In Iraq, tragedy followed by tragedy

The Argument

Writer documents ugly truths before and aftr U.S. invasion

September 19, 2004|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN STAFF

Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a sinister, closed, stifling place. Reporters who went there usually saw only the slivers of it that the government undraped at times and places of its choosing. The reporters were supposed to work in the company of the low-level functionaries known as "minders, " who were assigned by the Orwellian-by-way of-Beckett bureaucracy known as the Ministry of Information. At its upper levels, the ministry served as a sort of way station for intelligence officials - members of the Mukhabarat. Their responsibilities and abilities were always difficult to discern. Some ministry officials, as seems clear in hindsight, were frightened by the inherent risk of being in close contact with foreigners. Others were merely incompetent, and some were unmistakably venal. The minders, at the bottom of the pyramid, were supposed to be with "their" reporters as much as possible and monitor every encounter.

So reporters, good reporters, could travel to Baghdad a half-dozen times, for stays of a week or two at a time, but never really know the city. Certainly not its inhabitants. The reporters relied on drivers who, vetted to some degree by the Mukhabarat, refused to risk their livelihood, or more, by taking their passengers to forbidden places. Taxis hailed on the street would refuse, again for good reason, even to slow down when driving by Hussein's palaces. The city kept its secrets. In The Fall of Baghdad (Penguin Press. 380 pages. $24.95), an important, keenly observed chronicle of the last days of Hussein's Iraq and the beginning of the American presence, Jon Lee Anderson writes of the "eloquently deadly pall of silence," a terrible quiet "that could only come from an extraordinary degree of fear."

The book faithfully presents his narrow field of vision, his claustrophobia, lit by exploding ordnance. Best known for his dispatches for the New Yorker, Anderson rarely raises his voice, does not portray himself as brave though he is. He ventures street by street, encounter by unplanned encounter to create a large, disquieting panorama of a ruined society. The book is wholly without bombast. It is a quiet, well-documented, well-drawn portrait of tragedy, followed by more tragedy.

The first tragedy, of course, was Hussein, and the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction at the time of his fall does not alter his rich record of murderousness. Some of his largest crimes remain little known to Americans. On a trip to Iran, Anderson met with Iraqi refugees expelled by Hussein 20 years earlier, during the Iran-Iraq war, on the trumped up grounds that either their Shia faith or their Iranian ancestry made their loyalty suspect. The people expelled numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Thousands more were executed, and others died during the forced border crossing. During the Iran-Iraq war, the United States had backed Hussein. The refugees never attracted much attention in Washington.

The Fall of Baghdad occasionally ventures further back in Iraq's history. Early on in his travels, Anderson learned the story of Col. Gerard Leachman, a British military intelligence officer shot to death in 1920 during Iraq's revolt against the British. The British had fancied themselves as liberators after defeating the Ottomans with great effort, but the population quickly viewed the newcomers as occupiers. Touring the Triumph Leader Museum, one of Hussein's grandiose monuments to himself, Anderson saw gifts the Iraqi president had received from admirers and foreign heads of state. The heads of state included President Reagan (decorative riding spurs) and French President Jacques Chirac (ceremonial swords). Also on display was the flintlock used to kill Leachman. The British colonel is used as a ghost who shadows outsiders vain enough to believe themselves invincible, or wholly good.

Anderson explores Hussein's Baghdad and then the Baghdad of the American military beyond the range of any minder. Dr. Ala Bashir, a plastic surgeon and an enthusiastic sculptor who was a confidant of Hussein, a person with genuine insight into the president but little into his own morality, becomes one of his best guides to cravenness and self-deception. Bashir recognized Hussein's hunger for adulation, without recognizing his own hunger for recognition from Hussein. Bashir's hospital, al Wasati, becomes another grimly familiar character. There are driver-confidants, Baath party members, as well as other journalists who remained in Baghdad during the war.

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