NPR logo
A Foreign Correspondent Reflects On Iraq War
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130040937/130046850" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Foreign Correspondent Reflects On Iraq War

Iraq

A Foreign Correspondent Reflects On Iraq War
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130040937/130046850" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Anthony Shadid, is one of the few reporters who's been covering the war in Iraq since the invasion. He was there at the end of August, when American combat troops withdrew and President Obama declared the end of combat operations.

But about 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and even after they're scheduled to pull out at the end of next year, the U.S. State Department is likely to oversee a large U.S. civilian presence of private contractors.

We asked Anthony Shadid to describe what shape the war has left Iraq in and to reflect on his experiences covering the war for more than seven years. For six of those years, he was with the Washington Post. Then he joined the New York Times.

His coverage won him two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 2004 and the other this year, which cited his rich, beautifully written series on Iraq as the United States departs and its people and leaders struggle to deal with the legacy of war and to shape the nation's future. Shadid was last in Iraq September 10th.

Anthony Shadid, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Did you watch the American combat troops pull out? Was that a big moment for you, since you've been following the war from the start?

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (Journalist): You know, I think to be honest, I found that moment to be, I don't want to say propagandistic, but I found it to be somewhat disingenuous. I think that was a moment that was almost entirely constructed for American public consumption.

It was a date that was somewhat artificial, and I think it's a determination that's not all that grounded in reality. You know, in some ways I think it was more theatric than practical.

There are still troops there. There's 50,000 troops there, which is a huge presence. They're still involved in combat. They've fought at least three times since this date.

I think, you know, it did reflect a desire on the part of the administration to say that this war is over, that this war has not been its war, this administration's war, and it doesn't have a desire to invest a lot of capital - political, diplomatic, you know, even money -into what this war is all about.

But does it change all that much on the ground? Do Iraqis think it's changed all that much on the ground? I'm not sure that's necessarily the case.

GROSS: This is my sense, and tell me if this is accurate, that Iraqis don't want a U.S. presence there. On the other hand, they feel they kind of need us.

Mr. SHADID: I think that's right. And I think, you know, I think in any kind of traumatic moment - I mean, I suspect, you know, on September 11th in 2001, here in the United States, you wouldve had so many conflicting emotions and sometimes contradictory. And I think that's what you see today in Iraq, as well.

It is still a traumatized society. It's a society that's been invaded, occupied, before that it had Saddam's tyranny. It had a decade of sanctions which absolutely devastated that society. It has not emerged from that today. And I think you often will hear these contradictory sentiments, conflicting sentiments, some, you know, things that we might not necessarily think make sense.

But, you know, there is this notion that if the Americans leave, it could get worse, but we dont want to be occupied at the same. We don't want foreign troops on our soil. And I think those things often do come together even in the same conversation.

GROSS: The official end of combat seems to have been accompanied by lots of attacks by militias. Who has been attacking who recently?

Mr. SHADID: Well, you know, when you talk to the American military, you get a sense that there's kind of two or even three distinct movements out there.

There are still Shiite militias that are backed by Iran, and you know, they've been probably engaged mostly in firing mortars and rockets onto the Green Zone, onto American bases in southern Iraq.

I think with a more traditional notion of insurgency that we have is the what they call al-Qaida in Iraq. Now, it's not the same al-Qaida. It's more of a homegrown movement. But it shares some of the ideology.

Now, that movement at some level is probably cooperating with former Baathists, and it has demonstrated a, you know, remarkable degree of resiliency. It's not the group that it was back in '05 or '06 or even '07, but it still has demonstrated the capacity and the ability to carry out attacks across the country.

I think about a month ago, they staged 12 or 13 attacks in as many cities. Dozens were killed. So this isn't a movement that's been defeated necessarily. It's a movement that is trying to prove that it's still there, that it still has a role in Iraq.

And I think this is it kind of goes in some ways back to, you know, a very familiar motif that we've seen in Iraq since 2003, and that is this is a war of perceptions. It's often been a conflict of perceptions.

And the insurgency back in '03 and today is still very determined to influence that perception that it is resilient, that it does remain, that it will have a say in what Iraq looks like.

GROSS: So you have a lot of U.S. troops pulling out. There's still no government that's formed in Iraq. So do you think that the insurgents are exploiting that vacuum?

Mr. SHADID: I think that's absolutely their intention. You know, how successful they are I think is another question. But that is their intention.

