New York, NY
NOAH FELDMAN: Good evening to all of you. Welcome to this evening’s meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations.
May I ask you please to turn off cell phones and pagers. If we were in Beirut I wouldn’t have to ask you that since now it’s considered entirely normal throughout the Middle East to answer your cell phone in the middle of any meeting, even if a head of state is present. But here in New York we haven’t gone that far, so I will ask you to remind yourselves and turn off BlackBerrys. May I also remind you that this evening’s meeting is on the record.
That’s an especially appropriate reminder this evening because we have with us an extremely distinguished journalist and author, Anthony Shadid, who is presently foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, presently posted to Beirut, recently having spent a great deal of time in Iraq. Anthony is the author, as all of you I hope know, of Night Draws Near, which has been wonderfully well-received, and it accounts for much of the two-year period during which Anthony was in Iraq, reporting regularly—a period during which he received numerous awards for his reporting, including most prominently the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in 2004.
What I would like to do is ask Anthony some questions about the book, about circumstances in Iraq today, about connections between Iraq and the rest of the region, and then turn things over to you for an opportunity to ask Anthony questions yourselves. So without further ado, Anthony Shadid.
Anthony, let’s start with a question of identity. When you and I were speaking for a moment before the meeting, you said that much of your reporting now was focused on this big question of identity in the region, and it’s obviously an important theme in Night Draws Near. How do you think identity is developing today in Iraq and in the region more broadly?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, it strikes me as a reporter—and I guess I’ve been reporting in the Middle East in a continuous way since 1995, and you often try to get a handle on the forces that are at work that are shaping the politics, that are shaping the region. For a long while I thought it was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the engine behind events. Later it was political Islam, and I wrote my first book about that intersection between political Islam and governance; the idea of political Islam and democracy, whether—you know, what future those two held.
I guess increasingly—and I think this is something that I noticed in Iraq, but it’s also been spilling over a lot into the rest of the Arab world, the rest of the region—is this question of identity. And I think when you use the word “identity” it can sometimes seem almost superficial or maybe a code word for other forces at work. But I am struck by this idea that, you know, we are seeing the kind of—you know, Arab nationalism pretty much doesn’t exist anymore. I think even political Islam as a force in which to organize politics around has kind of diminished to a certain extent. And I think we are seeing a more primordial affiliation along ethnic and sectarian lines that I’ve noticed in Lebanon, that I’ve noticed very much so in Iraq. I think Syria is—I think if Syria ever fell apart, I think we would be—I think it would make Iraq look pretty pleasant. In terms of these, like, ethnic and sectarian affiliations, I think it’s very pronounced and it’s been—it’s been held under the surface for quite a while.
So I do think these questions of identity are becoming very important. I think not only how we define ourselves—for instance, as Arabs—but then how we choose the government or the system that’ll best rule us and will best reflect those identities. One example would be Saudi Arabia, that you probably wouldn’t see any kind of political change in Saudi Arabia unless it was at least cloaked in the language of religion.
I think in Iraq what I’ve been struck by—and this is something that I learned—that I saw pretty early in 2003 and that I tried to focus on a little bit in the book—was how these primordial affiliations have emerged to such an extent that I think, when we look at politics in Iraq today, sectarian and ethnic affiliation is the sole axis around which politics are evolved. I think it’s very hard to organize politics in any other way, except through sectarian/ethnic affiliation.
I mean, Noah and I were talking about this earlier a little bit, and I think this is especially pronounced when you look at the Sunni Arabs, for instance, that haven’t been forced to organize along communal lines in such a formal way in the past, before the fall of Saddam, but it’s becoming more pronounced, much more, in a pretty dramatic way and in a very messy way, I think. I mean, I think there still is a question around—you know, even when we asked the question, okay, we’re going to organize around sectarian lines, for instance as Sunni Arabs, but how do we define those lines? Is it a notion of religion? Is it a notion of nationalism, Arab or Iraqi nationalism? Is it a notion of community? Often I think it’s stated in the most visceral terms as an existential question: how is this community going to exist in a country that increasingly feels less like their own?
FELDMAN: Let’s speak about, then, the Sunni Arabs and their own—in Iraq and their experiences. Because you speak Arabic, you have had regular access, especially much earlier than almost anyone else did, to people sympathetic to the insurgency and insurgents themselves. And that’s one of the most striking things about the book, I think, the sort of firsthand account of the thinking of people who either became insurgents or were insurgent-oriented, if you will, to begin with. How do you think the insurgents came to see their project as violence not only against the United States, but also against Shi’a civilians? And how do you think the relevant weights of those two things factor in their thinking?
SHADID: It’s a tough question. You know, and I should say that this is—the reporting—and we were just speaking about this earlier, speaking with someone earlier, a half-hour ago, about this very question. And I think that the reporting that we did in 2003 and 2004 is the kind of reporting that’s impossible today. It makes me sad in some ways, you know, as a journalists that I know that the reporting that I put in the Night Draws Near is impossible to do at this point, that the book couldn’t be written today, and I think that’s a shame.
What I did—going back to that time when we really could kind of grasp these forces at work and what was going on, I was struck—and I’ll just relate a couple of anecdotes. I often feel more comfortable talking anecdotally because I don’t have the training of an academic to try to understand these things. But I do remember two instances that told me that we were dealing with something different in June of 2003, just a couple of—let’s see, April, May, June—two months after Saddam’s fall.
This is in a village called Alwalwan (ph), which was near Fallujah. And I was reluctant—you know, these attacks had started happening. We really weren’t sure what was going on. And I was reluctant to try to find insurgents themselves. I thought, you know, it was—almost certainly going to be duped. You know, if a person claims to be an insurgent, he’s probably not an insurgent. So the reporting that I tried to do with that was to find people who had been killed—find insurgents who had been killed and then try to recreate their lives; try to talk to their brothers, their fathers, their relatives, the cleric at the mosque; try to piece together these lives, understand their motivations, and maybe create a portrait that we could better understand what was going on with the insurgency at that point.
