Iraq Getting Worse, Not Better When observed up close and over time, it is clear that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating. The country has turned into a chaotic free-for-all, with no end in sight. Steve Inskeep talks with Anne Garrels and the Washington Post's Anthony Shadid.
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Iraq Getting Worse, Not Better

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Iraq Getting Worse, Not Better

Iraq Getting Worse, Not Better

Iraq Getting Worse, Not Better

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When observed up close and over time, it is clear that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating. The country has turned into a chaotic free-for-all, with no end in sight. Steve Inskeep talks with Anne Garrels and the Washington Post's Anthony Shadid.


After two veteran correspondents finished their most recent tour in Iraq, they had a chance to ask this question of each other.

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (Washington Post): Did it feel as grim to you as it did to me? Or...

ANNE GARRELS: Oh, it was just awful. I mean, I've been there pretty regularly.

Mr. SHADID: Yeah.

GARRELS: I mean, I'm sort of, I go in for two months and then I come out for a month or two and then I go in for... And just the inexorable slide.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anne Garrels, who has been in and out of Iraq since before the fall of Saddam Hussein. This week she is back in the U.S., and we got her on the line with Anthony Shadid. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post, and also just returned from Iraq. Because they've gone again and again, their most recent trips give them a chance to see how the country has changed.

Mr. SHADID: You know, I was really struck, almost immediately after arriving there. You know, I've always thought that, you know, resilience was such a quality that Baghdad had. And, you know - Anne will probably remember this - during the invasion, after some of the nights, you know, worst nights of bombing, the next morning traffic would be in the streets, shops would be open. It struck me almost immediately after leaving the airport how different the city itself looked. That there was less traffic, that shops were closed, that there weren't that many people in the street. It was almost as if the face of Baghdad had undergone quite a bit of a change since I was there last time.

INSKEEP: Anne Garrels, I seem to recall that you told me once, that every time you go back to Baghdad, things seem a little bit worse than they did the time before. Is that still true?

GARRELS: Absolutely. And it's not just a little bit worse, it's a lot worse. Everyone I know has had a close relative, and probably several close friends, killed. And when you talk about economic activity, I was going around trying to find bankers. Well, 25 percent, at least, of the leading bankers in the country have had to flee. And that has a huge impact on economic development. I mean, you've got almost a million Iraqis, if not more, probably, now in Jordan and tens and tens of thousands more in Syria. And these are the educated, the middle class, the people who could build Iraq. And they're all leaving.

INSKEEP: You know, when you do find a banker, what do they consider an acceptable business risk that they want to loan money on these days?

GARRELS: They're actually not loaning a lot of money. They're dealing more in securities, foreign bank stocks, that sort of thing. At the moment, there's no loan insurance. A lot of banks have gone belly-up.

INSKEEP: I want to ask both of you about an incident that has taken place this week. Iraq's government orders the U.S. military to abandon its checkpoints inside Baghdad. And in fact, they did. What does that signify to you?

Mr. SHADID: I think just, you know, right on the surface of things, it speaks about the power of Muqtada al Sadr, of the young Shiite cleric and the role he plays in some ways as a king-maker these days in Iraqi politics. But, at another level, it's this question of legitimacy, and how does a government secure legitimacy when the Americans are seen by many Iraqis as the final arbiter? In other words, how is the government going to ever look independent? And I think that's the struggle going on right now. Is this government trying to secure some kind of legitimacy or credibility in the eyes of Iraqis?

INSKEEP: Is the Iraqi government still fighting the same war as the United States?

Mr. SHADID: That's a good question.

GARRELS: Not at all. I mean, Iraqis, I think, are fighting, quite frankly, for their own - I mean the people in the government, for the most part, it's quite venal. I mean, they're fighting for power, they're fighting for money. It is highly corrupt. There is no sense of national unity. No, I mean, for all this talk of a government of national unity, people are not working together for the betterment of the greater whole - far from it. And the ministries have enough money at this point. Money is not the issue. It is not filtering down to the people. I mean, the American commanders have been tearing their hair out because, you know, they would go in and clear an area, and the ministers and the ministries would not appear on the ground. They did nothing to improve the infrastructure.

Mr. SHADID: You know, it is - I was in Basra, down in southern Iraq when I was there this last time and it's just like Anne was saying. I mean there is, nominally, a government in place in Basra. But basically, what you have on the ground is a free-for-all between competing militias, you know, vying for power, money and influence at this point. And, you know, basically the way they deal with each other is through assassinations and killings.

