By News producer
NBC News
updated 9/26/2005 1:11:00 PM ET 2005-09-26T17:11:00

As Americans watch the seemingly unending images of suicide bombings and carnage  in Iraq, many are probably scratching their heads.  Why do these people do this to their own country? Why do so many soldiers and innocent civilians have to die?  Is it ever going to end?   

But if Americans are confused about the violence and chaos that has followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue, Anthony Shadid’s new book, “Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War,” reminds us that many ordinary Iraqis are asking the same question. 

“You begin to wonder if America had fingers in this problem. Do they do it deliberately? Was it planned? Do they want all this to happen?” one Shiite doctor said to Shadid, a Washington Post reporter. “Why are they standing and watching? Don’t tell me America doesn’t know.” 

Both Shadid’s new book and George Packer’s important new book, “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq” (available Oct. 5), leave the reader profoundly saddened, since they both reach the same conclusion: It didn’t have to be this way. 

‘Yes, but…’
One of the most powerful — and disturbing — passages in “The Assassins’ Gate” relates to an August 2003 visit by Paul Bremer and his aides to a maternity hospital in the southern Iraqi town of Diwaniya. 

Bremer, who was the U.S. administrator if Iraq until handing it over to Iraqi officials in June 2004, thought he was going to see a happy scene. Instead, he stumbled in to a scene where children were dying. Incubators were not working due to the power failures, and infant mortality had doubled. 

Bremer’s aides tried to stress the positive, repeatedly asking doctors if things weren’t better without Saddam. The somber doctors kept saying “yes, but…” and politely requesting more electricity and security. The aides, meanwhile, kept turning the conversation around to how things were better and would improve further.  

Throughout Shadid’s and Packer’s books, Iraqis say they are grateful Saddam is gone, but

And it is a hugely important "but." Or, more accurately, a "why" — why did the Americans allow their country to plunge into chaos in the process?

As “Night Draws Near” heartbreakingly illustrates, the cascade of misunderstandings and recriminations between ordinary Iraqis and American soldiers seems to feed on itself, leading bothgroups to pay the price of an increasingly murderous insurgenency.

“The Assassins’ Gate” is effective because it does not read like a reflexive, “I told you so” liberal critique of the war. In fact, Packer, a staff writer for “The New Yorker,” offers a superb chronology of how so many Americans — including so many liberals — felt after Sept. 11.

He brings us back to the time when many liberals and conservatives felt compelled to do something, to make sense of what had occurred. 

How 9/11 morphed into Iraq
Sept. 11 caused some liberals to question the risks of inaction, especially after the administration’s assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “To persist with caution toward the sick, dangerous status quo of the Middle East would be contemptible, almost unbearable,” writes Packer.

And yet, how did bin Laden’s 9/11 become the war on Iraq? 

Packer argues that the reasons for invading Iraq were debated before the war, and they are still being debated now. But he does a pretty good job of connecting the dots of how we got from there to here, and his book more than amply shows that at the end of the day, history is all about who is in charge at the time.

The best part of “The Assassins’ Gate” chronicles the “perfect storm” that occurred after Sept. 11.  

According to Packer, President Bush was notparticularly gung-ho on Iraq and the need to take out Saddam Hussein before Sept. 11.  But, he argues, “there was already in place across the top levels of the national security bureaucracy a group of people with a definite intellectual history, who could give the President’s new impulses a strategy, a doctrine, a worldview.” 

After 9/11, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and others refused to believe that such a well-orchestrated terrorist attack could be planned without a state sponsor, and they believed it was Iraq. “When Sept. 11 forced the imagination to grapple with something radically new, the president’s foreign policy advisers reached for what they had always known” writes Packer.

What did not happen
We all know what happened next. But one of the most important aspects of Packer's book is chronicling what did not happen next.

Administration officials such as Wolfowitz and the exiles who advised them, including Packer's good friend, the author and intellectual Kanan Makiya, truly believed in the idea of a democratic Iraq.

Their failure was that they did not know present-day conditions in Iraq. They assumed there were systems in place to just make it happen.