Two things that I noticed about that when I was doing this kind of reporting in the summer of 2003.
The first was I spent these few days in Alwalwan (ph) trying to understand why this guy had basically killed himself. I mean, it was kind of a suicide attack. And I remember coming back to Baghdad to write the story and I realized I still didn’t understand why he had carried out this attack. People had said it was for religion, that he saw it as a religious duty to fight was was considered a non-Muslim occupier. Some people said it was nationalist reasons; he had seen these tanks going over the road above his village and he got angry. Other people said he had been paid off by Ba’athist operatives; they had given him a few hundred dollars to fire a rocket-propelled grenade.
I remember getting back to Baghdad and it struck me as that I didn’t know the answer and I didn’t know which one was right. But the story that I tried to write at that point was how the village had perceived this guy. And you know, in death he became much greater than he had been in life, and he had become a martyr. And I think you already saw that kind of mystique growing, especially in those areas of Iraq, about this insurgency and what it was claiming to represent and what it was becoming.
And I want to point out that he was an Iraqi insurgent. I think there are very clear differences at this point between foreigners and Iraqis and where the insurgency’s going.
The second thing that struck me in that reporting in that summer of 2003 was this is where five men had organized an attack near Hadiyah (ph), which is a pretty rough place and pretty much a no-go area at this point. Back then you could still get in there and talk to people and report people. All five of these guys had been killed, probably between 18 and 24, and again I was trying to recreate their lives. I talked to each of their families.
And one—I remember one brother of a guy who had been killed, it was one of the most interesting conversations I had to that point in Iraq, and he was telling me how much—you know, he went on and on how much he hated Saddam, but the Americans should build a statue for Saddam in Washington, that he’d done them a service; that he wasn’t fighting for Saddam, he was fighting for—you know, basically for God and country. And he was definitely emphasizing God much more than country. And I think—I didn’t think at that point, in the summer of 2003, we had a sense of where this was going. And that was my first insight into this is something very different, that we were seeing a synthesis of nationalism and religion.
Again coming back to that question of identity that I mentioned a little bit earlier, when these other ideologies have failed, we’re trying to come up with alternatives that can somehow express a certain kind of group solidarity. I saw that, I guess, in that conversation I was having with that guy that there was very much a religious grounding to this opposition. It was anti-Saddam as much as anti-American. And I think we’ve seen that gather pace.
I think when you’re asking now where we’re seeing it head today in terms of attacks on Shi’ites, I think that current is still there. I think it’s a current that seems a little bit more organic. I think when you talk about the insurgency in western Iraq and parts of the Tigris Valley north of Baghdad, my own gut feeling—again, I hesitate to speak too much authority on this because I’m not certain about this, but my own gut feeling is, it’s what you hear anecdotally, is that that current of the insurgency, while still very powerful and probably the current that would have a role in any future Iraqi political life, is probably losing ground both financially and in terms of members or membership or followers or whatever to a more kind of takfiri, kind of jihadi insurgency that does have a lot of money. And I don’t know where the money comes from, but that does seem, anecdotally, at least, to have a lot more money, and that is—you know, it has a certain kind of nihilism that runs—makes its way through, that, you know, violence in the end is the goal.
FELDMAN: You mentioned these jihadis who—you called them takfiris, the people who declare that others are infidels. I want to ask you about the growth of this kind of jihadism, especially in light of your first book, Legacy of the Prophet, which was one of the first books written before the 9/11 period that really directly addressed the growing trend of democratic language among Islamist groups, to my mind a very influential and important book.
Now one sees, though, the rising movements being left, the, if you will, Islamic democrats that you were writing about in ’97, ’98, ’99, and more towards these extremist jihadis who are more inclined to say, “Well, maybe we should vote in elections, but certainly the other side are heretics and should be killed.”
So how do you see the kind of movement from one group of people to the next?
SHADID: Yeah, that’s a good question. And I was struck—I was a reporter with the Associated Press in 1995 and gone to Cairo. And, you know, again, when I was talking a little bit earlier about what I was trying to understand that was shaping the region, I had been thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and had made the shift—(pause)—
MR. : (Off mike.)
SHADID: Oh, sorry. Okay. I’m sorry, I will.
And I was trying to focus a little bit more on political Islam as, you know, a way to understand this. And I was struck even back in 1997 and 1998 as the role—what I saw as kind of a—you know, I hesitate to use the word “moderating,” but as a certain current within political Islam that was embracing at the very least a democratic language, if not a certain democratic ideal.
What do I mean by that? I think when we look at the brotherhood, Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, dating back to its founding in the 1930s, there’s a sense of the brotherhood being the sole agent of change, that only the brotherhood would effect change in a Muslim society. And what I saw in the late 1990s was a reaction against that, and we saw some brotherhood offshoots that were starting to, you know, speak in the language of pluralism, of coalition building, of foregoing this right to be the sole agent of change. I found it very interesting and I spent a lot of time reporting on it in places like Egypt and Palestine and Turkey and Lebanon and so on.
You know, I’m struck—and then September 11th happened, and I wasn’t sure how that fit in with that notion. And I guess I’m struck, now that I’m starting to report a little bit more in the Arab world, is I still see that current being very powerful, and in fact more powerful in some ways. And I think the brotherhood’s success in elections in Egypt is one manifestation of that. I think Hamas is a very interesting development in Palestine. I think we’re still seeing the evolution of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
So you do have on this one hand, I think, in some ways a maturity of this thing that I saw or at least noticed in the late 1990s, but I think we’re also seeing the kind of antithesis of that, in a way, which is this jihadist kind of current that is gaining traction in a very clear way in Iraq and is starting to spill over in the rest of the region. And I think the bombings in Jordan were one example of that. I think we’re starting to hear more and more about cells emerging in southern Lebanon, a strengthened Jordan. You often hear what’s going on in Syria; you’re never sure what to make of it, whether the government is manipulating this to relieve pressure off of it.
