Review of 'The Fall of Baghdad', Jon Lee Anderson, Little Brown £14.99
Jon Lee Anderson is an old hand at reporting war. His other books, Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, and The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan, set him apart from the usual breed of foreign correspondent - the 'embeds' who report wars from inside a tank and the 'hotel journalists' who never stray beyond the lobby bar.
Anderson's new book is rich in detail from the Iraqi capital in the last days of Saddam's rule. His eyewitness accounts of 'shock and awe' reveal the true horrors of 'surgical strikes'. On a visit to a Baghdad hospital he comes across a young boy burnt by a US bomb. One hand, he writes, was 'twisted and burnt into a hideous claw', while his other arm was burned off up to the elbow, reminding him of 'something that might be found in a barbecue pit'. It is powerful stuff, moving and cruel.
His close friendship with his ministry of information minder, his driver and Saddam's personal physician reveal the almost surreal final days of Ba'athist rule. And their personal stories detail the growing uncertainty of a country falling under occupation. Many fear retaliation because of their association with the Ba'athists. Some try to offer their services to the new masters but find themselves rounded up and shipped off to detention centres. In interview after interview he discovers dire predictions from everyone from market traders to a senior member of the Iranian-backed Shia opposition that the Americans are not welcome. The predictions at the time challenged the orthodoxy accepted by much of the western press: that the unpopularity of the old regime was enough for the Americans to be seen as 'liberators' - or at least buy time for 'reconstruction' and 'democracy'.
Anderson returns to Baghdad months after Saddam's fall to catch up with people he knew. Many struggle to cope, while the exiles - who returned with the US troops - try to establish themselves as the new rulers. The leader of the pro-Iranian militia, the Badr Brigade, had set up his home in the villa of the former vice-president, Tariq Aziz - an irony not lost on Anderson's translator who tells him in a candid moment, 'I am very happy, very happy, but I don't know why I also feel like I want to cry. OK, Saddam Hussein is gone. But I am afraid the Americans will have to put another Saddam Hussein in power to keep control here.'
Confusing the Ba'athist dictatorship with Iraqi nationalism is a mistake the Americans and their British allies made in their drive for regime change.
The final section of the book covers the beginning of the resistance from below, among the corporals and sergeants of the old army, Islamic activists and Arab nationalists. A new movement was rising in the shadows of US occupation and out of earshot of the western media. It is a story that has yet to be written. Many people predicted that Iraqis would launch a national liberation movement, but very few thought it would rise so quickly. Anderson finds that the invasion had washed away all the securities of the old order. Kidnapping, chaos and crime meant many of the best journalists found Iraq too dangerous to report from. But above all it was the rise of the Iraqi resistance a year after the fall of the capital that left Anderson with the only possible conclusion: 'It seems the city had not really fallen at all. Or perhaps it was still falling.'