It is, you know, it's hard to overstate how anxious the moment in Iraq is right now. I think what you're seeing emerge is a divorce between the people and this political class, a political class that was, you know, in some ways imposed on the country by the United States in those early days of the occupation.

There's an almost universal disenchantment with these politicians, and what's, you know, has struck me the past couple of months is when you talk to people, it's not criticism of, say, the prime minister or his main rival or Muqtada al-Sadr, for instance. It's criticism of that entire political class.

Now what does that lead to? You know, that's hard to say. It may not lead to anything. But I think it does show this kind of - that the people themselves are calling into question the political system that's been set up. And I think that does - if it doesn't question the legitimacy of the system, it maybe raises some concerns about the viability of that system over the long term.

GROSS: So you're talking about disenchantment with a system that the U.S. helped set up and with candidates that the U.S. helped empower?

Mr. SHADID: That's right, and I think that is going to be one of the legacies of this American occupation is, you know, empowering politicians that have not succeeded in building support among the population.

GROSS: Is that because you think it would be hard for anyone to build support right now in Iraq, or is it a reflection of the candidates that the U.S. helped empower?

Mr. SHADID: I think it's a little of both. But, I mean, you do see, you know, I think the only grassroots movement you see in Iraq right now is Muqtada al-Sadr, you know, a Shiite cleric whose followers fought the Americans several times in 2004 and afterwards. He does have a grassroots movement. It's probably the only grassroots movement...

GROSS: He's the guy who hates us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHADID: That's right.

GROSS: Hes the guy who was attacking the U.S.

Mr. SHADID: That's right, and he is - and I think it says something about Iraq today that he has the one grassroots movement that plays a role in politics. And I'm not talking about the Kurdish areas. I'm talking about the Arab areas of the country.

The Sadrists, you know, they are one of the largest Shiite blocs in parliament today. They're going to have a say in the country's future. The politicians, on the other hand, the ones that were in some ways empowered by the Americans early on, you know, I think it's a mix of having been gone from the country for so long.

I think they often look at Iraq through kind of sepia-tinted glasses. I mean, they see an older Iraq that just doesn't exist anymore in the rough-and-tumble streets of Baghdad today.

They also have not either made the effort or been able to make the effort to build any kind of constituency. They're often in the Green Zone, heavily guarded. They have electricity, which most people don't. They have water, which most people, if they have it, it's not very clean. They're leading a life that is very divorced from the everyday reality of most Iraqis.

GROSS: There hasn't been a group that's been able to build a coalition. So there really isn't there isn't a prime minister yet. There isn't a leadership yet. And help me out here. Who was it who said that if this political void, this inability to form a government continues for another six months, there's a risk of a military takeover?

Mr. SHADID: I think that was Vice President Biden.

GROSS: That's what I thought, yeah.

Mr. SHADID: Who made that point.

GROSS: That's what I thought, okay.

Mr. SHADID: He said it in an interview to a colleague of mine at the New York Times. And, you know, it was interesting, I was struck by that quote also, that the vice president himself would be saying that there's a possibility of a coup out there.

But, you know what, everyone's talking about. And I don't think it's, you know, I don't think it is imminent. It probably won't happen. But the very fact that people are talking about a coup does underline the anxiety that people are feeling.

I was talking to one politician, this is a few months ago, and he had been asked by the prime minister to kind of check into these rumors of a coup. And so he went to talk to a general that he was friends with, a senior general, one of the commanders in Baghdad. And he asked him: Is a coup possible?

And he said, he told me the general pulled out a map and in very alarming detail described how he would carry out this coup. He would turn over trucks on the route between the American base and at the airport in the Green Zone. He would go to parliament with tanks. He would confiscate cell phones from politicians. He might have to arrest a few people.

And then this general turned to this politician and said, you know, when I do this coup and you become president, can I be the defense minister?

He was describing exactly how he would carry out the coup and, you know, this politician said, no wait, I wasn't asking if you could do it. I was, you know, asking you if you thought it could happen.

You know, again, it's kind of the parlor talk. It's what people are talking about. But again, I think it does illustrate this notion that not everyone is necessarily going to play by the rules that have been laid down.

GROSS: So is the point here that the military would actually be poised to pull off a coup if it came to that in their minds or if they felt they were asked to do it by somebody in government for opportunistic reasons?