But I do think we’re seeing these twin forces. And I’m not saying that there are only two forces that are going on within political Islam, but I do think we see this kind of, you know, this current of political Islam that embraces democracy as a means, at the very least, and possibly as an end, and we see this more jihadist current that, you know, I think—I hate to say it, it sounds kind of superficial, but sees violence as an end in itself.
FELDMAN: Now, it’s interesting that both of these movements might be seen as spilling over out of Iraq, because in Iraq what you’ve got is both the most virulent of the jihadi movements and, so far, the most successful of the Islamic democratic movements in the form of the political parties. So I wonder if you would say something about the spillover effect of each of these features in Iraq onto, for example, Lebanon, where you’re spending time now. And if you would, offer a view on whether the other spillover effect, the one that the administration is speaking of, is also at work here; whether the democracy movement in Lebanon that you’ve been so close to for the last month is in fact itself in some way a spillover effect of our presence in Iraq.
SHADID: You know, I think I seem to hear—and again, I’m going to say this one more time, that this often is—you know, my analysis here is anecdotal. But I think in reporting in the Arab world, I think I heard more about the more positive spillover from Iraq in 2004, less so in 2005, and I really don’t hear much about it today, to be honest. I think to most people in the region there’s a, you know—and it’s one thing that you would have, I think you would often hear in 2004 was people talking about the central impact of Iraq on political life in the rest of the region, but also a certain celebration of the insurgency in the Arab world. And I think at this point I don’t see either of those that much. What I see most often when you talk to people—I remember having a series of conversations in Damascus a few months ago, and it was revulsion, I think revulsion at the degree of violence, and also a deep, deep-seated anxiety that Iraq is the future for other countries that embrace change too rapidly. You hear it in Lebanon all the time. You hear it in Syria. It’s the refrain in Syria, is that we don’t want to be Iraq.
So that’s, I think, what you’re hearing in the region, at least, at this point. Now, does that mean it’s not going to have (positive ?) effects? It could. I don’t know in the end how it is. I think maybe people can look at it very differently in 10 or 15 years. But at least when you have conversations right now, I think that’s the way the conversations are going.
And that’s very closely associated with this idea of the other force that you mentioned, this idea of the jihadist currents that are gaining traction in Iraq. And I think that fear, that anxiety, I think it’s related. In many ways they’re very related to each other. And people fear it’s much like—there’s the example of Iraq that people fear this idea of disintegration. And like I said, you hear it most pronounced, I think, in Syria. They also, I think, fear the spillover.
You know, it does come up in conversations, the idea that what happened what in Afghanistan was on a smaller scale than what’s happening in Iraq today. And I think, you know, I think people are aware of this idea that the repercussions of these conflicts often take years to play out. I mean, you know, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led indirectly to the formation of Hezbollah seven years later. The Gulf War could be, you know, blamed for giving rise in some fashion or another to the ascent of bin Laden. And I don’t think we’ve seen the impact of what this war is going to lead to, but I think there’s a lot of fear out there and a lot of anxiety of what, in fact, it will shape up to be.
FELDMAN: I wonder if you’d say something about the craft of shaping a journalistic narrative that you know will be read by people not just for the human interest side, but because people are interested in what American policy should be for the region.
SHADID: You know, I struggled with that. There was a lot of debate, I think, among the journalists before the invasion began whether to stay in Baghdad or not. And I chose to stay in Baghdad during the invasion. And once I made that decision, I was trying to figure out how to report the story. You know, we knew that the government’s statements were going to be pretty meaningless, that they weren’t going to tell you all that much. And you know, there are only so many days that you can write about the bombing and we lose—there’s a certain set vocabulary to describe bombing. So you know, we were trying to figure out something else. And I think there was a notion at the time during the invasion that anything Iraqis said, as long as Saddam was still in power, wouldn’t be all that meaningful; in other words, they wouldn’t be able to speak truthfully, and so why write about it in the first place?
And I guess I was struck, even in that couple days after the invasion began, that something had seemed to have broken, and people were saying things that I hadn’t expected. People had often said things I hadn’t expected, even before the war, but especially during the invasion people were saying things that I hadn’t expected, and they were kind of revelatory, in a way.
And I remember in our conversations with Phil Bennett, who was the foreign editor at the time, you know, we sort of—we had this idea that popular sentiments were going to be more important than we had possibly thought, and that popular sentiments could maybe reveal something about the bigger forces at work or the bigger story, in other words. And it was really kind of—so it was kind of haphazard. It was kind of, by default, I just fell into this idea of reporting, and I enjoyed it very much, and I felt like I was doing something that other people might not have been doing to the same degree.
And after the invasion ended, I tried to stay with these families and individuals throughout. And in the end, looking back on the coverage and, you know, the stories I thought were the most meaningful were the stories that I could bring in a certain perspective or a certain history to what people had said; what they said at the beginning, what they said later.
And I think there’s a lot—you know, I speak as a journalist, I speak as an Arab-American, I speak as an American here, and I think there’s a lot of—there’s a lot of stuff out there that clouds our vision of what’s going on in the Middle East. And as a reporter who—you know, in the end, as a reporter, as a journalist, as writer, you want to communicate. And I found it easiest to communicate when you talk about universal notions of humanity; of what—you know, without getting too mushy here, what binds us together as people. And I think those are the things that are most recognizable, most familiar. You know, a mother who sends her son off to fight; you know, a father who is trying to care for his children; these things that we can all relate to. You know, when I start opening stories, I tried to put them in the most kind of universal notions, and you know, I failed a lot, but sometimes it might have worked out okay.
FELDMAN: You’re describing in the book tremendous apprehension on the part of people you’re talking about. I mean, in some way, that’s one of the things at least that the title is hinting at, I take it. And I was struck in your comments recently on what you’re hearing in Syria or in Lebanon, that there might be a touch of similar trepidation in people’s minds, and I’m wondering what you think about that. I mean, I don’t mean to exaggerate it. Obviously, they’re not living in a situation where their government has been completely toppled. But there has been increasing instability in Lebanon, some degree of instability in Syria, all of it, to one degree or another, related to our interventions in the region. I’m wondering if you see those countries as proto-Iraq, with respect at least to the insecurity that people are feeling.