I mean, one morning we woke up and... The killing in Basra is not like the killing in Baghdad. But you wake up one morning and 20 people had already been killed. And most of those are assassinations.

INSKEEP: Have you had an opportunity to ask an Iraqi leader a question along the lines of, what is the matter with you? Your country is falling apart and you're arguing over who controls some bit of turf?

GARRELS: Absolutely. But Iraqis tend to blame everybody but themselves. And this is an age-old problem. They did it under Saddam. They blamed their Arab neighbors for their problems. And now you ask them why aren't things working better? And they'll blame the Jordanians. They'll blame the Syrians. They'll blame the Iranians, depending on who you're asking, and they'll blame the U.S. I mean, they refuse to admit that Iraqis are behind most of the violence.

Mr. SHADID: You know, it's such a... I swear, it is so grim at this point. And I have to say, you know, a friend of mine I'd gone to see, he's a professor at Baghdad University. You know, I asked him the question. I said, would it get worse if the American military withdrew? And he looked at me for a couple of seconds, and he knitted his brow, and he said, you know, how could it get any worse at this point?

INSKEEP: Let me pose that question that the gentleman asked you. Can it get worse?

Mr. SHADID: Oh, I'm sure it could get worse. You know, that's a - let me put this...

GARRELS: I mean, it's really, really awful, but it could get worse.

Mr. SHADID: Yeah, it could.

GARRELS: And I mean many Iraqis, be they Sunni or Shia, will say they hate the U.S. but they don't want them to leave because the U.S. at least keeps some kind of a lid on at this point.

INSKEEP: That incident that I mentioned, the Americans being removed from the checkpoints, reminded me of a conversation with an American who had just come back from Iraq not too long ago. And he said one thing to remember is that we have even less control in Iraq than we think we do.

Mr. SHADID: The Americans definitely don't feel like...

GARRELS: Oh, there's no question that we've seen that now, three years in. You know, from day one there were never enough troops. There was very little understanding of Iraqi society, and we're seeing the legacy of cumulative mistakes.

Mr. SHADID: I think that's such a great point. You know, that's what it feels like to me at this - you know, it's these forces that we saw unleashed when the invasion happened, those forces that were just taking shape in the first months after the fall of Saddam. You know, this idea of the sectarian divide, you know, the role of religion, the influence of militias, all of these forces have finally kind of come together and intersected into this chaos and this anarchy that we see in the country today.

INSKEEP: Either of you going back soon?

Mr. SHADID: I don't have any plans right away. I would like to get back. You know, I'm sure Anne feels the same way. You spend so much time, you know, there, and you do meet people that you want to stay in contact with, and... But it is, you know, I think it's more and more frustrating at some level as a journalist trying to do the work you want to do and just, you know, not sure how to do that work.

INSKEEP: Anne Garrels?

GARRELS: I'll go back in January. It is frustrating, but it's still possible. I mean, but I keep wondering, you know, when am I going to wake up that morning and realize that it's simply no longer doable, that it is simply impossible? And you know, I anticipate one morning that I will wake up and say, okay, we've got to get out of here now.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anne Garrels, thanks very much for speaking with us.

GARRELS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Anthony Shadid, of The Washington Post, good to talk with you.

Mr. SHADID: Likewise.

INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt from Anthony Shadid's book, Night Draws Near, at

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'Night Draws Near': War from Iraqis' Perspective

'Night Draws Near': War from Iraqis' Perspective

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'The Washington Post'

Scott Simon talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Shadid about his book Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War.

Shadid, a reporter for The Washington Post who also speaks Arabic, offers an account of the first 15 months of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, as seen by Iraqis.

Read an Excerpt

About a week after the U.N. declaration, my colleague Thomas E. Ricks, one of The Post's best reporters, suggested we follow soldiers from Bravo Company in a battalion in the Army's 1st Armored Division through one neighborhood, in one corner of Baghdad, on one day. Over a little more than two hours, Tom would walk with the patrol, while I would trail behind, speaking with residents as they came to grips with the prospect of a foreign army patrolling their streets. It was a rare opportunity for us as journalists. Since far more reporters were embedded than not embedded, Iraqis were all too often voiceless. Now we would truly see both sides, in real time.