Mr. SHADID: You know, I don't think there could be a coup because the military's not unified enough.

GROSS: Yeah, that's what I was thinking. The military seems to be in such bad shape right now.

Mr. SHADID: Exactly. I mean, different commanders are loyal to different politicians. Could one commander try to do it on his own? I mean, you know, people do talk about that. I think the idea is that it wouldn't last maybe hours or even days.

Again, I think it's illustrative of the mood in Iraq right now that the process, as it's unfolding, isn't necessarily all that viable.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Shadid, and he's reported on the Iraq War since the very beginning, first for the Washington Post, more recently for the New York Times. He's won two Pulitzer Prizes, including one this year for his coverage of the war in Iraq.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Shadid. He's covered the war in Iraq since the invasion. And he's won two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage, one for his coverage with the Washington Post and one this year for his coverage for the New York Times.

Now, you've pointed out that President Bush said 10 days before the invasion of Iraq, March 10th, 2003, that he promised that the life of the Iraqi citizen is going to dramatically improve. So if you look back to March 10th, 2003, has life for the average Iraqi citizen dramatically improved?

Mr. SHADID: You know what strikes me, and this is something that I just, you know, and I tried to write about it in some of the articles I was doing the past few months is how much 2003 feels familiar to me in 2010.

You know, I think, again, there's often been this kind of I think for us in the United States, there's been this linear narrative of things unfolding one after the other and, you know, and we end with the withdrawal at the end of 2011. But I think what often transpires in Iraq is something more circular, more repetitive.

And, you know, what you hear in 2010 is what you often heard in 2003, that there is no electricity, that the water is filthy, that there's sewage in the streets, that we're not sure of the intentions of the Americans, and we're not sure of what Iraqi officials can do to better our lives. Those things were said in 2003, and they're still said today.

You know, the lives of Iraqis, they are, you know, is miserable too strong a word? I'm not sure. It is incredibly difficult, and the city itself is a barricaded, deteriorating capital that is as grim as anyplace I've seen anywhere else. And Iraqis feel that, and I think it hurts their pride to see what's happened to the city.

I think it feeds the anxiety of what's ahead. There's a lot of worry out there, and there's I think a lot of I'm not sure if the word sadness? I'm not sure what the word is about what's happened these past seven years.

GROSS: You wrote a great piece recently about a family looking for a loved one who had disappeared. They assumed that he had died, but they didn't know what happened. So they were searching in the morgue, and this morgue has, I think you said, 20,000 still unidentified bodies.

Mr. SHADID: That's right.

GROSS: Would you tell us the story about this family looking in the morgue for their loved one?

Mr. SHADID: You know, Terry, I tried you know, one of the things that's really haunted me, I think, over the past, you know, seven years in Iraq is this notion of how anonymous death is in Iraq, you know, how many people have I mean, we're talking about 100,000 people, perhaps far more who have died, millions who have been forced to leave the country and like I said earlier, you know, a society that is traumatized, absolutely traumatized.

And I wanted to somehow capture, you know, kind of write against that notion of the anonymity of death. And so I went to the morgue. And, you know, we spent a couple days there at the morgue as families came in looking at these pictures that were put on screens on the wall of corpses, basically.

And, you know, it was just this, you know, remarkably disturbing collage of death. Each of these faces seemed almost like they were kind of right out of Pompeii, you know, frozen in the moment that they had died.

And one the second day, a family had come in. They had lost their son back in 2005. They didn't know what had happened to him, and they had heard from a relative, or actually a friend - I take that back - a friend, that an acquaintance of this person, of their son who had died, had been found in the pictures. And so they came hoping to find his picture.

You know, within a few moments, they had. And this started a journey, in way, to find his body. They saw the picture in the morgue, and then they had to go through this incredibly again, I keep using this word, but an incredibly brutal experience of navigating Iraqi bureaucracy, of dealing with a government that just does not really care about its people.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like they were faced with hostility and distrust from the administrators who they needed to talk to actually get to the body.

Mr. SHADID: And, you know, it's interesting, Terry, because when I was reporting this story, and, you know, I got - I mean, this family, to their credit, you know, I think it's, you can often find cynical situations. And, you know, when I wanted to follow this family, I think in a lot of situations, you would have found a family that would have demanded money or demanded something in return, and this family didn't.

