How Iraq looks to one on the ground

New Yorker writer George Packer offers his view of the US experience in Iraq.

In the summer of 2003 a crowd of Iraqis began congregating daily at the Assassins' Gate, a sandstone arch that served as a main entrance to the US-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad. Protesters, job seekers, and the idly curious, all seemed intent on forging a personal connection with their nation's new overlords, writes George Packer in The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, his absorbing book on the American experience in Iraq.

A tiny schoolteacher who wore a salmon-colored veil was particularly persistent. According to the 18-page letter she thrust into Packer's hands, she had quit her job in a Shiite- dominated section of the city because she did not want to follow the orders of radical Muslims who controlled the sector following the fall of Saddam. She was eager, she said, to carry an AK-47 and work alongside the US soldiers trying to bring democracy to Iraq. She'd even drawn up a fake gun permit to illustrate her desire.

She seemed to embody both madness and truth, writes Packer, and he thought about her often in the years that followed. Like her, Iraq for him had the confused quality of a dream. The old life had been washed away, in favor of ... what?

"Something extraordinary was happening," writes Packer. "No one knew what it was or how it would go, but it mattered more than anything and there wasn't much time."

"Extraordinary," in this context, does not necessarily mean "good," as the subsequent violence of the insurgency has made all too clear. Yet this is the theme of Packer's book: the messiness of experience in Iraq as it is lived by those there, Iraqi and American, as opposed to the certainty with which Iraq is described in Washington.

As Packer writes later, in the US, Iraq has become a blank screen upon which to project partisan feeling. It is either an immoral war, already lost, or a place to stand tall, until ultimate victory.

"In this country, Iraq was almost always about winning the argument," writes Packer.

George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and this book draws heavily upon the dispatches he's filed there.

It begins, not with the invasion itself, but with Kanan Mikiya, an Iraqi expatriate resident of Massachusetts, who becomes Packer's friend and then his source, sharing tales of the terrors of the Saddam regime through the years, as well as the frustration and hot-house politics of exile life.

Then it moves to a description of the intellectual underpinnings of the US overthrow of Saddam - what critics might call the neoconservative cabal. They're all here - Richard Perle, the ex-Senate staffer and Reagan official who has become the impresario (Packer's word) of the neocon movement; Douglas Feith, Perle's former assistant, who's become a prominent Bush security official; and Paul Wolfowitz, the bookish Pentagon deputy now head of the World Bank. Truth be told, Packer seems to somewhat admire the latter, who, he notes has traveled often to Iraq, and seems genuinely moved by the sacrifices and commitment of US soldiers.

But the heart of the book are its descriptions of Iraqis, and Americans in Iraq, and the dream they are living through. One star of these stories is John Prior, an Army officer sympathetic to the Iraqis, but no "soft-shelled humanitarian," in Packer's description. At one point, caught in a mess of traffic on a Baghdad exit ramp, Prior jumps from his Humvee and personally orders drivers about, an amazing display of nerve by an unsupported American. But, as Packer notes, it worked.

"At that moment I felt the whole American project in Iraq depended on such actions and reactions, all of them idiosyncratic, unpredictable, hair-trigger," Packer writes.

"Assassins' Gate" is basically a repackaging of magazine material, expanded, and it shows. Some stories are well-developed, while others seem like thin glue holding the chapters together. Events have passed parts of this narrative by, as it ends in January of this year.

But if you're looking for one book on Iraq that expands on the daily news, and gives a sense of the US enterprise there as a whole, you probably can't do better than this.

As to his own beliefs, Packer began as a supporter of the war. He's since become increasingly disillusioned. And yet, "My most heated and confounding arguments over the war occurred when there was no one else around," writes Packer.

Peter Grier is on the Monitor's staff.

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