Embedded in Najaf

Survivor Guilt and Second-Guessing
Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 5 2004 8:59 AM

Embedded in Najaf

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Even as the United States took a small step forward in Najaf, Fallujah and the rest of the Sunni Triangle went to hell. Western Iraq is now basically out of control. Unlike the Shiites, many Sunnis have no interest in politics or elections, which isn't surprising since they are less than 25 percent of the population.

The Sunni fighters fall into three broad groups: the Baathists, who are mostly secular and want back the power they had under Saddam; the local fighters around Fallujah, who are motivated by both religion and a desire for respect; and the Wahhabists, who are both foreign and Iraqi and who want a holy war. The Wahhabists are the most dangerous of the three. When I think of them, I can't help but think of a line from The Terminator, as Kyle tries to explain to Sarah Connor the danger she faces: "That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."

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The Wahhabists are the boogeymen, the guys who will chop the head off any American they catch. And they will destroy Iraq without a second thought if they believe that the instability will benefit them. The hard-core Baathists would also rather have chaos than peace; they want to convince Iraqis that their only choice is between the iron fist of tyranny and the red claw of anarchy. The third group, the local fighters in Fallujah and other Sunni cities, may be more willing to compromise, but only after the United States proves that it is unafraid to occupy their cities. The local fighters have grown increasingly bold in the last year and now seem to think the United States is afraid to challenge them; the U.S. military must convince them otherwise.

This strategy is risky, of course. If we go into the Sunni Triangle in force, the casualties will be high, and we may wind up alienating residents past the point of no return. The Shiites in the south may decide to revolt as well. In that case, American forces will be facing a full-scale national insurrection. But I don't think the Shiites will rebel; they know that the Wahhabists and Baathists are not their friends. In any case, our military may have no choice but to act. The insurgents have the initiative now, and Iraqis who are on the fence may go to their side—out of fear, out of anger at the chaos we have brought, or simply to make a buck—unless they believe that the United States can turn things around.

The United States could also just pull out. But that would probably provoke a civil war, as the Sunnis and the Shiites scrap for control and the Kurds declare the north independent. In the worst-case scenario, a regional war might follow, as the Iranians step in to help the Shiites and the Turks try to crush the Kurds.

I left Baghdad about 10 days after I got back from Najaf. I was exhausted, but a lot of me wishes that I had stayed longer. That reaction may seem surprising, but many reporters are sorry to leave. The story is so important. If Iraq collapses, the Middle East will move much closer to chaos. Also, I had survivor guilt: Why should I get to leave when my friends—reporters, soldiers, or Iraqi staffers—had to stay? And I felt I had failed as a reporter, that I should have done more, written better, found the magic key that would show everyone at home the depths of the chaos I saw.

In that, at least, I know I'm being unfair to myself. I did my job as best I could, and if I didn't fully convey the truth of the situation, it was not for want of trying.

People often ask me if I ever expect to go back to Iraq. I don't know. We have almost reached the point at which the danger to reporters is so great that covering the story in any meaningful way is impossible. I know this much, though: Unless the United States intends to let Iraq fall into anarchy, I'll have plenty of time to go back. Because we've got a lot more war ahead of us.

Alex Berenson is an author and journalist. From 2000 to 2010, he worked as a business and investigative reporter for the New York Times. His seventh novel, The Night Ranger, will be published in February.