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Hearts and minds

Gauging the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through the personal stories of teachers, clerics and minorities

Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War
By Anthony Shadid
Holt, 424 pp., $26

The Wake of War: Encounters With the People of Iraq and Afghanistan
By Anne Nivat
Beacon, 304 pp., $25.95

Two and a half years after the United States initiated a new war in Iraq, two gifted reporters have written searing insider accounts of its physical, psychological, and geopolitical devastation. Both Anthony Shadid, in ''Night Draws Near," and Anne Nivat, in ''The Wake of War," resist the embedded stories that most journalists see in the military contingents to which they are assigned. They find their stories not looking over the shoulder of a US Marine, or in the Green Zone of Baghdad, but in the still-smoking shells of homes and hospitals, and on the streets of towns where people are still waiting for the electricity and water to return. In the end, both journalists seem to wonder if an occupier can ever bring ''liberation" to Iraq.

An American of Lebanese descent, Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize winner with The Washington Post and formerly with The Boston Globe, has been reporting on Iraq since 1998. His fluency in Arabic and ability to move in all kinds of religious and political circles afford him a perspective that other US reporters in Iraq simply don't have.

Nevertheless, he begins his book by considering the seeming impossibility of his task: ''How does a journalist convey the ferocity of violence without losing meaning in a mind-numbing array of adjectives? How does one cover war from a professional distance when, as someone reporting from a city under siege, one has no distance? Perhaps we simply surrender to the ambiguities and embrace what is ghamidh [mysterious, obscure]. Perhaps we simply tell stories."

In ''Night Draws Near" Shadid moves deftly between revealing, exemplary, close-up personal stories and a wide-angled historical analysis that is remarkably engaging and accessible. One of the best examples of this style is his review of the complex relationship between Iraq's newly disempowered Sunni minority and the newly empowered Shiite majority in the south. In a chapter titled ''The Blood of Sadr," Shadid focuses his lens on the poor Shiite community in Baghdad's renamed Sadr City as a way of exploring how tightly religion and politics can be knotted in the Iraqi imagination.

At a mosque in Baghdad he first interviews Ali Shawki, a Shiite cleric: ''With the collapse of Saddam, the people have turned to the clergy," Shawki claims. ''The Americans should not neglect the place of the clergy." Shadid notes that the men around Shawki all carry AK-47s and have a stockpile of rocket-propelled grenades ''just for an emergency."

Shadid opens up this personal story with a wide historical lens, recounting how the Shiites and Sunnis came into being in the seventh century AD due to a dispute over which of Mohammed's four disciples should succeed him. He then traces centuries of Sunni-Shiite battles up until Saddam (a Sunni) and the 1991 Gulf War, when the Shiite majority finally rose up against the Sunni leadership, assuming then President George H. W. Bush would save them. (He didn't, and the Shiite rebels were crushed by Saddam's Republican Guard.)

Shadid then moves to Saddam's execution of activist Shiite leader Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, and finally to the heart of the chapter: how Sadr's youngest son, Muqtada, was thrust into power as a Shiite figurehead challenging both US authority and the revered Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani. At chapter's end Shadid again clicks down his lens -- moving from political and historical overview to personal interviews -- with Muqtada al-Sadr and several of his followers.

The frequent shifting between anecdotal and analytical perspectives is compelling rather than confusing in part because the book is a tightly constructed chronology (divided into sections titled ''Before," ''The American Invasion," ''Aftermath," ''The Occupation," and ''The Insurgency"). But perhaps the style also suggests the best way for a journalist to read a war -- from widely divergent points of view allowing multiple interpretations of ''the facts," collectively forming one writer's truth.

The truth that Nivat constructs in ''The Wake of War" is equally compelling. Nivat is perhaps best known for her reporting on Chechnya, where she disguised herself as a Chechen woman to evade a ban on journalists. Her new work is no less courageous. She arrived in Iraq shortly after the US takeover in April 2003. While she doesn't speak Arabic and doesn't look as systematically at Iraq as Shadid (part of her book deals with travels in Afghanistan), the stories she collects offer a compassionate perspective on the struggle of ethnic minorities (the Kurds and Turkomans) and their fight against ''Arabization." She also focuses more on family life (there are contrasting chapters on Kurdish, Turkoman, and Shiite families) and includes more voices of Iraqi women. Since these are areas to which Shadid gives little ink, the books nicely complement each other.

The chapter ''A Turkoman Family" includes one of Nivat's most revelatory interviews. Nidret, a 40-year-old Turkoman English teacher, explains what teaching is like for her in the new Iraq. In so doing she reveals the paradox of modern Iraqi life.

''The slogans glorifying Saddam have been eliminated, and we just received new English manuals without Saddam's official photo on the flyleaf. . . . We used to spend several hours every Thursday morning assembled in the schoolyard singing to the glory of 'our beloved leader.' [Children are] now made to chant verses from the Koran; I don't know if that's any better. . . . And let me add, at a more down-to-earth level, that the teacher's chair I sit on, composed of four concrete blocks piled one on top of the other, has not been replaced, and the students still shiver from the cold."

The chapter ends with Nidret's critique of US foreign policy and the same haunting question that both Nivat and Shadid are struggling to answer.

''The new enemies are the Americans," Nidret says. ''They indecently supported Saddam until the invasion of Kuwait. Before that, they intentionally incited him to start the war against Iran to weaken us. Saddam was an abomination, but now we're under occupation by individuals who obviously don't understand us. Is that any better?"

Tom Montgomery-Fate is a professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and the author of ''Steady and Trembling," a memoir from Chalice Press. See ''Bookings," below, for information on a local appearance by Anthony Shadid.

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