SCOTT SIMON, host:
Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid won the Pulitzer Prize last year for covering Iraq. He speaks Arabic and can learn as much from overhearing the ambient voices of Iraqi citizens as from his own eyes and interviews. His new book is "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War." He joins us from NPR West.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (Author and Journalist, The Washington Post): My pleasure.
SIMON: And you write several times that you think Americans oversimplified Iraq, just saw it as a country that was brutally ruled by a rapacious dictator and didn't see to the--I think you call them `combustible ambiguities of Iraq' that were beneath that.
Mr. SHADID: That's right. In fact, before I got--I'd only been to Iraq twice before the invasion, and I was taken by the same things. I kind of saw it through this lens of oppression, and only through oppression. But I think all of us were struck who were there by how the invasion in a way had unleashed this incredible complexity in the country: religion, nationalism, community groups of the brutalization that Iraq had gone through for 20 or 30 years.
SIMON: You, in fact, suggest that the rule of Saddam was so brutal it destroyed something in the Iraqi soul and spirit that makes recovery difficult now.
Mr. SHADID: I think that's true. In fact, if somebody asked me what I thought had shaped Iraq the most at the present day, you know, I'd point back to the war with Iran. I mean, here was a conflict that lasted for eight years--1980 to 1988--you know, a million dead and wounded on both sides, one in five or one in six Iraqi men were under arms--and introduced this kind of culture of violence or this culture of the gun that I think Iraq is still grappling with to this day.
It's kind of remarkable when you look back over a generation of what that country went through in war, tyranny, UN sanctions that basically wiped out the middle class in the 1990s. And then the present day, which we're talking about, an invasion and occupation and the beginnings of a civil war, it's--you know, I kind of marvel when I talk to Iraqis is how they endure this. And I think it says something about the resilience of the people there.
SIMON: I want to pick up on a phrase you just used: the beginning of a civil war. Are--in your judgment, are events at the point in Iraq now where a period of insurgency--and I know that's difficult to define, as you put it in the book--has given way to open civil war?
Mr. SHADID: You know, I think there is a semblance of civil war. I think--I got back from Iraq a few weeks ago, and my sense there is when you look at the forces aligned, the competing agendas, the level of violence, it does feel like a civil war to a certain degree. I don't think it's a full-fledged conflict at this point, but it's definitely there on the ground, and I think the Iraqis are more and more, you know, confronting the fact that that is the case.
What strikes me, though, is I think we often see Iraq as this--as a constellation of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, and I think it is that at one level. But perhaps more pitched are the rivalries within the communities. When you look at southern Iraq, you're talking about rival militias that are competing for influence and power in places like Basra. When you look at western Iraq, there's very deep divisions between Sunni Arab insurgents and foreigners and other groups in there. And it's--we have to be careful not to underestimate, I think, the differences between even the Shi--the Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, who are ostensibly under--in an alliance.
SIMON: I'd like you to read a section from the book, if you could, Mr. Shadid.
Mr. SHADID: Yeah, I'd be happy to.
SIMON: This is a raid by US forces in 2003, part of an operation called Peninsula Strike, where US forces were looking for weapons in a Sunni neighborhood and had some reason to think that there were weapons that were being used against Iraqis and Americans.
Mr. SHADID: This is one of the earliest raids that the Americans had carried out in the Sunni Arab areas. And as always, intelligence was an issue. They didn't know the areas very well; they didn't know the people there. And they would turn to villagers who might shed light on the situation. And in this village they turned to someone, a young man named Sabah(ph), who followed the Americans as they entered the village. He was wearing a sack over his head to conceal his identity, but people recognized him pretty quickly. I think if I remember right, he was missing half his pinkie, they noticed his walk, and it enraged the village.
