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A Foreign Correspondent Reflects On Iraq War

U.S. Army Sgt. Jason Thompson (left) and Lt. Col. Nate Flegler wave to one of the last Stryker armored vehicles to leave Iraq as it crosses the border into Kuwait at the Khabari border crossing.
Maya Alleruzzo
U.S. Army Sgt. Jason Thompson (left) and Lt. Col. Nate Flegler wave to one of the last Stryker armored vehicles to leave Iraq as it crosses the border into Kuwait at the Khabari border crossing.

On August 30, a convoy of combat troops from the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, drove across the Iraq-Kuwait border, marking the official end of combat operations in Iraq.

The troop pullout, however, does not mean the end of a U.S. military presence in Iraq. About 50,000 troops will stay behind until at least December 31 of next year.

Anthony Shadid, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, says he watched the symbolic troop pull out with mixed emotions.


"I found that moment to be somewhat disingenuous," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I think that was a moment that was almost entirely constructed for American public consumption. It was a date that was somewhat artificial and I think it was a determination that's not all that grounded in reality. In some ways I think it was more theatrical than practical ... It did reflect a desire on the part of the administration to say this war is over. That this war has not been [this administration's war] and it doesn't have a desire to invest a lot of capital -- political, diplomatic, even money -- into what this war is all about. But does it change all that much on the ground? Do Iraqis think it's changed all that much on the ground? I'm not sure that's necessarily the case. I think August 30th feels a lot like September 1st."

Shadid speaks candidly about what it's been like to cover the Iraq war for the past seven years, first for The Washington Post and then for The New York Times. He details what's been happening in the Middle East recently -- and explains how not understanding the implications of historical events in the region have had a dramatic impact on the timeline of the war.

"The Americans invaded a country without understanding what eight years of a war with Iran had meant, how that traumatized Iraq. They didn't appreciate what they support for a decade of sanctions in Iraq had done to Iraq and the bitterness that it created and that it wiped out the middle class," he explains. "They didn't understand what Saddam represented in some ways to the Iraqi people as well. The 70s weren't the awful times when Saddam came to power. The awful time was the 90s when the sanctions were eviscerating the country. That almost willful lack of understanding history has had a really unfortunate impact on what's followed."

Anthony Shadid is based in Baghdad and Beirut for The New York Times. He has also worked for The Washington Post and the Associated Press. Shadid has won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting twice, first in 2004 and again in 2010 for his coverage of the Iraq war.


Interview Highlights

On the growing insurgency in Iraq

"It's hard to overstate how anxious the moment in Iraq is right now. I think what you're seeing emerge is a divorce between the people and this political class, a political class which was in some ways imposed on the country by the United States in those early days of the occupation. There's an almost universal disenchantment with these politicians and what struck me the past couple of months is when you talk to people, it's not criticism of the prime minister or his main rival. ... It's criticism of that entire political class. Now what does that lead to? That's hard to say. It may not lead to anything. But it does show the people themselves are calling into question the political system that's been set up and I think if it doesn't question the legitimacy of the system, it maybe raises some questions about the viability of that system over the long term."

On whether life has improved in Iraq

"What strikes me ... is how much 2003 feels familiar to me in 2010. I think there's often been for us in the United States this linear narrative: things unfolding one after another and we end with the withdrawal at the end of 2011. But I think what often transpires in Iraq is something more circular, more repetitive. And what you hear in 2010 is what you often heard in 2003: that there is no electricity, that the water is filthy, that there's sewage in the streets, that they're not sure that of the intentions of the Americans and what Iraq officials can do to better their lives. Those things were said in 2003 and they're still said today. The lives of Iraqis -- is miserable too strong a word? I'm not sure. It's incredibly difficult and the city [of Baghdad] itself is a barricaded, deteriorating capital that is as grim as any place I've seen anywhere else. And Iraqis feel that. And I think it hurts their pride to see what's happened to the city. I think it feeds the anxiety of what's ahead. I'm not sure what the word is -- sadness? -- about what's happened these past seven years."

On the $750 billion dollars spent on the Iraq war

"How is history going to write this war? I have no idea how history is going to write this war. Does history acknowledge how many people have died? How many millions of people are forced into exile? The degree to which Iraq society's been shattered? Or does history write it as the military might write it, that they defeated the insurgency. I think if you ask Iraqis -- and they would say 'What has this money gone towards? Why wasn't the country rebuilt?' -- Yeah, there is more electricity but there's a higher demand for electricity so we have less electricity today than we did under Saddam's era. There's not a sense of security or safety there."

On the Iraqi sentiment towards Americans

"I was just talking to students [at a college] about what America represented and almost every student saw America through this prism through war, through this war that's been fought there for the past seven years. Every single student had someone -- a friend or relative -- killed. A bomb went off 100 meters away when we were standing there and I was the only one who flinched. The students didn't even blink. They've become so used to this notion of explosions and danger. I think we sometimes lose track of what Iraq has had to go through since 2003."

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