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The Prince of the Marshes – and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq by Rory Stewart

Prince MarshesDuring a recent appearance on PBS’ Bill Moyers Journal, author Rory Stewart said, “Pakistan is much more of a threat than Afghanistan to U.S. national security. Al Qaeda is in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan.” But in 2003, the war against Al Qaeda was being fought in Iraq – and Stewart was there. In his book, The Prince of the Marshes (Harcourt Books, 2006), he chronicles his year in southern Iraq working with the British Foreign Office and his message is clear: Know your enemy.

With regard to matters of success or failure, good v. bad strategy, Rory Stewart makes no judgments. He never pretends to have military expertise or political savvy. But as he recounts his time in the southern rural areas of Iraq, living among sheikhs, Baathists, Sadrists and other Iraqis, he reveals how building relationships within the tribal communities and developing an understanding of their ways of life are imperative to advancing the international agenda and bringing peace to the region. This is, perhaps, what has been most lacking in “the war on terror” even though he admits that, by itself, it is not enough.

After 20 months of traveling in Asia which he wrote about in his earlier bestselling book, The Places in Between, Stewart was back at home in the Scotland Highlands. Having previously worked for the British Foreign Office, he applied for work with them again when the invasion of Iraq began in the spring of 2003. When he didn’t receive a response, he took himself right to Baghdad to ask for a job and eventually ended up being hired as the deputy governorate coordinator of Amara, Maysan which is southeast of Baghdad and not far from the Iranian border. It is said to be just north of the Garden of Eden.

The first American administrator there, Jay Garner, had advocated the strategy of leaving a “light footprint,” meaning transferring power to an Iraqi government – and getting out.

“[Garner] did not want the occupation to get bogged down like the UN in Kosovo, micromanaging everything for years, irritating local nationalists and preventing the local government from taking responsibility.”

But that strategy was changed, “perhaps on the orders of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld” and the invasion  took on a more active role when Garner was replaced Paul Bremer. The 400,000 member Iraqi army was disbanded, 40,000 Baath officials were fired and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was formed. Governorate coordinators who reported to the CPA were to be positioned in each Iraqi province. The Foreign Office chose Stewart to act as governorate coordinator in Amara until Molly Phee could get there to replace him, at which time he would become her deputy.  He was told he got the job because of his “experience working in other post-conflict environments, ability to speak Farsi which would allow him to speak to Iranian refugees, and because the 500 village houses in which he had stayed during his walk through Asia gave him an insight into rural Islamic culture.” In fact, Stewart had spent ten years in the Islamic world and other regions emerging from conflict. However, his real-life experiences did not exactly support what Western developed countries were hastily teaching in seminars about these areas. He believed that “the best kind of international development seemed to be done by people who directly absorbed themselves into rural culture and politics, focused on traditional structures, and understood that change would always be very slow.”

The mission: to create a multi-ethnic, decentralized, prosperous state, based on human rights, a just constitution, a vibrant civil society, and the rule of law. In other words, the mission was to create a democratic Iraq at peace with itself and with its neighbors. Even in those terms, Stewart though the goal was overly ambitious but believed something could be done to improve society in Iraq.

Stewart found many factions amongst the Marsh Arabs in Maysan that would have to ultimately work together if the “mission” was going to be even remotely successful. These different groups included anti-Coalition Sadrists (whose power Stewart recognized early on), resistance groups existing under the umbrella of the Supreme Committee for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) – many of whom had recently returned from Iran where they had fled under Saddam’s regime, and the less religious (and less educated) resistance group led by Abu Hatim, The Prince of the Marshes. Stewart believed these three groups would have to be represented in any governing bodies established if the arguing was going to be done in council meetings rather than in the streets.

But orders from within the Green Zone didn’t always coincide with the realities of tribal life which involved much corruption and deceit, or established means of justice which relied on violence. Disagreements between tribes were sometimes “settled” by kidnapping, attack and murder. Still, Stewart and his team persevered in forming a governing council, holding elections, rebuilding schools and hospitals, establishing a new police department and initiating other positive changes that weren’t being publicized in the west.

The Prince of the Marshes is a highly readable account of a tumultuous, historic year in Iraq that you won’t likely find in any official political – or military – report. Stewart tells it like it is without bold criticism of the CPA, although he does question the Italians [lack of] defense tactics on one occasion. A less humble public servant would call himself a veritable authority, and after reading The Prince of the Marshes,, you might wonder why Stewart’s unique expertise hasn’t been more capitalized upon. Although his descriptions of the rural conflicts in Iraq make it clear why officials within the Green Zone were reluctant to leave it, the understanding he gained from his real-life experience among the rural tribes lead seems invaluable.

Awarded the Order of the British Empire for his service, Rory Stewart currently lives in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is the Executive Chairman of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation whose mission is to serve Afghan communities by investing in regeneration.

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