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A Grim 'Eclipse': Deb Amos On Iraq's Sunni Exiles

Correspondent Deborah Amos has made many trips to Iraq since she began covering the region for NPR. But she hasn't always found it easy to work there.

"When you went [to Iraq] under Saddam's time, it was practically impossible to talk to Iraqis," she tells Terry Gross. "It was illegal — they'd have to report, so they just didn't bother. It was too much trouble. So, I was in a country where I couldn't talk to anybody."

For a while when Amos returned to Iraq in 2003, after the fall of Saddam, the mood in the country had changed. There was little fear about talking to journalists, so Amos spent much of her time talking to Iraqis and recording their stories. By 2005, however, the violence occurring in the streets — most of it sectarian strife between the majority Shiite and minority Sunni populations — made communication with Iraqi citizens almost impossible. Once again, Amos had to develop another strategy.

"I realized that [by 2005] there were more than a million Iraqis outside the country," she recalls. "And so if I went to Syria and Jordan and Lebanon, I could continue what I was doing and tell that story."

In fact about 4 million Iraqis have had to leave their homes, and an additional 2 million have left the country entirely — many taking refuge in regional neighbors such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Amos' new book, Eclipse of the Sunnis, traces the forced migration of the Sunnis from Iraq after the sectarian violence started. She explains what their departure — and their resentment — means for the future of the country.

In some ways you could find out more about what was happening inside the country by sitting on mats over cups of coffee in Damascus and Beirut and Amman than you could in Baghdad.

Amos, who has covered the Middle East for decades, says she will never tire of it.

"You never get to the bottom of it," Amos says. "There's always something else to know. And there's always something interesting in power relationships. ... And I actually love the culture. I love the food, and the people — and I'm comfortable there. ... I'm always happy when I get off the plane, and it hardly matters where I land."

Interview Highlights

On why it was difficult to talk to Iraqis inside Iraq in 2005

"It was too dangerous. The sectarian war had already started. We didn't go outside our compound. We had Iraqi translators gathering tape for our radio pieces. ... It was impossible to talk to anybody on the street. You couldn't go to a restaurant, you couldn't speak English in a cab, you couldn't get a cab. ... The only way you could actually talk to Iraqis was follow them into exile, and there they were willing to talk. And their stories were so remarkable and so revealing about what was happening inside of Iraq. ... There were 2,000 to 4,000 people crossing the borders every day, so in some ways you could find out more about what was happening inside the country by sitting on mats over cups of coffee in Damascus and Beirut and Amman than you could in Baghdad."

On why people fled Iraq

"The violence was so, so awful. What would happen is, you would get a letter thrown into your front yard that would say 'Leave or die.' ... Sometimes it would be wrapped around a bullet. ... People had just hours sometimes to pack up and leave."

On why this migration is unlike other large-scale migrations in the region

"This is not a poor population that lives in tents. These people can live wherever they can afford. ... They're on their cell phones every day. They're watching Iraqi television. ... It means that you have an exile population that in some ways is still connected with Iraq and with whatever family they have back in the country. So as they sit in their homes in Amman, Damascus and in Beirut, they are watching what is happening at home and they play some sort of political role there. They voted in this most recent election."

On the many Sunni women turning to "survival sex" to support their families

"I spent plenty of time with Iraqi prostitutes — women who were not prostitutes when they left the country, but turned to it because it was one way you could support your country. When you arrive as a single female-headed household — and about one-quarter of the exiles in Damascus are in that category — and you have no skills, and your family's not going to support you because you most likely came from a mixed [Sunni-Shiite] marriage ... you turn to survival sex."

On what might happen in Iraq when U.S. troops leave

"We have an election process that could take months. In 2005, it was more than 150 days of negotiations for a government. I expect that that time could in fact be doubled. As the American troops are beginning their drawdown, you don't have a government in place. I think that what Iraqis thought they were voting for was that the government would be there when the Americans left, but we don't know for sure what's its going to look like. And this is a huge test for this country — [whether] they can manage to solve their problems politically rather than on the streets, and it is unclear if that is the case."

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