A Grim 'Eclipse': Deb Amos On Iraq's Sunni Exiles

NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos

hide captionA member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Lines in the Sand: Desert Storm and the Remaking of the Arab World, NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos spent a decade in television news.

Shannon Taggart

Eclipse of the Sunnis
By Deborah Amos
Hardcover, 256 pages
PublicAffairs
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

Iraq Coverage: Deborah Amos

In-depth reporting from Iraq by Deborah Amos

Correspondent Deborah Amos has made many trips to Iraq since she began covering the region for NPR. But she hasn't always found it easy to work there.

"When you went [to Iraq] under Saddam's time, it was practically impossible to talk to Iraqis," she tells Terry Gross. "It was illegal — they'd have to report, so they just didn't bother. It was too much trouble. So, I was in a country where I couldn't talk to anybody."

For a while when Amos returned to Iraq in 2003, after the fall of Saddam, the mood in the country had changed. There was little fear about talking to journalists, so Amos spent much of her time talking to Iraqis and recording their stories. By 2005, however, the violence occurring in the streets — most of it sectarian strife between the majority Shiite and minority Sunni populations — made communication with Iraqi citizens almost impossible. Once again, Amos had to develop another strategy.

"I realized that [by 2005] there were more than a million Iraqis outside the country," she recalls. "And so if I went to Syria and Jordan and Lebanon, I could continue what I was doing and tell that story."

In fact about 4 million Iraqis have had to leave their homes, and an additional 2 million have left the country entirely — many taking refuge in regional neighbors such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Amos' new book, Eclipse of the Sunnis, traces the forced migration of the Sunnis from Iraq after the sectarian violence started. She explains what their departure — and their resentment — means for the future of the country.

Amos, who has covered the Middle East for decades, says she will never tire of it.

"You never get to the bottom of it," Amos says. "There's always something else to know. And there's always something interesting in power relationships. ... And I actually love the culture. I love the food, and the people — and I'm comfortable there. ... I'm always happy when I get off the plane, and it hardly matters where I land."

Interview Highlights

On why it was difficult to talk to Iraqis inside Iraq in 2005

"It was too dangerous. The sectarian war had already started. We didn't go outside our compound. We had Iraqi translators gathering tape for our radio pieces. ... It was impossible to talk to anybody on the street. You couldn't go to a restaurant, you couldn't speak English in a cab, you couldn't get a cab. ... The only way you could actually talk to Iraqis was follow them into exile, and there they were willing to talk. And their stories were so remarkable and so revealing about what was happening inside of Iraq. ... There were 2,000 to 4,000 people crossing the borders every day, so in some ways you could find out more about what was happening inside the country by sitting on mats over cups of coffee in Damascus and Beirut and Amman than you could in Baghdad."

On why people fled Iraq

"The violence was so, so awful. What would happen is, you would get a letter thrown into your front yard that would say 'Leave or die.' ... Sometimes it would be wrapped around a bullet. ... People had just hours sometimes to pack up and leave."

On why this migration is unlike other large-scale migrations in the region

"This is not a poor population that lives in tents. These people can live wherever they can afford. ... They're on their cell phones every day. They're watching Iraqi television. ... It means that you have an exile population that in some ways is still connected with Iraq and with whatever family they have back in the country. So as they sit in their homes in Amman, Damascus and in Beirut, they are watching what is happening at home and they play some sort of political role there. They voted in this most recent election."

On the many Sunni women turning to "survival sex" to support their families

"I spent plenty of time with Iraqi prostitutes — women who were not prostitutes when they left the country, but turned to it because it was one way you could support your country. When you arrive as a single female-headed household — and about one-quarter of the exiles in Damascus are in that category — and you have no skills, and your family's not going to support you because you most likely came from a mixed [Sunni-Shiite] marriage ... you turn to survival sex."

On what might happen in Iraq when U.S. troops leave

"We have an election process that could take months. In 2005, it was more than 150 days of negotiations for a government. I expect that that time could in fact be doubled. As the American troops are beginning their drawdown, you don't have a government in place. I think that what Iraqis thought they were voting for was that the government would be there when the Americans left, but we don't know for sure what's its going to look like. And this is a huge test for this country — [whether] they can manage to solve their problems politically rather than on the streets, and it is unclear if that is the case."

Excerpt: 'Eclipse of the Sunnis'

ECLIPSE OF THE SUNNIS

Eclipse of the Sunnis
By Deborah Amos
Hardcover, 256 pages
PublicAffairs
List price: $25.95

It was easy to believe, as we watched U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama stride across the stage at Cairo University on June 4, 2009 that a new era was about to begin between the United States and the Middle East. The campus was a symbolic backdrop. Founded in 1908 as a secular center of learning, the university serves as an intellectual bridge between East and West. The campus had boiled with anti- American sentiment during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but on this day the keen anticipation was palpable as the audience waited for an American president to give what was expected to be a historic address to the Muslim world.

