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Into the Bog

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The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

None of President George W. Bush’s recent pronouncements on his New Way Forward in Iraq shows any indication that he has read a new book by British diplomat Rory Stewart. If Bush had, he might feel less sanguine about foreign entanglements. In late 2003, Stewart took up a posting in southern Iraq as the governor of Maysan. (He is told in an early briefing: “Maysan is the size of Northern Ireland, and we are running it with only a thousand men.”) In an earlier book, he walked across Afghanistan, somewhat in homage of Robert Byron, who in the 1930s wrote The Road to Oxiana (“more Oscar Wilde than Daniel Boone,” writes Stewart, “meandering his way through Timurid monuments and the modernizing monarchs in 1930s Iran and Afghanistan”).

In Stewart’s new book, The Prince of the Marshes, about his Iraq experience, there is actually a prince of the marshes—the wetlands that Wilfred Thesiger explored and that Saddam drained—and he is a local warlord. But the title also plays on Stewart’s experience as potentate-of-the-month in a pivotal Shiite province nestled near the Iranian border. “In truth,” he writes, “of course, Iraq didn’t have princes anymore, and it hardly had marshes,” except those princes sent out by the Coalition Provincial Authority to win hearts and minds.

Stewart is a brave administrator who does his best during his year as governor to repaint schools, fix water mains, and restore civil government to a region that Saddam attacked as heretical. Money from the Green Zone in Baghdad (it might well be the City of Emeralds for all that it trades in illusion) flows into Stewart’s finance department, and he and his team try to rebuild the local infrastructure while giving a hand to those Iraqis who could well be described as moderate.

Stewart, however, is running a government of tribal anarchy (“There were more than fifty Shia political parties in the province, and most only two months old …”). He is never quite sure whether he is funding a market renovation or simply lining the pockets of moonlighting terrorists. His directives from the American overlords in the Green Zone make the rebuilding of Iraq sound like a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: “Instead of beginning with security and basic needs and attempting the more complex things later, we implemented simultaneously programs on human rights, the free market, feminism, federalism, and constitutional reform.” He gamely soldiers on, but admits that “direct foreign rule, I guessed, was never going to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy.”

Rory Stewart

The book contradicts the extent to which the Shiite Marsh Arabs are an Iranian fifth column. Yes, many share with Tehran the same faith, and some of Stewart’s constituents even fought with Iran against Iraq in the 1980s war (prompting the revenge of Saddam). But tribal anarchy appears more the successor to the Ba’athist administration than the sway of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. After the fall in 2003, Stewart writes: “Saddam’s huge centralized bureaucracy had run almost every detail of society and the economy. Such a system was difficult to keep, replicate, or replace. Iraqis believed that the Coalition and Western technology could create immediate improvement in their lives. They couldn’t.”

The heart of the book is Stewart’s description of struggling to appoint a local municipal council that can, in turn, elect his successor as governor. (“They [the Americans] had no long-term commitment to ruling the country. Their aim was to transfer power to an elected Iraqi government.”) Stewart painstakingly interviews local leaders with the hope of putting together a representative body. He balances political influence with the principles of moderation. Still, when he surveys a meeting of his rump city council, he sighs: “I knew these people well. Most had killed others; all had lost close relatives. Some wanted a state modeled on seventh-century Arabia, some wanted something that resembled even older, pre-Islamic tribal systems. Some were funded by the Iranian secret service; others sold oil on the local black market, ran protection rackets, looted government property, and smuggled drugs.”

In his recent speech about Iraq, President Bush said, “To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation’s political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws [to bring back the Saddam gang], and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq’s constitution.” That, alas, will only lead to a government of strongmen, as Stewart laments: “But we had arrived promising democracy, not a warlord.”

Because he is working near Basra and traveling throughout southern Iraq, Stewart is able to chronicle the rise of the Sadrists, Shiite fanatics whom, in the greatest of all ironies, the U.S. both installed in power and now attacks as terrorists. The no-go world of Sadr City, in Baghdad, takes its name from a family of Shiite clerics. Muqtada al-Sadr is the power behind the shaky throne of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the son of Sadr II, an enemy of Saddam, who, according to Stewart, “attracted huge crowds of the often illiterate urban poor, funded them, and encouraged them to dwell on the emotional cult of the return of the Shia messiah, or hidden Imam.”

Sadr II had a stormy relation with Saddam, who was, as described by Stewart, “at heart a Sunni leader of a modern secular party. He felt the Shia clerics had betrayed him when they joined the rebellion in 1991 and, while sipping his favorite Portuguese rosé, he probably felt, like many privileged Baghdadis, a slight horror at this white-bearded, turbaned radical. He banned the distribution of Sadr’s Friday sermons, and in 1999, he killed Sadr II and two of his sons.”

Another son, Muqtada, is the Huey Long of Iraq, and someone who was the beneficiary when the Sunnis decided to boycott post-2003 elections, which saw Shiites dominate the new government. Stewart reports: “Muqtada had not even the slightest pretension to theology, but he sent young, like-minded clerics to all the provinces, created his own armed militia, assassinated clerical rivals, declared an alternative government, and called for the immediate departure of the infidel Coalition.” Another critic says of his followers: “They are unemployed illiterates who like to riot.”

Stewart leaves Iraq in 2004, so what he is describing in the book are, relatively speaking, the good times. At his last posting, he is shelled with mortar rounds, and the governor’s compound comes to resemble Fort Apache. In imagining the looming civil war, he sees it “not between grand factions but between small local groups that were simultaneously mafia, tribes, and political parties.” At a governors’ meeting in the Green Zone, one of his colleagues complains: “If we wanted to destabilize the country we couldn’t have done a better job. We are hemorrhaging out there: abolishing the army, opening the borders, destroying industry.”

Stewart’s forecast of events is prescient: “I did not know what was going to happen to my friends … Whatever elections were held, whatever development money was spent, this would be land without a functioning state. The police would be powerless, officials entirely corrupt, beatings, rape, and assassination commonplace. Services would falter. Security would be nonexistent. The influence of foreign intelligence services would grow. Protection rackets would spread.”

‘Say it ain’t so’ is the tone of the memoir. Stewart wishes for a better outcome in Iraq. He even put his life on the line to help it get there. But he concludes: “Ten years in the Islamic world and in other places that had recently emerged from conflict had left me very suspicious of theories produced in seminars in Western capitals and of foreigners in a hurry.”

In his New Way Forward speech, President Bush declared: “We will double the number of provincial reconstruction teams. These teams bring together military and civilian experts to help local Iraqi communities pursue reconciliation, strengthen the moderates, and speed the transition to Iraqi self-reliance.” Whom would you rather hear from: someone who has governed a province in Iraq and walked across Afghanistan, or an American president who spent most of his time in Baghdad accomplishing his mission with a plastic turkey?

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, is the author, most recently, of Mentioned in Dispatches: The Travel Essays of an Expatriate American, (Odysseus Books). His next book is entitled An April Across America. His e-mail is: matthewstevenson@freesurf.