I think they just wanted someone to bear witness of what they had gone through and what they were going through. And it struck me as I followed them around to these government offices, that you mention it, that there was hostility.

But in some ways, it wasn't the - the hostility wasn't coming from the bureaucrats themselves but from the system, I felt. And in some ways, I thought these bureaucrats were even, in one way or another, sympathetic. They were part of the same system that is just making, you know, that makes life so miserable.

It ended up taking, you know, this family eight days, if I recall, to get the necessary paperwork, and just the paperwork, to find out where their brother, their son had been buried. And by the eighth day, they finally did.

Now, the brother who was trying to get this paperwork done was a very modest man. He was very shy. You know, he was a quiet man in a city that doesn't necessarily appreciate quiet. And so I think it even made it worse and made it, you know, when he was told no, he backed off and, you know, waited another day, went to another office, got more paperwork.

You know, he never ended up paying a bribe, which probably would've helped, you know, hasten the process. But by that eighth day, they finally did, they got the death certificate, effectively, and they found out that the son had been buried in the city of Najaf.

GROSS: What else did they learn about his death?

Mr. SHADID: You know, it was interesting. As I was reporting the story, it was often just trying to find out how he had died. I think there was just this need to know how he had died and then to know - to see the body in some ways.

You know, the first police station that we went to, after a couple of days, they gave him the police report that had said he had been beaten, tortured. They could see that on the picture, but I don't think they realized, you know, to what degree the body had been mutilated.

As they went further, they learned what day, you know, the body had been recovered, when it had been sent to the morgue and then when it had been buried.

You know, it struck me as we were driving down to Najaf Najaf is a sacred Shiite city. Its cemetery is probably the largest in the world. I mean, people say that you can see it from satellites in space, its vastness. And it's a Shiite cemetery, though, and this family was Sunni, and think the bloodshed was so horrific back in those years in '05, '06 and '07 that basically any anonymous body, any unidentified body was just sent to Najaf and buried there in kind of mass graves, unidentified graves.

So this Sunni family went to this Shiite city on that eighth, I think it was the ninth day, to find their son, and I went with them. And there it was. You know, he was actually buried in a grave with another body. All it said on the tombstone was unknown, and it gave the number that had been listed on his death certificate.

And that was the end of their journey. They found the body, and then they spent about an hour there. They made plans to at least, you know, make it a more presentable grave down the road, and then they left.

GROSS: So they're going to leave the body in that cemetery?

Mr. SHADID: They are, you know, and it was one of the most I didn't actually put it in the story, but somebody said to them, one of the gravediggers, who was a very remarkably eloquent person said, you know, why torture him anymore? Just let him lie in peace.

GROSS: Will they put a tombstone on that has a name instead of a number?

Mr. SHADID: They will. They will. And that was one of the things they were working on, you know, even when they were there, trying to find a way to at least make it, you know, at least, you know, give it an identity. You know, I think that anonymity of it, that it was just a number that, you know, their son, their father, their brother was just buried under a number, I think that was as galling as anything to them.

GROSS: But they trusted the bureaucracy that they believed that the number was accurate, that it was actually the son who was buried there?

Mr. SHADID: Yeah, the record, and, you know, remarkably, the records are there. I mean, it struck me, too. I think this is in one way, this is a hangover from, you know, the pre-invasion government. I mean, Saddam's government was, if anything, meticulous about recordkeeping, even some of its most brutal episodes. You know, that sense of recordkeeping is still there, and the records were there, and, you know, they did manage to get through that system, you know, in the end.

But, you know, they got through a system where they were, you know, a system that forced them to buy the paper on which letters were written for them to take to another office.

I remember in one government office, the woman asked for a pen, and then she kept the pen afterwards. I mean, it was just, you know, kind of almost this pettiness that when it accumulates and when it adds up just, you know, becomes sordid in a way.

GROSS: Now, there was one detail that particularly struck me in the piece, and it wasn't about the dead son. It was about the toilets. You're describing these administrators who work in offices around the corner from toilets piled with excrement.

Mr. SHADID: That's right.

GROSS: And that really gave me a sense of part of what it's like to be in Iraq now, that maybe the toilets dont flush, that they're overflowing, and you're working next to that.

Mr. SHADID: And, you know, and I put that detail in there to, you know, to point out just, you know, the idea that it wasn't the people that were working in that bureaucracy that were necessarily being brutal to this family that I was following. It was the institution itself, and they were part of this institution, you know, where they're having to work next to a pile of excrement.