"Iraq was a war of choice," Packer writes, "and few wars have given leaders more time to get ready." After the Americans reached Baghdad, the increasing loss of safety and security was not an unforeseen circumstance, and should not have happened: "By mid-February, [2002] it was becoming clear to people paying attention that the administration wasn't remotely prepared for dealing with postwar Iraq."

The warning bells came from Republicans and Democrats, military officials and diplomats. "The Assassins' Gate" amply chronicles how, according to Packer, the administration did not go for the best and the brightest. Some experts were not just shunned, but in some cases prevented from participating in planning for the aftermath of the war.

Tom Warrick, is someone who Packer says "had done about as much thinking about postwar Iraq as any American official," and who had coordinated the State Department's Future of Iraq project. The retired lieutenant general who was originally in charge of postwar Iraq, Jay Garner, requested Warrick. But, Packer writes, Vice President Dick Cheney did not like him, so he "became a casualty of the interagency war and didn't get to Baghdad for a year."

Lonely Planet used as a resource
There were no organizational charts on the Iraqi ministries, no plans on what to do with Saddam’s vast Baath party operatives and members. There were no plans on securing important sites — a member of the reconstruction team consulted a Lonely Planet guidebook on what sites might be important. Furthermore, there were no plans for fixing and maintaining infrastructure once everyone stopped working.  

More importantly, there was no plan to keep the Iraqis safe. Both Packer and Shadid illustrate in their books that the Iraqis needed safety and normalcy more than anything else.

When time passed and this did not happen, they felt betrayed. “The insurgents understood better than the Americans that the battle was for the loyalty of the population,” writes Packer. 

One of the biggest mistakes, Packer and Shadid show, was the decision to disband the Iraqi army, leaving so many men without jobs and reinforcing the feeling of American “occupation.”     

Putting a face on Iraqis
But if Packer helps us understand the “why” behind so many of the difficulties in Iraq, Anthony Shadid’s “Night Draws Near” puts a much-needed “face” — in this case, faces, to the chaotic and tragic conditions of post-war Iraq.

Shadid, an Arab-American of Lebanese descent, spent an enormous amount of time just talking and visiting with Iraqis from all walks of life.  He chronicles his conversations from before the war up to the beginning of 2005, when the Iraqi elections took place.

What many readers will find instructive — and revealing — is that so many of the Iraqis Shadid interviewed before the war were very wary of what was coming.

He reminds us that there had been significant damage to Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, and that life had been extremely tough after a decade of sanctions.  While the United States saw the conflict as the U.S. against Saddam, “most Iraqis never saw the conflict that way,” writes Shadid. “In fact, many would argue that both Saddam and America victimized them.” 

Moreover, religion was playing a bigger role in many people’s lives, as it helped give meaning to much of the helplessness and hardship. 

“Night Draws Near” chronicles the way religious figures such as Muqtada al-Sadr exploited the anarchy and vacuum of post-war Iraq and adapted it to their increasingly radical politics. Shadid describes Sadr’s trajectory from a young, inexperienced cleric into a “hero” to Shiites in Sadr City, after American soldiers tried to knock down a religious flag.

Sincere disappointment
Why haven’t the Iraqis done more to fix things?Both Packer and Shadid delve into that question through conversations with Iraqis and Americans in post-war Iraq. 

The more devastating passages in “Night Draws Near” describe the growing disappointment of the professional and working class Iraqis who were “cheering” for the Americans.  But after weeks, months and more than a year of power outages, kidnappings and rampant crime, most Iraqis — and to a certain extent, the author — were losing faith.    

“In our mind, there’s only death,” a school headmistress told Shadid. 

“At that moment,” writes Shadid, “an irony struck me…Few Iraqis believed the Americans’ pledges…But they believed the armed opposition, and they listened. They had faith that it would carry out what it threatened. The opposition, not the Americans, was shaping the new Iraq.”

George Packer ends The Assassins’ Gate with a visit to Kanan Makiya, the exile who had spent his life dreaming of a free Iraq.  “At times, his vision of Iraq had been so at odds with what I saw and heard there that dreaming began to seem irresponsible and dangerous.”

Meanwhile, the reader is left rooting for the ordinary Iraqis and soldiers who are caught in the crossfire, dreaming of better — and safer — times ahead.              

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