Sabah had pointed out people as suspects who were later arrested. I don't know if they were guilty or not. The villagers insisted they weren't. And in the process, three people were killed during this raid and villagers blamed this on Sabah, on this young man. They went to the young man's father and they said--they told the father that either he would kill his own son to settle the vendetta or they would kill the rest of his family. And so the father was faced with this choice, and a few weeks later the father and his other son took Sabah, you know, behind the house. It was after nightfall; it was dark. And the father shot twice at Sabah. And then accounts differed on what I heard what happened, but some people said that he collapsed, and that his other son then fired three more shots, one killing Sabah, and in the villagers' eyes settling the vendetta.
SIMON: There was a section you wanted to read.
Mr. SHADID: `In a simple home of cement and cinder blocks, I sat with Sabah's father as he nervously thumbed black prayer beads, his pace quickening as the minutes passed. We sipped tea. Two overhead fans lazily churned the ovenlike air. Each word of the conversation was labored. Silently I replayed the question I had formulated: Had he killed his son? I already knew the answer, but when the opportunity arrived I couldn't ask. Even as a journalist in a job that celebrates provocation and whose standards require confirmation, I couldn't muster the courage to broach the question. In a moment so tragic, so wretched, there still had to be decency. I didn't want to hear him say yes. I didn't want to humiliate him any further.
`In the end, I didn't have to. The father's words, deepened by age and grief, were soft, almost a whisper. He dragged on a locally made cigarette as he sat cross-legged on the floor against walls painted in yellow with green trim. His eyes glimmered with a faint trace of tears, shimmering. "I have the heart of a father, and he's my son," he told me, his eyes cast to the ground. "Even the prophet Abraham didn't have to kill his son." He stopped, steadying his voice. "There was no other choice."'
SIMON: Killed his son to save the rest of his family.
Mr. SHADID: You know, it strikes me as a reporter so often that--in the past couple of years, that these choices that I don't think any of us could imagine. You know, the choice between--I mean, that's obviously the most dramatic example of it, but I mean, in a more mundane way, I remember being in Sunni Arab regions where, you know, men had to join the police force and in their own eyes become bad Muslims; that they felt like they had no other choice because they had to support their families. And these--given these choices that are so fundamental to one's identity and they're played over and over again across the country.
SIMON: You're talking about this book in several locations now, but at some point are you going back to Iraq?
Mr. SHADID: I am probably going back in a few weeks.
SIMON: How freely can you talk to people?
Mr. SHADID: It's difficult. What you saw in Iraq, I think, in 2003 was kind of remarkable after Saddam's fall because there were basically no rules at that time. You could pretty much do whatever you wanted. But it's easily the most difficult place I've ever reported. I was in Basra last month, and to me Basra's one of those places--it's a largely Shiite city in southern Iraq. And in the past, Basra to me has been kind of the equivalent, almost, of a vacation. I mean, you would go there, you would be able to go out at night to have dinner; you would be able to talk to people on the street, sit at cafes. And I was there last month it was the most scared I've ever been. You know, I felt that the militias had so thoroughly infiltrated security forces that there was no accountability, there was no check on their power, and it was--their violence was often very arbitrary. And my sense is that it's not possible to go back there at this point. And even in Baghdad, where we spend most of our time, I think there's probably two neighborhoods in the city where I felt comfortable enough to report. And one of those is safe enough because there's a militia that's in charge of every street, and for some reason it's relatively good to journalists.
SIMON: What kind of militia are--have become your new best friends in Baghdad?
Mr. SHADID: The militia that's loyal to Moqtada Sadr. And, you know, people often say they're very thuggish--and they are--and they hand down a very violent form of justice often in Sadr City, but they are in complete control of the neighborhood. You know, and before I was visiting there I actually went to speak with them and told them that I would be there and asked them to keep an eye out. And, you know, to their credit they do do that.
SIMON: Mr. Shadid, thank you very much.
Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.
SIMON: Anthony Shadid, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter of The Washington Post. His new book, "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War."
For more about Anthony Shadid's book, you can come to our Web site, npr.org.