In an incisive and eloquent new book, the Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid tells the story of a man named Sabah who is accused of being a US informer in the town of Thuluyah. Sabah is blamed by villagers for the deaths of a teenager and two men in an American raid, and his case becomes a matter of tribal justice: Relatives of the dead men make it clear to Sabah's relatives that "either they kill Sabah, or villagers would murder the rest of his family."
According to Shadid, Sabah's father and brother, carrying AK-47s, take him out to their backyard orchard and take aim and fire.
"Even the prophet Abraham didn't have to kill his son," the father later tells Shadid, sadly adding that in his case "there was no other choice."
Sabah's story is only one of many tragic stories to be found in Night Draws Near, a book that gives a harrowing portrait of life in postwar Iraq and the fallout that the American war has had on ordinary Iraqi civilians, from a 14-year-old girl coping with the bombing of Baghdad to a 62-year-old academic and former Baath Party member to the reporter's own "fixer" and government minder, Nasir Mehdawi, who would later became a colleague and friend.
The volume draws heavily upon Shadid's reporting for the Washington Post. (His dispatches from Iraq won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.) It leaves the reader with a devastating sense of the gap between the war's aims and its aftermath and the gap between the administration's rhetoric and the realities on the ground. Though much of the factual material in the book will be familiar to dedicated newspaper readers, Shadid does a fluent job of pulling all this information into a riveting narrative that is animated by his up-close and personal portraits of individual Iraqis.
At the same time, Night Draws Near, much like Larry Diamond's book Squandered Victory, which appeared this summer, also provides a damning account of the Bush administration's failure to prepare adequately for the postwar occupation of Iraq and its missteps and miscalculations after toppling former president Saddam Hussein.
"There was never really a plan for post-Saddam Iraq," Shadid writes. "There was never a realistic view of what might ensue after the fall. There was hope that became faith, and delusions that became fatal."
Trusting Iraqi exiles like Ahmad Chalabi and believing "their own rhetoric of liberation," he argues, US officials naively assumed that "everything would fall into place after Saddam's departure."
As a result too few troops were committed to secure the victory, and looting, score-settling and lawlessness followed. Even months after the collapse of Saddam's regime, many Iraqis were still lacking basic services like electricity and water; unemployment and food prices had soared, and daily life for many had turned into a minefield.
The political consequences of the continuing violence would be severe, as Shadid's sources attest. Even many of those Iraqis who were joyous at Saddam's fall and who were prepared to think the best of the Americans began to question the failure of the US, the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, to establish order.
As Shadid puts it, "Saddam had ruled for 35 years, the Americans had toppled him in less than three weeks, and relatively few of their soldiers and died in the task. How could these same Americans be so feeble in the aftermath?"