You know, when he walks in, the police officer, who I actually found as somewhat a sympathetic character, the first police officer they met and, you know, as they began this odyssey to collect the paperwork. You know, he had to kick bricks away from his front door because, you know, kids at night had thrown stones or thrown bricks at his, you know, at the police headquarters. You know, I think it illustrated, you know, they don't even have respect.

You walk past a slogan as you go into the police station itself, and it says, you know, respect and be respected. I mean, there's this desire to have respect because there is no respect. It's, you know, in a lot of ways, I think the family, they weren't the only victims of this story.

GROSS: Another article that really struck me, you wrote about a doctor who helps fit amputees with artificial limbs at a rehab center in Iraq. And he was staring at a six-year-old boy who lost his right leg in a car bomb in July, and this boy's father was paralyzed. And talk about what this doctor said to you.

Mr. SHADID: I was sitting here talking to this doctor, a very decent man, you know, very polite and, you know, he kind of put up he was busy and he put up with me sitting there talking to him.

And we talked about the future and he said to me, you know, I'll never get married because I don't want to bring children into this world who are going to have to live like this, have to face the kind of consequences that we face.

And he looked toward this boy who had lost his leg in a bombing. And as he said it, I remembered almost immediately a conversation I'd had back in late 2003. I was talking to a psychiatrist, you know, a lovely woman who made this same exact point to me. You know, I'll never get married and bring children into a life like this. And she said she would joke with her mother of, you know, how dare her mother have brought her into this life, too.

But, you know, these ideas of not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring, you know, that there's no sense of the ordinary, that there's no sense of the routine, you know, that was there in 2003, and I think it's still there in 2010.

GROSS: Anthony Shadid will be back in the second half of the show. He's a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, a former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief, and has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the war, including one this year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with Anthony Shadid, one of the few reporters who has covered the war in Iraq since the invasion. He was there August 31st, when American combat troops pulled out. Fifty thousand American troops remain in Iraq. Shadid won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his coverage of Iraq and also won a Pulitzer in 2004. He served as the Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief and is now a foreign correspondent for The New York Times.

America has spent billions - is it maybe a trillion dollars on the war in Iraq? Do you know the figure?

Mr. SHADID: I think the figure I've seen is 750 billion, but I may have that wrong.

GROSS: Okay. So a lot of money. And I'm wondering like what do we have to show for the amount of money that weve spent when you consider - I mean part of that money just went to supporting the troops that were there and to keeping them armed and, you know, body armor and all that. But part of that money was supposed to go, I think, to helping in the rebuilding of Iraq, and the infrastructure is still in such disrepair. So I mean, what do we have to show for what we spent?

Mr. SHADID: You know, I think that's a great question, Terry, and I think that's, you know, and I have no idea what - let me put it this way: How his history going to write this war? And I have no idea how history is going to write this war. You know, does history acknowledge how many people have died, how many millions have been forced into exile, you know, the degree to which Iraqi society has been shattered? Or does history write it as, you know, as the military might write it, that, you know, they defeated the insurgency?

I think if you ask Iraqis, and that question would be, you know, they would be interested in hearing what youre saying, because they would say, you know, what has all this money gone toward? Why wasnt the country rebuilt? Yeah, there is more electricity but there's a higher demand for electricity. So we have less electricity today than we did under Saddam's era.

There is no sense of security or safety there. As I mentioned earlier, water is filthy, sewage pools in the streets. It's a miserable place right now. So you know, how are we going to reflect back on the seven, eight years and I really dont know the answer to that.

GROSS: Do you remember the guy who threw the shoe at President Bush?

Mr. SHADID: I do.

GROSS: How would you describe the sentiment toward President Bush now? Not that he represented everybody in the country, but it was the most dramatic example of a kind of anger coming from some people at President Bush and the invasion. Yeah.

Mr. SHADID: And again, I dont think, you know, I think when Iraqis often talk about Americans, its not personalized. It's not President Bush or President Obama doing something. I think it is this more kind of generalized notion of America or of the American military or of the United States.

