The Collapse

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.