The day began at ten A.M., with temperatures creeping across the nineties, as the patrol moved out through the concertina wire that protected the U.S. soldiers' outpost and past two Bradley Fighting Vehicles parked out front.

"Everybody likes us," Specialist Stephen Harris, a twenty-year-old from Lafayette, Louisiana, declared to Tom Ricks. Harris and the others in Bravo Company considered themselves a welcome presence in a friendly land. They were there to help the Iraqis they had liberated, then head home. Tom asked Harris whether the people in Baghdad wanted U.S. troops to stay. "Oh, yeah," he said, taking a slug from his canteen. He then delivered his assessment of the neighborhood they were about to enter: "I'd say ninety-five percent friendly."

I followed fifty meters behind. There were a few waves from the residents. Most just stared. I walked past a stand selling cheap plastic sandals, past a boy selling packets of Kleenex to cars caught in traffic, past a few stands built from cheap wood, with Pepsis and Miranda orange sodas atop. An armored personnel carrier thundered by, setting off a car alarm. Around the corner was a man named Mohammed Ibrahim, standing on the sidewalk as Tom and the ten-man patrol passed his gated house.

"Despicable" was the way he described the U.S. presence. In a white dishdasha, a long Arab robe, the thirty-four-year-old winced as the soldiers moved along his street, nine carrying automatic weapons slung across their chests, the tenth a medic. Ibrahim's grimace was personal, the kind of contortion an insult brings. "We're against the occupation, we refuse the occupation – not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent," he told me. "They're walking over my heart. I feel like they're crushing my heart."

Ibrahim's sentiments were, obviously, not the only ones voiced that day. Some residents welcomed the troops, not least in hopes that they would provide a measure of security after the weeks of looting. There was still relief over Saddam's demise – jubilation that persisted despite the hardships of everyday life. But a week after the U.N. resolution was passed in New York, with only token input from Iraqis, many expressed ambivalence or outright anger as the troops walked by. The hostility ran especially deep among Sunni Muslims, who made up the neighborhood's majority and who had greeted the invasion with the greatest skepticism. Along the streets patrolled by the soldiers, they expressed suspicions over the fate of Iraq's oil and described what they saw as violations of their privacy.

Iraqis called the area Yarmuk; it was a west Baghdad neighborhood of middle-class professionals, living in two-story adobe-style houses that would have fit nicely into a wealthier corner of Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Its sentiments were still colored by its origins in the 1960s as a development to house military officers – a legacy of a certain era across the Arab world, when whole neighborhoods were built to house like-minded professionals. To the Americans, the neighborhood was "Sector 37 North," frequently marked as hostile on U.S. military maps of Baghdad. It was known as a stronghold of Baath Party loyalists, though the more painfully felt undercurrents – the Sunnis' fear of retaliation and loss of status – were less well understood by the young Americans.

A week earlier, on the airport highway that marked the southern boundary of the sector, a U.S. soldier had been killed and three others wounded when their Humvee struck a mine. The attack was an early sign of what was to gather force over the summer – an insurgency that spiked and ebbed in intensity, waged by a disparate coalition of forces (loyalists of Saddam, nationalists, Islamists and foreigners looking for a fight) united almost solely by their opposition to the U.S. presence. It would be fought mainly in Baghdad and the swath of central Iraq dominated by Sunni Muslims that stretches north along the Tigris and west along the Euphrates – in shorthand, the Sunni Triangle. The mine that killed the soldier in Yarmuk would become its weapon of choice. In the beginning, the arsenal would also include hit-and-run raids on military convoys, drive-by shootings of coalition vehicles, and sabotage of power stations, oil pipelines, natural gas plants, and oil installations. In time, though, it would evolve, becoming better coordinated, better planned, and more lethal. Hit-and-run raids turned into elaborate ambushes; makeshift mines became remote-controlled explosives. Helicopters were targeted with rocket-propelled grenades and missiles, whose users benefited by the expertise of officers from the dissolved army, and car bombings were deployed to devastating effect. In cities and towns, militants began to assassinate Iraqi politicians, technocrats, professionals, and members of nascent security forces – anyone deemed cooperating with the occupation. As Tom and I walked through Yarmuk, that insurgency was just beginning. At the time, neither we nor the troops we were with had any idea of its potential.

Excerpt from Night Draws Near, copyright Anthony Shadid. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.