It's interesting. I was talking to - I had spent some time at the embassy the other day and I was - they were talking about this partnership that they wanted to create between Iraq and the United States and that they wanted Iraqis to better understand what America represented. And then, you know, a few hours later I went to a high school, or it's actually a college. I take that back. It's a college, and I was just talking to students about what America represented. And almost every student had, you know, saw America through this prism of war - of the war that's been fought there the past seven years. Every single student had someone, a friend or a relative killed. You know, a bomb went off 100 meters away when we were standing there and I was the only one that flinched. I mean these guys didnt even blink. They have become so used to this notion of explosions and danger. You know, its just, I think we sometimes lose track a little bit of what this society, of what Iraq has had to go through since 2003.

GROSS: Are saying that they blame America for that, or that that's just the way it is and they just accept it?

Mr. SHADID: I mean what most Iraqis say - I mean most Iraqis will say, you know, the Americans helped destroy our country. I think, you know, would politicians say something different? Absolutely. Politicians would say they liberated us, they got rid of Saddam, we need the Americans, the military is playing a good role. Then youre talking about just the conversations you might have on the street, and again, it will change, depending on, I mean I hate to say this, but depending on whether someone's a Sunni or a Shiite or a Kurd, you will get a different perspective. But just the kind of off-handed remark you often hear is that, yeah, the country's been wrecked.

GROSS: One of the goals of the Bush administration was to create a democracy in Iraq. So you know, the latest election was in March. The government is deadlocked; no coalition has been able to build a democracy, so there is no government at the top right now. Do you see Iraq heading toward democracy? Do you see it heading eventually toward more of an Islamic state?

Mr. SHADID: You know, I thought the election was interesting. And I think this election was remarkable in March because it did - you know, most different, you know, different groups within the country, almost all of them participated in the election, and that was unprecedented. That didnt happen back in '05 and afterward. So I think for the first time you saw almost all sectors of Iraqi society take part in the elections. But this has been kind of one of the problems of American policy in the past, is that it becomes all about an election, all about a vote, and once that vote takes place, then we're done.

You know, the vote in 2005, you know, led in part to the sectarian civil war, tens of thousands dead. That election did, you know, played a role in creating the tensions that fed that conflict. You know, this election I think in some ways, you know, perhaps it does create a democratic government that lasts four years, strengthens democratic institutions and makes Iraq a better place, or this election is looked, you know, we look back on this election as the moment when there became an utter divorce between popular sentiments in the country and the political class, and that led to something very dangerous and very unpredictable. I think the verdict is out. I think what you hear right now, though, is utter disenchantment, you know, among people, you know, among ordinary Iraqis, about the political collapse that's been imposed on them.

GROSS: So if this election ultimately does lead to something dangerous and unpredictable, what are some of those dangerous options?

Mr. SHADID: That's a good question and I think, you know, probably if we can think of it, it probably wouldnt happen, to be honest. I mean that sense of not knowing what's going to come next is something that's just been so visceral in Iraq in a way, since '03. You know, the way people talk, though, is, you know, a new election, you know, a coup, you know, Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki somehow like strengthening his power and kind of doing a creeping coup where he somehow retains power without necessarily a democratic mandate.

You know, there are a lot of scenarios out there and people spend hours and hours talking about them, but again, I think if we can come up with a scenario, it probably won't happen.

GROSS: What about out-and-out civil war? If Saddam Hussein kept a lid on sectarian tension and then the U.S. came in, deposed Saddam Hussein but then kept a lid - tried to keep a lid, tried and sometimes failed to keep a lid on sectarian tension, U.S. pulls out, and what happens to all that sectarian fighting?

Mr. SHADID: You know, I think that existential - I think that sectarian civil war has been fought and is over. I mean I dont think, you know, as bad as things are today in Iraq, I dont think youre going to see the country go back to '06 or '07, when it was, you know, just a, you know, when it was on the brink of just this nihilistic descent into carnage. I dont think that's going to happen. I dont think that's in the cards right now. But that doesnt mean that the contest for political power, you know, has been resolved.

And in some ways the big questions that face the country today that were unanswered in 2003 - 2003 remain unanswered in 2010. I think this contest for political power, what we're seeing right now in some ways is being fought - although it's being fought, you know, pretty, you know, in a civil way, is part of that greater struggle that I think represents the biggest danger to the country right now.

GROSS: How much of a role do you see Iran playing in the future of Iraq?

