When Baghdad Fell to America . . .

From Newsday — 19 September 2004

U.S. Marines in Baghdad, 2003

U.S. Marines take cover from a suspected sniper outside a central Baghdad art gallery, April 2003.
(Photo by James Rupert)

THE FALL OF BAGHDAD, by Jon Lee Anderson. Penguin, 389 pp., $24.95.


The legion of books on the Iraq war includes those from Washington that focus on Bush administration policy-making and others by “embedded” journalists who co-invaded Iraq in the tanks and Humvees of U.S. troops. A third batch has come from the handful of English-speaking journalists (16 of them Americans) who hunkered down under Saddam Hussein’s regime to witness its destruction.

Jon Lee Anderson is at least the fifth of these reporters to publish a book, which suggests a problem. In its last days, Saddam’s machine tightened its restrictions on reporters, practically locking them down in Baghdad’s grimy Palestine Hotel. So if everyone was watching the same cruise missiles from the same balconies, how do Anderson (of The New Yorker), Anne Garrels (NPR), Anthony Shadid (The Washington Post), Matthew McAllester (Newsday) and others each write distinctive books that tell us something new?

At moments, they don’t. All the Baghdad books resonate with the concussion of the U.S. bombing of Baghdad at the war’s start and show the journalists scrambling, sneaking, scheming to keep reporting despite the regime’s interference. Here and there, they recount exactly the same events. When Iraqi officials direct reporters to the March 26 bombing of a street in the Al-Shaab neighborhood, a particular severed hand amid the debris makes it into at least three books. We are more used to seeing duplicate reporting of an event, with matching details and backdrop, when it comes via TV networks, whose correspondents may be doing stand-up reports only yards from each other. Rarely are book authors compressed into the same space that way.

These Baghdad author-reporters wander into each other’s books like characters crossing over to spin-off sitcoms. McAllester hosts a dinner party one evening in Anderson’s book (though not in his own), Anderson pops into Garrels’ book, and so on.

Still, each reporter manages to tell a different story. Garrels’ “Naked in Baghdad” does it with deliciously disarming storytelling, reinforced by the wit of her husband, whose letters are included in the narrative. McAllester’s “Blinded by the Sunlight” vividly paints the horrors of Saddam’s rule by fear, and the private terrors of its victims, from his own detention in Abu Ghraib as a suspected spy. (Shadid’s forthcoming book reportedly will focus on Iraqi families he has followed through the war.)

Anderson paves us a remarkable entree into Saddam’s banal and evil machine and the chaos of its fall. He shows even privileged men warily treading the dangerous waters of being Iraqi. As in all tyrannies, some get along simply by surrendering all loyalty and thought to the machine to become odious and thuggish bureaucrats or enforcers.

But other people are more complex – intellectuals and artists who somehow live close to Iraq’s chief destroyer of intellect and art. Farouk Salloum is a poet whom the dictator invites to the palace occasionally to chat about literature and architecture. Dr. Ala Bashir is one of Saddam’s personal physicians and perhaps his favorite artist. Saddam commissions sculptures and paintings from Bashir and clearly respects him.

So it was a hard moment in 1991 when Saddam took Bashir for a walk in his garden. Shias were rebelling in the south and Saddam was groping to justify his plan to send troops on a vengeful rampage of murder and scorched earth. “These people who are in the south are not originally Iraqis,” Bashir recalled Saddam saying. They are bad Muslims, and “they have no morals … [which] means they can do anything.”

As Saddam droned on, Bashir said he fixed on the way the sun illuminated the leader’s ear. “It looked like wax.” When Saddam asked what Bashir thought of his demonization of the southerners, “I said ‘Right,’ that’s all,” Bashir recounted. “I didn’t think he was in the mood for someone to oppose him. … You know, this is our history, long before him, for hundreds of years, people in Iraq have not been able to give their opinions freely.”

Anderson doesn’t press Bashir too hard on why the doctor didn’t speak up against an atrocity in the making. “It must have been an unexpected and terrifying glimpse into the mind of the tyrant he was obliged to serve, and by focusing on the Great Leader’s ear, he was able to escape briefly back into the illusion of his neutral role as the doctor who checked up on Saddam’s corns, and who was occasionally obliged to humor his questions about art.”

For Iraqis, when the U.S. troops finally arrive in Baghdad, Saddam’s architecture of menace vanishes. But menace itself is undiminished, having only morphed from the old, known shapes into uncertain risks of assassination, kidnapping, robbery, arrest by the Americans and God knows what. The Iraqi waters have become no less dangerous; it’s just that the sharks are now harder to make out.

Threatened with assassination, Bashir goes into hiding, where Anderson continues to visit and tease out his story. Soon, other Americans are visiting, too – well-armed men who give only first names and are constantly in touch with headquarters. The CIA wants Bashir’s help in forming alliances with influential tribal leaders he is related to.

The Americans need these alliances if they hope to extinguish the guerrilla war against them. Anderson follows the CIA men to Sheikh Ibrahim al-Jubour, whom they have tried to recruit. It hasn’t gone well. Jubour has found the Americans a bit too arrogant and far too muddled in explaining just what the United States intends in Iraq.

Anderson does not directly argue matters of U.S. policy, but laced throughout his story are the warnings of Iraqis – scholars, a Shia cleric, Salloum the poet – that America must not attempt an extended rule of the country, for that will bring only full-scale rebellion. “Something to know about Iraqis is that you can win them over fast and you also lose them very fast,” warns Nasser Sadoun, scion of an old, politically prominent family.

A year after the Americans’ arrival, the fall of Baghdad was not a discrete military event marked by the toppling of statues, Anderson suggests. Rather, it seems, it is still falling.

Copyright © Newsday, Inc. 2004


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