SHADID: You know, these questions—again, coming back to this idea of identity, these questions of identity are unresolved. They’re fundamentally unresolved in places like Lebanon and Syria. And I think it’s hard to overstate the importance of that.
It’s amazing to me that Lebanon, after this—you know, there was this very kind of moving movement, this—that was—some people called the—I forgot what they called it—the Cedar Revolution—there was this—and there was a—there was a sense of, you know, a lot of hope, actually, in Lebanon, especially among the young, of what this was going to lead to.
I think we saw within months that it’s politics as usual, and it’s kind of the more almost feudal, like—kind of leaders, the ones, the leaders—same leaders that fought the civil war pretty reclaimed the country afterwards. And I think it’s led to a lot of disillusionment, to the point today that I think when you speak to Lebanon—someone may disagree with me here, but I’m struck by—almost every conversation I have in Lebanon today, people are pessimistic, very pessimistic. And they’re scared, and they’re worried, and they don’t know where this is all headed.
And I think in Syria it’s even deeper felt, because I think the prospect of more deep-seated change is more possible in Syria at this point. I think people feel it more possible. Maybe I should put it that way.
You know, it comes back to this question that I’m always struck by, I guess, as a reporter. In Iraq it’s that these things are often talked about in very kind of lofty terms. I mean, we’re talking about democracy and freedom and liberation and these types things. But you know, when you get to the ground, they become meaningless in some ways.
And I don’t want to say these people—I don’t want to say that Syrians or Lebanese don’t want to live in a free, democratic society. They very much do.
But I think, you know, there is a certain—there are certain questions of survival, certain existential questions that are asked as much, especially in a country, like Lebanon, that—you know, the civil war wasn’t that long ago. And while, you know, most Lebanese deal with the civil war through a certain amnesia—they don’t—people don’t talk about it—the shadow of it still is very much there. And I think Syrians know very well the degree of sectarian and ethnic tension that lurks beneath the surface.
I mean, when I was there just in September—(inaudible)—no, no, October—you know, there was reports—and pretty wide—I mean, friends of mine that are Alawite, you know, trying to get their visas, people going back to their villages—I mean, people are very much prepared for, you know—and maybe less so at this point. That was a very kind of—kind of phenomena—
SHADID:—and may be less so now. But there was very much a sense of that in October.
FELDMAN: With your permission, Anthony, we’ll open the floor for questions. Please give us your names. And if you would stand, the microphone will come to you. Thank you very much.
Yes, please. Just over here, sir.
QUESTIONER: Hi. My name’s Colin Kahl. I’m a council fellow at the Department of Defense. I have a question about the sectarian divide and how that plays out about debates as it relates to U.S. withdrawal.
As you know, one of the main arguments that proponents of withdrawal make is that it’ll take the steam out of the insurgency. But one of the best counterarguments, at least to my mind, is that the Sunni insurgents hate the Shi’a at least as much as they hate us, and when we leave, they’ll still hate the government. And with militias taking an increasingly prominent role, perhaps, in that government, us leaving prematurely won’t take the steam out of the insurgency. It’ll just turn the insurgency into a two-sided civil war. What is your take on that?
SHADID: You know, I hesitate to make predictions, because my predictions are almost always wrong. So I won’t go too far with it.
But you know, nine months ago, if you’d asked me that question, I actually would have leaned toward the first prospect you put out there, that if there was any hope—and not that it was likely, but if there was any hope of national reconciliation, you’d have to remove the provocation of the military presence there to try to incorporate Sunni Arab voices into that dialogue.
At this point, I don’t feel that way. I feel that it would probably worsen the situation. To what degree, I don’t know.
And you know, when we talk about this question of civil war, I mean, my sense of it has been that the civil war has been under way for quite while now—I mean, you know, probably 2004, even. And what we’re seeing now is not necessarily a turning point but only a kind of a greater degree of violence and polarization, but that it took its shape pretty much as early as mid-2004.
So you know, would it be dramatically different if the military withdrew? I don’t know. I think it would be worse, and I don’t think—I don’t see at this point how—I don’t see the framework in which you’re going to see—have a national reconciliation that’s going to be somewhat meaningful. I hate to be gloomy about it, but this is kind of my gut sense.
QUESTIONER: Chris Isham from ABC. You talked a little bit about the expansion of jihadism. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that it’s going the other way. There’s been the reaction by the Sunni tribal leaders against Zarqawi. The Amman bombings, which you mentioned, backfired on Zarqawi. Where do you see that fitting in?
And also, where do you see the whole jihadi movement at this point in that part of the world? I mean, do you think that perhaps the bloom is off the rose a bit?
SHADID: Yeah, I think that’s very true. And we were seeing that as early—I’m trying to remember when we were sort of writing about it. In the fall of 2005, I think.
There’s no question there are deep divisions within—between this more kind of traditional notion of insurgency that I talked about a lit bit earlier, these guys I’d met out in the Euphrates in the summer of 2003, and in the more kind of jihadi foreign influence—but still, many of them are Iraqi—the type you’re talking about.
I don’t—I think those divisions are there. I think they’re probably becoming deeper, in some ways. I remember doing a profile on an Iraqi Arab fighter in Fallujah who—all he could talk about was how much he hated the foreign fighters. And again, this is an anecdotal story about it, but it was an obsession in some ways, and they blamed the foreigners for what happened to them and this type of thing.
I don’t see it going away, though, and it’s hard to say whether it’s in the ascent or the, you know, decline. I just—I don’t know the answer to that. But I don’t—I guess my gut feeling is, we haven’t seen its repercussions yet on the rest of the region. I think we’re seeing its repercussions on Iraq, very clearly. I mean, it has brought—it has been—if you use their terms of judgment, it has been very successful, in a way.