Mr. SHADID: You know, I think Iran has, you know, it's its neighborhood. It has legitimate interest in Iraq. I think its always going to be one of the heavyweights, you know, along with the Americans. And, you know, I think, you know, you almost have to mention Turkey right now. Turkey is emerging as one of the key players in Iraq as well. So I think what youre looking at are the Iranians, the Americans, and the Turks playing, you know, playing the biggest roles in the country at this point.

GROSS: Well, Turkey is moving more toward an Islamic state. Iran is an Islamic state. Iraq had been a secular state. So what does that mean?

Mr. SHADID: Well, my sense of how Turkey and Iran play it is just, you know, it's almost, you know, devoid of ideology and it's all about national interests. I think that's how the Iranians are playing it, that's how the Turks are playing. The Turks and the Iranians are opposed right now in, you know, what they want from the next government in Iraq. But I dont see ideology playing as big a role - you know, at some level it's obviously going to inform things, but I think really national interest is the...

GROSS: Does that mean oil and safety?

Mr. SHADID: Oil, safety interests, you know, a government they can deal with, investments. I mean its just kind of across the board, in some ways same thing the Americans are doing. I mean everyone is trying to create leverage that, you know, is going to strengthen their position in the country.

GROSS: My guest is Anthony Shadid. He's won two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the war in Iraq. He's now a foreign correspondent for The New York Times.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid. He's covered the war in Iraq since the invasion.

So in trying to create, you know, like a democracy in Iraq, are there things that you think we fundamentally - we as Americans - dont understand about Iraq or the larger Middle East?

Mr. SHADID: You know, I dont think we understand history. And you know, it struck me, working in the region for the past 15 years, is this idea that almost footnotes in American history - let's say the overthrow of Musaddiq in Iran, let's say the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 -events that aren't necessarily a part of, you know, everyday conversation in America, have had a fundamental impact on the destiny of the Arab world and the Middle East. These almost - you know, I guess to most Americans, forgettable events - have restructured, recreated, you know, had incredibly far-reaching implications on the region itself. And I think this not understanding the implications of that - of these moments, of these events, you know, has haunted American policy in some ways.

I think Iraq is, you know, is the best example of that in some ways. You know, the Americans invaded a country without appreciating what eight years of war with Iran had meant, how that traumatized Iraq. They didnt appreciate what their support for a decade of sanctions had done to Iraq and a bitterness it had created and that it wiped out the middle class. They didnt understand, I think, you know, what Saddam represented in some ways to the Iraqi people as well, that, you know, the '70s weren't the awful time as Saddam came to power. The awful time for most Iraqis were the '90s, when the sanctions were a misery in the country. You know, that almost willful lack of understanding history has, you know, has had a really unfortunate impact on, you know, on what's followed.

GROSS: Now, I dont know how to much - I know you just got back to the U.S. and I dont know how much catching up youve been able to do on what's happening here. But youve been in Iraq watching ongoing conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. You come back to the United States and there's this, there's this like rampant, rampant Islamaphobia now, and it seems to be acceptable in many places to just unleash it, to just publicly hate Muslims or condemn the practice of Islam. The politicians are speaking against Islam, in coded ways sometimes, in veiled ways. And there's this whole dispute around the proposed Islamic center a few blocks from Ground Zero.

What is it like for you to witness that dispute and this wave of Islamaphobia that seems to be spreading in parts of our country?

Mr. SHADID: You know, I just think this, you know, it's utterly and absolutely galling, and I think it's shameful and it's a shameful chapter in this country's history. For so long, you know, I think Americans have almost taken pride in their sense of tolerance and theyve often made that in contrast to what goes on in the Middle East and a place like, you know, during the Lebanese civil war, when your I.D. card would, you know, determine whether youre going to live or not, or Iraq, where being Sunni or Shiite was, you know, a license to be killed.

It's often, this intolerance is often something that weve criticized so desperately, you know, and kind of criticized in the point of holding up our own tolerance, and I think this chapter we're seeing today is just one of the most disappointing and frustrating and saddening and saddening chapters. I mean the very notion of what we're tying to delivery to the rest of the world, at least, you know, ostensibly deliver - this idea of democracy and liberalism and tolerance - is something that we're not doing a really great job of enforcing at home.

GROSS: Did you get a sense in Iraq that people there were following the story about the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero?

