A bleak account from the Baghdad streets

By KEVIN LANAHAN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, October 3, 2004

When the "shock and awe" bombardment of Baghdad by U.S. and coalition forces began in earnest on March 21, 2003, journalist Jon Lee Anderson was one of only a dozen Americans remaining in Iraq.

While the rest of the world watched invasion footage from the safety of our homes, Anderson felt the concussive aftershocks of air-to-ground missiles punching holes in Saddam Hussein's ornate palaces, and watched white and red tracer fire arc into the night sky over the ancient city.

Anderson, 47, had arrived in Iraq months earlier as an independent journalist; he has returned several times during the occupation. His dispatches for The New Yorker have been widely hailed as the most revealing writing about the run-up to the war, and its turbulent aftermath.

His new book, "The Fall of Baghdad" (Penguin; 389 pages; $24.95), grew out of those reports, and provides a riveting and thoughtful look at Saddam's Orwellian rule, his regime's swift demise and the emergence of various insurgent and terrorists groups in Iraq. Most compellingly, the book presents the chaos and bloodshed thrust upon ordinary Iraqis besieged by years of geopolitical maneuvering.

"It's difficult for me now to separate myself emotionally from Iraq," Anderson said from his home in Dorset, England. "Everyone that befriended me (and) everyone that I know has had a close relative killed either by bombing or crossfire." On Tuesday, he'll read from and discuss his work as part of the New York State Writers Institute's visiting writers series.

Beyond sound bits

Before Saddam's fall, Anderson earned the trust of everyday Iraqis -- taxi drivers, barbers and poets -- while also gaining access to some of Saddam's top officials, including members of the despot's information ministry and even his personal physician. The book takes readers well beyond sound bites and official statements, giving an insider's view of quotidian life in a country most know only through nightly newscasts.

Although Anderson takes great pains in "The Fall of Baghdad" to provide a journalist's neutral stance, the journalist has little hope for a positive outcome in Iraq, at least over the short term.

"There's been a mishandling of the occupation," he said. "The situation is deteriorating all the time, and I only foresee a quickening, worse situation. One problem is that the current strategy of military assaults has little effect on the insurgent populations, who now believe the U.S. cannot stay the course."

The chances for long-term success, Anderson believes, would be greatly improved by a reversal of anti-American sentiment among Iraqis -- in effect, by paying attention to the sort of people who get a chance to tell their stories in "The Fall of Baghdad."

It's a steep challenge, Anderson said. "There are those (in Iraq) that support the U.S., but overall there's a widespread cynicism toward the West, and a general sense of betrayal. The idea of foreign troops being the arbiter of existence is humiliating to them, and by and large they don't have the sense of being liberated."


The upcoming Iraqi elections, he believes, will face an agonizing double-bind in which going ahead is bad, but waiting is worse. "Elections won't provide a solution to the violence, with a war still in place," Anderson said, "but the more time goes by without any voting, the less of a chance there is for anything sustainable."

Anderson fears for the safety of his fellow journalists and all Westerners working in Iraq. The violence -- from large-scale attacks to more targeted killings and kidnappings -- has reached a new threshold: "Nowhere in Iraq is safe anymore," he said. "It's become extremely dangerous for any Westerner there."

Anderson has experienced his own close calls. He was caught in crossfire, detained by the militia of renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and threatened by a rioting crowd that included prisoners freed by Saddam's pre-invasion amnesty. That incident occurred just outside Fallujah, at the soon-to-become notorious prison Abu Ghraib.

The son of a children's book author and a U.S. diplomat, Anderson grew up all over the world -- in South Korea, Colombia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Liberia and England. He began his career as a reporter for Peru's English-language weekly, The Lima Times, and reported for Time magazine in Central America.

War zones

Iraq is only the most recent war zone for Anderson. His previous books include 1992's "Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World," which took him to hot spots such as Burma, El Salvador and the Western Sahara. His 1997 biography "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life" is viewed as the definitive book about the Argentine-born, globe-trotting Marxist icon. "The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan" (2002) was his account of that war and the search for Osama bin Laden.

For his New Yorker dispatches, Anderson took long breaks after each trip to Iraq to decompress before returning to his family in England. His shortest stay was three weeks; his longest two months. "The violence doesn't traumatize me, but it certainly has an impact," said Anderson, adding that the stress can manifest itself in snappish behavior "with ticket agents and check-out clerks -- all of it my fault."

Married and the father of three children, Anderson once dreamed of being a naturalist -- a far cry from his current vocation, which takes him away from his family and sends him to some of the globe's most remote and violent places.

Why does he do it? "Very simply, Sept. 11 catapulted me to a new way of working," Anderson said. "I just felt compelled to go to these places and make sense of this new world we're living in."

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Jon Lee Anderson