I don’t think we’ve seen the fallout in the rest of the region, but I think the region is, at a certain level, bracing for it, I think Lebanon and Syria in particular. Jordan also is bracing for what’s next and what might come out of this.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike)—National Democratic Institute. For those of us who are working on trying to build civil society and institutions of reform, are the reformists going more underground, or are they fairly visible? And if so, are they being targeted in any way notable?
FELDMAN: (Off mike)—going underground? Are they visible? Are they being targeted?
SHADID: You know, I don’t know the answer to that question, to be honest. I’m trying to think of like—of just, again, conversations that I’ve had that might shed light on that, and I just don’t know the answer. You know, I would be speaking out of turn if I tried to answer that.
You know, one thing I will kind of just say, as a peripheral notion—and not that the reformers are tied to the experience going on in the Green Zone necessarily, but I think that divorce—it’s something that people have written about and I think people made an observation, rightfully so, of that divorce between the political process afoot in the Green Zone and then the situation in the rest of the country. I just feel it becomes more and more pronounced as time goes on.
And I don’t what impact that has on reform or the stuff you’re talking about. But I think it is something, you know, to keep an eye on, though.
I think for very long in the future we’re going to see the facade, at least, of an Iraqi state. We’re going to see a parliament. We’ll see a presidency. We’re going to—you know, and so on.
I do wonder what we’re going to see in the rest of the country. And I think, you know, even when you go down to southern Iraq—and I was there in the fall—it’s hard to overstate the influence of the militias on determining what kind of life is taking shape in those places.
FELDMAN: You don’t think that the election had any effect on at least drawing from the relationship between the Green Zone politicians and the person on the street?
SHADID: I think January did, January 2005. I thought it was pretty remarkable, and I think that lasted.
You know, I’ve always been struck by these turning points, these very inspiring moments, sometimes, and the kind of—the enthusiasm, popular enthusiasm that follows them. I think we saw it, of course, with the fall of Saddam. We saw it with the appointment of the Governing Council. We saw it with the end of the formal occupation. And I think we saw it in most pronounced terms in January 2005, with the election. And it lasted for a couple of months, and then, you know, it seems to always—(audio break)—back the other way.
I felt, with the referendum on the constitution—I was there for the referendum on the constitution. I wasn’t there for the election in December, so I won’t speak about the election in December.
The referendum I felt a lot more cynicism than I felt in January of 2005. And it was just—you know, it was a handful of conversations—I don’t want to say it’s necessarily representative—but I think frustration, you know, with the lack of progress that had happened over those nine months. And then, I think, when you talk to Sunni Arabs who were taking part in this election to a degree they hadn’t taken part in January, my sense is that they were voting for, you know—they were voting to save the country. And I mean that in a visceral way. They were like—when you’d talk to them in a place like Adhamiya, it was like—
FELDMAN: Voting no on the constitution in order to save the country.
SHADID: Yeah. Exactly.
FELDMAN: And unsuccessfully.
SHADID: Exactly. This existential notion of what—and I’m not saying they’re right or wrong. I’m just saying this is like the kind of—it was a very visceral kind of reaction to what was going on in October.
QUESTIONER: Anne Nelson, Columbia University. We’ve seen a period where Wahhabi missionaries and income flows from Wahhabi charities have had an influence in the region. I’m curious about whether you’ve seen any change in that status.
SHADID: You know, the best service I can do is to tell you when I don’t know. (Chuckles.) And I’m not sure about the answer to that question.
There’s a lot of money coming in to these—and you hear this anecdotally. And I just remember when I was up in Kirkuk last summer, and we were trying to get into a village near Kirkuk—and I forget—Hawija? I can’t remember the name of it now.
FELDMAN: There’s a village called—
SHADID: I think it was Hawija, and it was pretty—it’s a pretty rough place, if I remember right.
And all we—we just kept hearing about how much money was coming into these—(inaudible)—types, the jihadi types. And it’s anecdotal. I mean, we don’t know where it was coming from—we really didn’t hear—just that they had the money. And they had a lot of money, and they were—there was a certain—they had a certain success in recruitment because of that. You know, I don’t know what that says beyond it.
But you know, money’s definitely being spread all over the place. And it’s being spread all over the place in Basra as well and in the south. I mean, I think it’s pretty remarkable.
FELDMAN: Do you see any overt examples of Sunni Salafism or fundamentalism in Lebanon while you were there?
SHADID: Oh, yeah. And I think, you know, that’s one thing that I’m really struck by in Lebanon, is I think—is people who watch Lebanon want to keep an eye on Tripoli and Sidon, at this point, and what’s going on there. I think it’s—I don’t think we have a real handle on some of the organizing and activism that’s happening in places, among Sunnis in Sidon and Tripoli.
I hate to get into Lebanese politics because it gets so confusing. I don’t know how people follow it here. But you know, there’s a sense that the Musebah (sp) movement, that Hariri’s movement is kind of—can speak on behalf of the Sunni community in Lebanon, and I think that’s dramatically overstated. I think they lost control of the protests. That happened with the burning of the Danish embassy. I don’t think it was a Syrian-inspired move. I think that the Hariri people lost control of it. They were trying to make a statement, and it backfired.
I think it’s—when you look back, if we see trouble in Lebanon, if we see a lot of—see a certain turn within the Sunni community in the years ahead, I think we’re going to look at that protest as a turning point, when we started seeing that there were other pulls of leadership within that community that were starting to exert more and more power.
You go to Tripoli today, and it’s a very different city than it was. I mean, it’s always been a conservative city, but I think it’s pretty remarkable what—because I’ve spent an afternoon with the sheikh up there. There’s a lot going on up there.
QUESTIONER: Peter Osnos of Public Affairs Books. Try to step back for a second, Tony, and make yourself your own foreign editor and help us out. Given the difficulties of reporting in Iraq and given the way our own government has an argument to make about what’s happening there, how do you create a news package that’s going to make sense to people like us, who really need to understand what’s happening there? What would you be doing right now if you were sitting there at the middle of the foreign desk at The Washington Post and trying to shape a news report every day that would give us enough so that we can make, you know, intelligent judgments about the situation in the country?