Mr. SHADID: But, you know, I think this whole chapter of let's say the past 10 years, you know, did Iraqis follow that debate? No. I think at this point a lot of people in the Arab world, a lot of people in the Muslim world, think that the United States is just anti-Islamic. Does it surprise them? Not necessarily. I think there's this - and it's a sad thing to say, because I dont think that existed there before - but I think this, you know, this clash of cultures that was often dismissed, you know, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, or at least when I started, you know, reporting in the Middle East back in '95, has actually come to pass, and I find that really unfortunate and very sad.

GROSS: Okay. It's customary when youre on our show for me to read a quote from your 2001 book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHADID: Okay.

GROSS: Youre 2001 book, "Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats, and the New Politics of Islam." And the quote I customarily read you is an optimistic quote that says: The popular model of Islam is as a threatening monolithic force, one that specializes in bombings and kidnappings, and it lurks behind the world's turmoil. But that image is being made obsolete by a new generation of Islamic activists who, from the slums of Beirut to the warrens of Cairo, are embracing democratic politics and, most importantly, a growing willingness to work within systems that they once opposed, sometimes violently.

So what happened to those people? Are they still working for the democratic goals that you describe?

Mr. SHADID: Yeah, I think that's - I glad, you know, that is the one shred of optimism - not one shred, I'm overstating it - but that is the bit of optimism that I do have about the region and about the prospect of a, you know, of a viable democratic polity is that there is, you know, people are inspired by the example - people in the Arab world are inspired by the example of Turkey, where an Islamic, the, you know, a nominally Islamist movement has matured, has involved and, you know, now runs the country.

I think you see other examples in other parts of the Middle East. I think there is still an evolution going on in Islamic politics but it now what's I think changed since I wrote that is this notion of identity and this notion of smaller identities and these identities being - you know, Sunni, Shiite, Christian, whatever - these identities being manipulated as a way to divide and conquer in some respects.

And I think those two forces are actually at odds right now. You know, can this kind of evolution of Islamic movements proceed faster than this, you know, this growth of much smaller identities?

GROSS: So, what's next for you is that youre going to be the bureau chief for The New York Times in Beirut. What will that mean in terms of what youre reporting on?

Mr. SHADID: You know, that probably won't mean as much as - it might be a little bit like that August 31st date where the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHADID: ...where I'll still be going back to Baghdad I think quite a bit. And I, you know, I dont enjoy being there all that much but I do, like I said, I do feel a certain responsibility in going back. And so, you know, I do think from Beirut I'll keep going to Iraq through most of next year.

GROSS: Since your family is originally from Lebanon, will it be, you know, kind of special for you to be living in Beirut?

Mr. SHADID: You know, I rebuilt my family's ancestral home in southern Lebanon. I'm sure its going to be the first house that gets destroyed when the next war happens. But, you know, as of now, it's probably the, you know, my favorite place on Earth. You know, its a lovely place at the base of Mount Hermon. And the best thing about living in Lebanon probably is that I can spend time at that house.

GROSS: When you say its your ancestral home, how many generations of your family live there?

Mr. SHADID: My grandparents. It was my grandparents that left it.

GROSS: Okay. And did they talk to you fondly about that home when you were growing up?

Mr. SHADID: You know, it's - I guess it's hard to be of two places. And I think when, you know, my family emigrated, you know, they always had a, you know, a very clear notion of being Lebanese and they're very proud of being Lebanese, being, you know, proud of being Arab-Americans. But I think at the same time, it became more an idea than a reality of where they came from. And I think the house in some ways was forgotten and it probably would've, you know, eventually just kind of crumbled to the ground if I hadn't had the chance, you know, to put it back together.

GROSS: Did they still own it?

Mr. SHADID: Well, that's a good question. I certainly dont own it. I think about 3,000 people own it. I'm exaggerating but there's a lot of owners of that house, so it probably wasnt the best investment of my money. But the broader - yeah, the family itself does own it, you know, if you count a couple hundred cousins.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. All right.

Mr. SHADID: It's actually not a couple hundred, it's fewer than that but it's a messy - it would be a messy ownership record.

GROSS: Right. But youre moving in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHADID: I'm moving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. Well, Anthony Shadid, thanks so much for talking with us again. I really appreciate it and I wish you safe travels in your reporting. Thank you very much.

Mr. SHADID: Thank you.

GROSS: Anthony Shadid is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief. You can find links to his recent articles from Iraq, as well as links to FRESH AIR's interviews about the war on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.