Before the Bombs

A war correspondent correctly predicts the fallout to our 'success' in Iraq.

Since our president brags about not reading newspapers (meaning The New York Times' devastating recent aluminum tubes/intelligence scandal story will, of course, leave him unperturbed and ever more resolute), you can bet he also doesn't bother with The New Yorker. In those pages, veteran American journalist Jon Lee Anderson has been reporting a lot more things that Dubya doesn't want to hear. His dispatches from before, during, and after the war are collected in The Fall of Baghdad (Penguin Press, $24.95), a bleak, specific, and essential account of Baghdad's bloody transition from Saddam's dictatorship to Bush's occupation. His sympathies are with that city's residents, and his outrage—though he's far too good a writer to let it boil through his prose—is how they've been "liberated" from one form of suffering only to find themselves mired in another. Experienced from his prior reporting from Taliban-era Afghanistan, Anderson is good at making sources of some unsavory characters. He's obviously drunk plenty of tea beside warlords with AK-47s lying across folded knees. Accordingly, he gives several Baath Party flunkies and officials a prominent voice in The Fall of Baghdad. They're heard, not judged, as they (privately) disparage Saddam, revile the Jews, spin wild conspiracies about 9/11, and beg Anderson for contacts on how they and their families might escape before war comes. We also meet more ordinary citizens—a barber, Anderson's own driver/interpreter, people on the street—bewildered by American intentions and whose primary news sources are rumors and the mosque. (It must be said, however, that these sources can be confusing; a second index would've helped sort the Mohammads from the Mohammeds.) Anderson's sources form a profoundly prophetic chorus. Basically every warning he hears has come back to haunt (and kill) us since the short, easy toppling of Saddam's regime. A sampling of omens: An Iranian says it's best if the U.S. "pays a high price" for occupation, since civil war will only help strengthen Iraq's neighbor (which is, as we now know, nuking up). From a prominent Shia: "Don't get involved in the shifting sands of Iraq . . . if you do anything in Iraq, do it quickly." From a Sunni poet who grew up in Saddam's hometown: "The Islamic fundamentalists will rise up; so will nationalism, and even tribalism." It is, as our former CIA director once declared, a slam-dunk case for not invading Iraq—or at least an outline for what would subsequently go wrong, from which a post-invasion plan might've been extracted by wiser, less ideological minds than those in the White House. Speaking for himself in late 2002, Anderson is also frank about his own pessimism about the lack of American foresight: "It seemed to me that at the very least, the United States had a lot of public relations work to do if they intended to occupy [Iraq] and get away with it." Needless to say, we haven't gotten away with anything. In his follow-up visits to post-war Baghdad, extending to the spring of this year, Anderson finds that things have only gotten worse. "Humiliation" is a constant keyword among those he interviews. Baiting American troops becomes a sport for idle, bored youths. Intellectuals are killed; their children are kidnapped and ransomed; a brain drain pours out of Iraq to neighboring states. Foreign terrorists and fundamentalists rule the streets. Ordinary Iraqis grow to despise the U.S. But, no matter how much Bush and Cheney deny the facts on the ground, we know all of them from newspapers and TV, right? Iraq should be the sole defining campaign issue between Kerry and Bush. So would regime change in Washington, D.C., make a difference in Baghdad? Appearing on The Charlie Rose Show recently, Anderson wasn't encouraging: "Even if John Kerry wins, he's going to have to fall on George Bush's sword." Meaning more troops, more deaths, more Iraqi and Arab-world resentment even as we're attempting to clean up and withdraw. Trying to make things better may only make things worse, if only because those honorable intentions—whether Bush's or Kerry's—will simply take longer than cut-and-run. Time is working against us, and Baghdad is still falling. BRIAN MILLER Jon Lee Anderson will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m., Wed., Oct. 13.

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