SHADID: Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s a good question. (Chuckling.) I would never take that job, first of all.
I think—you know, I think the first thing we’d have to acknowledge is that we can’t do—we can’t speak with authority with our coverage. I mean, I think, just at this point, it’s just too dangerous, too difficult to get to a lot of places; that what we could do in 2003 and 2004 is not what we could do today.
I guess if we started from that point and then worked backwards—what I found most effective and I what found newspapers do best is when they identify very clearly what they’re going to try to go after and then are methodical in the pursuit of that.
For instance, I’m just thinking about my own relationship with my editor in 2003. In each three months, we would say, “Okay, we’re going to focus on the insurgency right now,” or “We’re going to focus on the Shi’ite revival,” or “We’re going to”—and every story would pretty much be going toward illuminating that.
That’s the way I would start it, is—all right, let’s try to pick up the three or four forces that we think are shaping Iraq, and let’s—you know, let’s try to understand those. Let’s focus on those. Let’s move away from some of the other stuff that’s going on in the country, just because we know we can’t cover it, and let’s see if we can at least illuminate this part of the picture, in hopes of getting a better sense of what’s going on elsewhere.
I think there’s also got to be—and I think it’s the same thing that reporters saw when they were covering Yugoslavia—and that’s a certain burnout on the part of readers. The readers get weary of the violence. Then we start kind of falling back on these wrongful notions of like age-old hatreds, and of course they’re going to kill each other. I think, as journalists, we have to keep that in mind that we have to resist that and find ways to cover this violence that remains meaningful. And I don’t know the answer to that.
But I think, you know, a body count in the lead every day just—I don’t even read the stories. And you know, I follow this stuff, and I think it’s a task for reporters to find out ways to cover it in a different way, a more meaningful way. And again, I’m not sure of the answer to it.
QUESTIONER: Jim Hoge from the Council. You said that the civil war has really been under way for about a year or so. I heard the same thing this morning from a top diplomat just back from the region, and was mystified at General Pace this weekend saying there is no civil war as of now.
My question is, if a civil war has been going on for at least a year, is it primarily among the fanatics and the leaders of these various sections? Or has it really begun to get down to average Iraqis? And if so, is there anything we can do about it if we stay on the course we are or if we change course?
SHADID: You know, I’ll tell you, Jim, that’s a good question because I—you know, what I’m struck—civil war is such a—it’s such a tough notion to define. I think it is—and I probably throw it around too casually—I think it—you know, it’s in some ways inflammatory. I mean, it usually—it’s a phrase that’s often used to scare people.
I guess civil war is—what I mean is like in the civil conflict and the degree of civil conflict that has been going on since 2004. But I’m struck by—I guess I’m struck by—that the—this is a war that’s being less—or a conflict that’s being fought less between communities and more within the communities themselves. And I think we—you mentioned this earlier, this idea of this backlash against the jihadist fighters that’s going on within the Sunni Arab community. It’s very pronounced. There’s quite a bit of fighting going on there. Again, we can’t cover it very effectively, but it is going on the West.
I think within the Shi’ite community we’re seeing a very pitched battle for supremacy among the Shi’ites, between the Sadr and between Mahdi Army, between the Hakim people; that it’s very unresolved. I think I was there was one day when they went at it for about 12 hours, and you could just get a sense of how devastating this could be if it went any further and they didn’t. Sadr pulled his people back. He wanted to make his point. He did very skillfully, and then, he pulled his people back. But you did get a sense of where this could head, and I think that’s another unresolved conflict.
Reporting on the Kurds is definitely my weak point, and so people here, I’m sure, have a lot better sense of what’s going on with the Kurds. And my understanding is there would be tensions between the KDP and PUK that remain unresolved.
So I guess I’m—that’s what I’m struck is what’s going on within these communities as they struggle for a certain supremacy. And these are very important battles because, you know, as I tried to say in the beginning of the talk, if politics are solely around these axes of sect and ethnicity, the supremacy within those communities then becomes paramount, and it becomes the way you determine what other shape the country would take.
FELDMAN: Just to follow up on that, by the same token, isn’t it the case that, if, for example, within the Shi’a community you’re getting these struggles for supremacy, as you described them, taking place politically, like the fight over prime minister position, which has been back and forth, back and forth between Ja’afari supported by the (Sadris ?) and (al-abumadi ?) supported by—so that’s an example of not so much winner-take-all politics as sort of real politics—electoral politics with an electoral dimension. But the killing is still going, but that’s for—the killing is between communities—(inaudible)—the last week or so.
SHADID: Well, you’re not—but, see, again, I think that’s right, but then this is where we come back to this point when you see this divorce between a political process that’s felt within a Green Zone, and you see what’s happening in the rest of the country. So then, when you go down to Mansuriyah or you go down Basra and you know—you know, and Basra when I was there was the scariest place I’d been in Iraq at that point. This is six months ago.
But Hakim and Sadr were hell-bent on claiming as much of the police force as they could to carry out their agendas, and you just—you know, I mean, you felt you might get shot in the head and no one would care. I mean, it was really—it was a pretty scary time to be there—pretty scary place to be.
So I think this is—you’re seeing this—and I think Sadr is a great—I’m always fascinated by him, and I’ve been fascinated by Sadr since the beginning. You know, it is at heart a street movement. That’s what it is, it’s a street movement, and you know, it has certain—kind of fascistic, I think, colors to it. I think it also has some very populist—very effective populist tools for organizing. It engages in the—in the process going in the Green Zone very effectively in some ways. But in the end, it defines itself in the street. And I don’t know what that says or where that goes, but, you know, it sees itself as the—as representing the community, and it’s going to try to achieve that in any way it can.
QUESTIONER: I’m Eugene Staples. Could say a bit about the relationship between the Shi’a community and Iraq and the Iranian Shi’as? Has that been changing as part of—
MR. : (Off mike)—topic?
