Last August a hotel maid in Basra who had popped in to clean a room found the dead body of guest who had been staying there for almost a week. The dead man was Steven Vincent, a free-lance American journalist who was doing research for a book on the situation in southern Iraq. When the police examined the body and the scene it concluded that Vincent had been murdered.
But who killed Vincent?
A few days before his tragic death, the journalist had published an op-ed column in The New York Times charging that Iraqi Shiite parties had infiltrated the newly created police force in Basra and were using it for a series of revenge killings, with the tacit approval of the British military authorities in southern Iraq. The current theory is that Vincent was killed by extremists linked to the maverick preacher Muqtada Sadr.
We may never see the book that Vincent was researching in Basra. And his charges against the Shiite parties cannot be verified without further investigation.
What we have, however, is Vincent’s first book “The Red Zone: A Journey Into The Soul of Iraq” which anybody interested in the current situation in Iraq would do well to read. In fact, Vincent’s book is one of three or four that this reviewer has found worth reading on the subject so far.
Vincent became interested in Iraq early in 2003 as the debate over whether or not to remove Saddam Hussein from power by force raged in the United States. At the time he sensed that the entire debate was taking place within the parameters of an abstract notion of power politics. It was as if the Iraqi people did not exist or that Iraq was a blank sheet on which the megalomaniac Saddam Hussein played cat-and-mouse with an aggressive George W Bush.
But it was not until September 2003, that is to say almost six months after liberation that Vincent managed to travel to Iraq. Unlike other Western reporters who were sheltered in the so-called “Green Zone” under the US-led’ coalition’s protection in Baghdad, Vincent decided to go to “The Red Zone” that is the rest of Iraq which the new authorities regarded as risky if not actually unsafe. More importantly, Vincent ventured into the “Red Zone” alone, doing away with the usual interpreters, guides and bodyguards. This allowed him to establish a direct rapport with the Iraqi people from all walks of life.
As a result we hear the authentic voices of the ordinary folk in many parts of Iraq. We meet people whose lives have been shattered by decades of bloody despotism, and others who miss the privileges they enjoyed under the previous regime. Some of the stories bring tears to the reader’s eyes; others have the power to enrage while still others may inject a note of despair at humanity’s ability to grow out of the politics of blood and violence.
Vincent witnessed a number of dramatic events as did the ordinary Iraqis. For example, he was on the spot in Karbala in March 2004 when a series of bomb attacks, designed to foment sectarian conflict, killed at least 140 people.
Although a relatively short book, Vincent’s narrative is a dense one. It shows how most Iraqis, hating the past and fearful of the future, are struggling with contradictory feelings. There is this woman who assures Vincent that the worst ahs already happened in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and that the future, whatever its shape, cannot but be better. Later, we are told that she had been tortured and raped by the Ba’athist police. Then there is the old man who would hate Iraq for ever, even if it becomes a paradise on earth, simply because it has been “sullied” by the Americans.
Between these two extremes the people that Vincent appeared to agree on two things. First, the Ba’athist regime had reached a dead-end and had to go. And secondly, Iraq can have a future only if it acknowledges its diversity in a pluralist context.
Some of Vincent’s most interesting encounters, however, were with foreigners in Iraq. We meet a Canadian anti-war militant who expresses “understanding” for the crimes of Abu-Mussab al-Zarqawi and his terrorist gang while castigating the US-led coalition for “ violating the human rights” of the captured terrorists. Then there is this American “peace group” going around Iraq to tell the Iraqi people that Saddam Hussein was not so bad after all and that George W Bush is worse! Most Iraqis, however, see the American peaceniks as nut-cases on the loose.
Vincent is at his best when doing straight reporting. But when it comes to historical narrative and/or analysis he often lacks the knowledge to make a useful contribution. For example, he seems to thin that Shiism came to Iraq from Iran. In fact, Mesopotamia is the place where Shiism was first born while Iran became a Shiite state only in the 16th century. He is also unable to understand the complex feelings of Iraqi Kurds who, having suffered decades of brutal repression, have nevertheless remained loyal to the idea of an Iraqi state.
One important fact that Vincent noticed and reports is that the overwhelming majority of the Iraqis believe in a common identity that could be described as “Iraqitude” (uruqa). Some may not acknowledge it and a few, especially among the Kurds, may even deny it vehemently. But whether they like it or not they are all Iraqis as shaped by over eight decades of common life within an Iraqi state. It is, perhaps, for this reason that ruthless efforts by the Al Qaeda-style terrorists to provoke religious and ethnic conflict in Iraq have so far failed.
But the most important message of Vincent’s thrilling reportage is simple: a majority of Iraqis regard themselves as co-liberators of their country and thus feel that they have a direct stake in the success of “project Iraq.”