The president's name alone had resonance: Some Cairo newspapers even went so far as to suggest that he was America's first Muslim president, in keeping with the Arab tradition that a father's religion is conferred upon the son. Of course, in American tradition, identity is a much more fluid concept. We wear our identities lightly, easily adding or shedding to suit the circumstances. So it was that an American president with a Muslim pedigree addressed the most deeply disruptive question of identity in the region where identity colors politics most. In his message to the faithful, President Obama exhorted that "the fault lines must be closed among Muslims" and he especially noted the fault lines between Shiite and Sunni, a historic chasm, often dormant, newly pried open by the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The divide that has seeped into the social fabric of the region is not principally about religion, but about power and the vacuum created when an American army toppled a Sunni tyrant. The immediate opportunity this offered to Iraq's Shiite community was well understood. Ever since the failure of the George H. W. Bush administration to support the Shiite rising against Saddam in 1991, Americans had recognized the potential for an alliance with the Shiite majority against Saddam. Excluded from U.S. thinking ahead of the war in 2003 was the ripple of consequences across all Sunni communities in the Middle East that Saddam's removal would create. That is the subject of this book.

Closing the fault lines between Shiite and Sunni must begin in Iraq, but Mr. Obama hardly mentioned the place where the Sunni-Shiite divide is the most acute. Elsewhere, the signs in the region were much more uplifting: The Lebanese dented Hezbollah's popularity by voting for a publicly pro-American political coalition in a parliamentary election. Millions of Iranians bravely took to the streets to challenge the rigged election of a radical president. Syria celebrated the announcement of the return of an American ambassador after a four-year hiatus, a concrete sign that America was offering an open hand to adversaries. But the Iraqis were not yet part of the recovery. Despite an overall reduction in violence in Iraq, one statistic remains troubling and has barely changed. As of 2009, of the two million Iraqis who fled the country, only about 5 percent have returned. The fundamental problems that fueled the insurgency and the civil war are unresolved, as the exiles know all too well.

An estimated 60 percent of the refugees are Sunni Arabs. Fifteen percent are Iraqi Christians. Secular Shiites, Mandaeans, Yazidis, and Kurds are adrift, too, the losers in a brutal civil war that sealed the power of Shiite nationalists. Yet the sectarian nature of the crisis has been largely overlooked. This shifting population is a huge loss to Iraq, a vast problem to neighboring governments, a collective tragedy for many caught up in it, and a significant indicator of the health, stability, and viability of Iraq and the Middle East. The newly stateless have become the most important indicator of the next phase of the region's history. In their individual stories are found the religious, tribal, and sectarian challenges and conflicts that must somehow be settled for the violence to end.

While five million Iraqis had left or been driven out of Iraq during Saddam's three decades in power, theirs was a slow-motion outflow of political dissidents. With the U.S. occupation, the collapse of the Iraqi state, and the violent power struggle that followed, almost as many millions were displaced in under five years, across borders and inside the country. The migration began as a trickle in 2004, when the driving force was criminal kidnapping gangs and Sunni insurgent attacks. The movement accelerated in 2006 with Al Qaeda's bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra, Iraq — an attack on a revered Shiite religious site that unleashed a wave of Shiite revenge attacks against Sunnis across the country. Displacements rose again through 2007 in a final spasm of sectarian cleansing even as 30,000 additional U.S. troops were deployed in Iraq.

The only way to explain the calamity was in the daily details, the particular threats that propelled the politics of displacement and made the bigger picture understandable. I began a journey to document the mass departure, traveling to Damascus, Amman, and Beirut to interview the growing exile population.

There are no camps of any kind in this latest wave of the dispossessed. The largest numbers quietly settled in the poor suburbs surrounding Arab capitals. I had seen them at the Baghdad airport in tearful good-bye embraces, well-dressed families struggling with luggage that was now the sum of their lives. Others drove west out of the capital along the desert road, the five hundred heartbreaking miles to Jordan's border. When Jordan sealed the border against the human tide, the exodus turned north for the fourteen-hour drive to Syria. The Iraqi exiles brought money or gold, or relied on extended families to support what many believed would be a short stay until the storms of violence passed at home. They waited long past the time when the money ran out.

It was an exodus of the professional class—doctors, scientists, poets, professors, actors, even artisans, all of whom were the best hope to remake Iraq into the democratic and prosperous symbol of America's most ambitious early dream. An unprecedented brain drain in the oil industry created an expertise deficit when more than half of the top one hundred managers fled. Iraqi government ministers began to complain of a shortage of workers able to write contracts. Scientists left the country, preferring unemployment in exile over joblessness and fear at home. The exodus continued down through the ranks of the middle class, including the workers in the vast government bureaucracy. By 2007, the overwhelming majority of exiles, more than 70 percent, were professionals and technocrats from Baghdad. Their departure crippled the government back home.

From the book Eclipse of the Sunnis by Deborah Amos. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2010.

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Eclipse of the Sunnis

Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East

by Deborah Amos

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