QUESTIONER: I ask about the—if he would say just a word about the—any changes that he sees in the Shi’as in Iraq and the Shi’as in Iran. And is that relationship changing?
SHADID: You know, I think it’s always been kind of—there’s been a certain kind of—(inaudible)—relationship there going on between Iraq and Iran. I think—you know, Hakim, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, one of the key Shi’ite political parties, it’s had a very formal relationship, I think, with Iran. I mean, you know, it was founded in Tehran, I think, in `84, `82. I forget the exact date—early `80s. And I think, you know, Iran has continued to exert quite a bit of influence through that.
I’ve always been struck, like, when I look at those two forces going on within the Shi’ite community. I look at the Sadr people and the Hakim people and the Supreme Council people, and I’m struck by how much, you know, just the rhetoric at least. The Supreme Council, it’s very much kind of sectarian language, and it’s very much an identification first and foremost as being Shi’ite. And I think that allows for, you know, just in rhetorical terms has a very close relationship with Iran.
The Sadr guys have been much less so. I mean, they’ve—their language at least is more of a kind of an—it’s very much sectarian in some ways, but it’s also—so there’s a certain Iraqi nationalist-Arab nationalist kind of discourse that goes on there as well. I don’t want to overstate it, but it is the way they kind of distinguish themselves. You know, is a certain kind of anti-Iranian, sometimes chauvinism, that they go on and on about. And I’ll never forget sitting with some of the Sadr guys in Najaf just ridiculing Sistani because of his accent in Arabic and ridiculing him in a really deep kind resentment of him.
So I think you can have these splits within the Shi’ite community, but I think, you know, Iran, you know, Iran’s the big winner I think, in southern Iraq at least. I mean, they, you know, they have influence there. They have influence with Sadr now. They’ve long had influence of Hakim. I think different—you know, some people here know this stuff better than I do—but it seems to me that different arms of Iranian intelligence are playing different roles in the south, playing different actors against each other and for their own interests.
So it’s interesting. I mean, it’s—you know, they have a legitimate national interest, obviously; it’s their neighbor. But I don’t think we’ve seen the full impact of where that influence is going to take that region.
QUESTIONER: Gary Sick, Columbia University. I followed your reporting day by day on the Iraqi side, and you really earned your Pulitzer.
SHADID: Thank you.
QUESTIONER: It was a really great job. You, of course, had a great advantage that you speak Arabic, and most American reporters don’t. Just out of a matter of curiosity I wonder how—whether your Lebanese accent got in the way—I assume you have a Lebanese accent—in terms of dealing with the Iraqis.
But beyond that, now that especially we can’t really cover what’s going on on the ground, what do you think of your opposition, the Arab reporters, who are there speaking the language, dealing with them? What do you think of these people and their coverage and just in terms of your knowledge of the journalists who are involved in the thing.
SHADID: You know, I actually didn’t grow up speaking Arabic, I learned it, so I took an Egyptian accent which mystified people to no end, and they—it was clear and concrete evidence that I was in fact a spy. So—(laughter, laughs)—I remember a story. A friend of mine, a very brave reporter for the Associate Press had walked into a mosque in Sadr City, and they said, “Hamza (ph), we’re sure you’re a spy.” And Hamza (ph) looked at them and said, “Well, I have to earn a living somehow, so.” (Laughter, laughs.)
It got—you know, you’re always—you’re never going to be—you’re always a stranger basically; you’re always a stranger. But you know, you’re less of a stranger than other people might be, and it’s just something you try to alway negotiate. I mean, trust is the kind of cornerstone of, I think, of good interview, and it definitely helps, you know, kind of create that trust and helps you go forward. But I think most of these relationships took—it was less language and more time in the sense of most of the reporting or most of the material that went into the book were relationships I tried to build over a year. A young girl shared her diary with me, a 14-year-old girl, and it took—I think it took about a year before I could ask her to look at that diary. But she would let me borrow it, and in the end, it became a big part of the book.
You know, I’m a fan of my Arab colleagues—Arab journalist colleagues. I think they are some of the bravest people I’ve ever come across—unbelievably brave. I saw what they did in Fallujah. I saw what they did in other places, and my hat’s off to them. And of them have been killed—a lot of them been killed in Iraq. I think they go places that we don’t go. I think their reporting on the whole is definitely coming from a different perspective. Their perspective is some of what in the United States might find inflammatory, but I think it’s a perspective that is legitimate in the context that it’s being reported, and I think they do a better job at this point in covering it than we do. So I don’t know.
You know, it’s tough to say, and I think there’s a great competition going on between al Jazeera and (Ladabia ?). I think it’s healthy in some ways. I think al Jazeera forces (Ladabia ?) to report stories that it wouldn’t otherwise, because of the Saudi influence that’s exerted over (Ladabia ?). I think al Jazeera, you know, I don’t—figure out exactly what they want to be, but there’s a lot kind of—(inaudible word)—going on inside there. So I think—it’s actually the next story I want to write about. So I think it’s a very interesting time to be watching where Arab media’s headed.
QUESTIONER: Roland Paul, a lawyer in Greenwich, Connecticut. Just a quick one. Do you have any feel for the order of magnitude or the number of insurgents that have been killed?
SHADID: You know, I don’t. I don’t. The only thing I would say with the numbers is—in terms of numbers killed, I just don’t have a sense of that. One thing I would say about the insurgents is I guess I would caution people to, you know, be careful when they try to make sense of all the stuff that’s going on with the insurgency of paying too much attention to the foreign fighters. I’m not sure why that’s been—it’s been exaggerated, I think. And I’m not sure why. But I think even when you talk to the military inside Baghdad, they’ll make that point, that the numbers aren’t altogether great. Just as something to just kind of point out.
QUESTIONER: My question concerns the Iraqi economy. You have left implicit what we all read, that the economy is in the pits. What’s the interaction between bad economic news at the moment—no prospects for jobs, no prospects for investment—and what’s going on politically?
