. Among conservatives, the palpable
despair has prompted dead-enders at The Wall Street Journal to bitterly
denounce unspecified apostates for "self-doubt, self-flagellation, excessive
fine-tuning, and political cravenness." Nearly every prominent liberal who
cheered the March 2003 invasion has either renounced the war or deferred
renunciation in the hope that a miracle awaits. And practically every
American who at one time approved of the war wonders how things could have
gone so wrong. How did the children who, in some cases, excitedly greeted
U.S. troops become the cheering crowds in Fallujah who zealously lynched
four American contractors? Some pro-war polemicists cling to those
comforting early images like a security blanket. "I saw it myself,"
Christopher Hitchens recently testified on Slate, referring to early Iraqi
enthusiasm for the invasion, "and will not be told that I did not see it."

There is no question that the Iraqi people suffered under one of the vilest
dictators of the 20th century and longed for liberation. But a foreign power
that, largely through ignorance, disrespects Arab pride, tribal custom,
Iraqi nationalism, and Islamic sensibility has not been able to fulfill its
promises of freedom and security. How the Iraqis themselves have experienced
a war supposedly waged in their name is the missing piece of the story that
Americans, especially those who continue to support the war, need to
understand. There has been no shortage of recent books examining failings of
the U.S. occupation, such as ex-Coalition Provisional Authority adviser
Larry Diamond's captivating memoir Squandered Victory. But even these
efforts have centered on American decisions and American missteps, leaving
the Iraqi people as the afterthought or abstraction that they remain in the
White House Situation Room.

Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near, unlike everything that has come before
it, explains Iraqis to their distant American occupiers. Shadid, an
Arabic-speaking reporter for The Washington Post, has been an invaluable
guide for anyone attempting to comprehend Iraq, providing a level of detail,
context, and understanding that has escaped all but his ablest colleagues.
In his telling -- emotionally resonant and always deeply perceptive -- the
complex path Iraqis followed from cautious optimism to frustration to
insurgency becomes clear for the first time. Through the eyes of the Iraqis,
Shadid offers a wealth of insight into phenomena Americans must contend with
as long as we occupy Iraq: the fury of offended Iraqi patriotism, the
resurgence of religion among the toppled Sunnis, the besiegement of the
Iraqi citizen, and the meaning of the new Shia politics that the United
States has ushered to power. He has achieved nothing short of authoring the
first classic, indispensable account of the Iraq War.

The genius of Shadid's book lies in its almost casual ability to address
crucial questions that readers hadn't previously realized were going
unanswered. What, for example, do Iraqis even call the war that President
Bush dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom? In Iraq, the war is the suqut -- a
mournful term translating to "the collapse" or "the fall" but suggesting, as
Shadid hauntingly explains, "an end without renewal, a seemingly endless
interim." Such insight allows the author to demonstrate methodically that
the basic problem with the occupation of Iraq is no more complicated than
the fact that Iraq is, well, occupied. When, on May 22, 2003, the United
Nations Security Council formally used the word "occupation" -- ihtilal in
Arabic -- it hit Baghdad like a cataclysm. To Arab ears, the term
unavoidably refers to Israel's occupations of Palestinian and Lebanese
territory, "hulking Caterpillar bulldozers demolishing homes of stone and
concrete in the squalor of Gaza; American-built Apache helicopters hovering
over West Bank villages along rocky, terraced Palestinian hills; imposing
Merkava tanks crashing across refugee camps as haunted faces in
black-checked kaiffyehs watch them pass."

As a result, the occupation acts as an intangible instrument of corruption,
pushing Iraqis into behavior that to a foreigner appears deeply
pathological. Among the chief grievances after the fall of Saddam Hussein is
the rampant instability that led to an explosion of violent crime. Yet when
Iraqis begin police patrols, they encounter hostility from a public furious
at them for collaborating with the Americans. The police themselves, trained
and overseen by the United States, struggle with an ambivalence that
suggests that even performing a crucial public service for their fellow
citizens is a betrayal. After the Sunni city of Khaldiya undergoes a riot
that includes the burning of a police chief's pickup truck in August 2003, a
lieutenant remarks, "In my heart, deep inside, we are with them against the
occupation." Another tells Shadid that "God willing," the insurgency will
succeed in driving the United States out. These, of course, are the men
charged by the United States with defeating the insurgents -- the very
centerpiece of the administration's war strategy.