SHADID: Well, I think it’s the fundamental—you know, when I was talking about this difference you felt and how people were responding between the January 2005 election and what I was hearing during the referendum and the run-up to the December vote, that was—I mean, that was what it was all about, economic frustration in a lot of ways that material conditions had not improved. They may have improved at some level, on some indicators, but in terms of changing peoples’ lives or making it better, I mean, electricity was—I think last summer was worse than it had ever been, if I remember, at least in Baghdad, hours-wise. And there may be some statistics that counter that out there.
And I think when you want to see how the political movements deal with that, when you looked at the campaigning that was going on for the December election, it was really mainly about material conditions. I mean, it was all about electricity and water and changing—making things better, improving things. You know, I’ll never forget the slogan in Sadr City, which was, “We don’t want elections, we want electricity.” And they very much made a point of that. There was this one Friday prayer when I went there that every banner out there was about elections and oil—electricity and oil and sewage. I think it probably is the biggest issue in terms of trying to mobilize—I mean, the politicians are responding to it because they know the degree in which it’s felt among the populace.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
SHADID: I’m trying to think, when it’s come up in conversations. You don’t hear—in the beginning it was that the United States should have done this, I mean, especially in 2003 and 2004. I don’t hear—you know, it was an amazing—I’ll tell you—I’m going to go off on a tangent here real quick. But ending the formal occupation in 2004 was a remarkable move in a lot of ways. I mean, it really did shift.
And I noticed this right when I got back after writing Night Draws Near and got back to Iraq. It was amazing to me how it shifted sentiments away, frustration and anger, not completely, but that there was a shift in sentiments away from the United States after that kind of end of the formal occupation, a very tangible shift away that struck me. And I think I’m not sure what it means or, you know, the impact of that, but I did notice it and I thought it was kind of remarkable.
And I don’t think you hear that it’s the United States obligation at this point to make it better. I think it’s just a certain cynicism at this point over it, maybe not knowing who’s going to make it better or how it’s made better, this frustration and cynicism that it’s not better, who’s stealing the oil. You know, corruption is a huge issue. People talk about corruption constantly. You know, who’s making money. I think that’s the way I guess I hear it expressed most often.
QUESTIONER: Roman (ph) Martinez. I was a junior diplomat in the CPA, and one of the things that we always struggled with was the theme that you’ve talked about, the disconnect between the Green Zone politics and what’s going on in the rest of the country. It strikes me that, listening to you today, that your general take is that the stakes are very low in terms of those Green Zone politics. But the Iraqi people, in terms of their turnout in the various elections, seem to think there’s at least some reason to go out and vote. And certainly the politicians are fighting away as if it were important. Everyone’s going down to Najaf. Sistani seems to have some interest.
So I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about why, if it really doesn’t matter who’s in charge, why is everyone still so actively engaged, why are the—you know, the little polling that we have suggests that people like Ja’afari, who haven’t really delivered, are still doing very well in terms of public opinion. And is there—does it matter at all? Will the difference between, you know SCIRI and Ja’afari make—is there any potential for that to make a difference? And if it’s someone else, you know, is there any hope that the national politics can somehow reconnect to the rest of the country and make a difference?
SHADID: That’s a good question. And I hope I didn’t misstate what I was trying to say. I didn’t really say it doesn’t matter. I was saying that there’s a disconnect between what’s happening in the Green Zone and what’s happening in the rest of the country. I think people do watch this and they do care about it, and I think the numbers voting in the elections is something to note, very much so. I think it was followed by a period of frustration and dismay, but I think there’s no question that there was engagement at a popular level in these elections. Was it a belief in the process or was it a more existential reaction? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what the answer to that is.
I guess I’m struck by—when I was trying to make that distinction between the two of those is the lack of influence on what I see going on in the Green Zone and what I see going on in the rest of the country. Now, is it possible to tie those things closer together? It might be. I don’t see that happening right now. I see other forces at play that are having a much greater role in the country. I think militias are first and foremost. Now, granted they’re being led by people who have taken part in this Green Zone political process, but it’s hard for me to say—you know, it’s hard for me to see these leaders making a choice that they’re going to surrender the power that they command in the streets in order to make a political process work inside the Green Zone and Baghdad. I guess that’s my fundamental question when I try to understand how to link those two things.
FELDMAN: Yes, in the back?
QUESTIONER: (First name inaudible)—Grazinski (ph). Are you agree with Professor Juzinski’s (ph) estimation that this war has produced about 20,000 terrorists per year? And a few weeks ago, PBS.org broadcasted tape where there was some pictures; if you stay on the street and 10 minutes you talk in English, people are very nervous, and after 20 minutes, somebody starting shooting in neighborhood. If you did some type of mathematical model, it looks like insurgents in Iraq have a very big direct support, and this is about a million people or something. What do you think about this estimation of Professor Juzinski (ph) and British Institute from a year ago. And he was in Iraq one and a half year.
SHADID: You know, in terms of numbers, I don’t know. I just don’t have enough—I’m just not in a position to say what the numbers might be. I think it breaks down—when you look at, like, support for the insurgency, there’s hardly any support for the insurgency among Shi’ite Arabs. I mean, unless you kind of look at some of the support for Sadr and Sadr’s kind of—I mean, he always kind of tries to protect that flank of being on good terms with the Sunni insurgents, but it’s an issue for the Sadr movement. So there’s a little bit of a kind of overlap there.
You know, among Sunni Arabs, I think what you hear most often is this distinction between honorable resistance and dishonorable resistance. I mean, it’s—(inaudible)—the words they use in Arabic. And you know, honorable resistance is—to be blunt, is fighting the Americans. You know, the dishonorable resistance is killing civilians. And I think you hear that distinction made really quite often among Sunni Arabs. You know, that’s what you hear in Baghdad today. I don’t know if you hear it out in the West. I think this issue of foreign fighters and Iraqi fighters is probably a bigger issue out there and is probably coloring sentiments in a certain way. But I don’t know what that is.
FELDMAN: Anthony, thank you tremendously for spending the evening with us.
SHADID: Absolutely. My pleasure. (Applause.)
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