And it's the occupation that breeds the insurgency. From the beginning of
the war, the administration has insisted that the insurgents are the
remnants of Hussein's extended clique, assisted by foreign jihadists
infiltrating into Iraq. The insurgency no doubt contains these elements. But
Shadid's book should end the argument about who the insurgents truly are:
The overwhelming majority of Sunnis fighting for and sympathizing with the
insurgency against the U.S.-brokered, Shia-and-Kurdish-dominated political
process do so mainly because they resent the U.S. occupation and what they
perceive as America's Iraqi allies.

It could be fairly objected that because Shadid is unable to interview
"former regime elements" and the jihadists fighting under Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi's banner, his assessment is somewhat distorted. But the force of
Shadid's reporting in Sunni areas leaves no doubt about the intensity of
anti-American sentiment. Almost wherever U.S. troops capture or kill
insurgents, they leave behind entire families and tribes ready to die for
violent revenge or to support others who will. The occupation ensures a
receptive audience for the bilious message of extremist clerics, and Shadid
vividly relates the stories of two Sunnis who matter-of-factly give up their
lives to fight U.S. forces in hopeless battles. Both are venerated as
martyrs by local imams and their entire communities. It is hard to resist
the awful conclusion that they intended their deaths to serve as redemption
for their families' humiliated nationalist and religious sensibilities.

But the most valuable sections of Night Draws Near concern not the Sunnis
but the Shia. After the Shia religious authority, headed by the Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, forced the Bush administration to acquiesce to
direct elec- tions
(which favor the majority Shia), practically every step in the political
process has benefited al-Sistani's flock. Yet the substance and the players
of Shia politics have remained obscure, and Shadid for the first time
demystifies them. For the author, the decisive actor in Shia politics is not
al-Sistani, the senior cleric with whom the Americans have come to a modus
vivendi, nor the current al-Sistani-aligned prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari,
but Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand theocrat who twice led armed uprisings
against the United States.

In Washington and Baghdad's "Green Zone," the conventional view is that
al-Sadr has been crushed between the pincers of U.S. firepower and Shia
politics. Additionally, many believe that al-Sadr and al-Sistani have
categorically different aims, with al-Sadr and his movement "not show[ing]
any appreciation for the more moderate politics" of al-Sistani, in the words
of Reuel Marc Gerecht, the most thoughtful neoconservative observer of Iraqi
politics and religion. Gerecht, who believes that al-Sistani's embrace of
democracy is "revolutionary," concludes that "the course of Shiite history
is now on Sistani's (not Sadr's) side."

Shadid challenges every aspect of this story. He writes that the two clerics
"never disagreed, in a fundamental way," on either religious questions or on
a prominent political role for the clergy. (Al-Sistani pushed for a leading
role for Islam in the Iraqi constitution, and al-Sadr's forces organized
local elections, often to the chagrin of the Coalition Provisional
Authority.) Their not-inconsiderable differences concern al-Sadr's
willingness to embrace violence and al-Sistani's greater comfort with the
occupation. Al-Sadr powerfully portrays the United States and Hussein as
twin oppressors -- ostentatiously contrasting his father's 1999
assassination with al-Sistani's quietism -- whom the "traditional Hawza"
(read: al-Sistani) will never challenge. Shadid insightfully notes that
while the Shia, al-Sadr included, pay their due respect to al-Sistani as
supreme religious authority, they call out for "Muqtada," suggesting the
latter's political charisma. Their influence is potently felt in Jafari's
recent statements urging an expeditious U.S. withdrawal.

Shadid's book is not a jeremiad. But it does make clear that the longer the
United States occupies Iraq, the greater is the chance that the Sunnis will
transfer their hatred to the occupation's perceived Shia and Kurdish
beneficiaries, leading to even greater bloodshed. Night Draws Near will not
resolve the debate over whether the Iraq War was destined to fail. At times,
Shadid suggests potential mitigating factors: if only U.S. troops had
immediately provided public security, if only a massive aid package had
arrived, etc. But, as Iraqis tell him, Arabs are taught from birth that the
suffering of the Palestinians is the ultimate responsibility of the United
States, Israel's patron, meaning that the United States has had very little
margin for the errors that are inevitable in occupations. Shadid's ultimate
lesson about the folly of the war lies in a question one Iraqi posed to him:
"How could they understand Iraq? It's impossible." Only without Anthony
Shadid, who has secured his place in history as the chronicler of the suqut.

Spencer Ackerman is an associate editor at The New Republic.

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