The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq
by Rory Stewart
Harcourt, 396 pp., $25.00
The British governed Iraq under a League of Nations mandate, and with some success, between 1920 and 1932. They returned to southern Iraq in 2003 as a junior member of the US-led coalition which invaded and conquered the country. With the second British coming arrived Rory Stewart, a young soldier and diplomat. The book under review is his story of the part he played in governing, successively, two southern provinces in Iraq, Maysan and Dhi Qar, between September 2003 and June 2004. He tells how the attempt to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq led to the frustration of the conquerors, the dissolution of the state, and the country’s collapse into insurgency and sectarian violence. Implicitly his book is a devastating indictment of a total failure to align rhetoric with reality. It raises profound questions about the purposes and limits of military intervention in the internal affairs of a country in today’s world. The reader cannot put the book down without wondering: What on earth did they think they were doing?
The issue raised by Stewart’s book is not about the motives for making war on Iraq, dubious though these were. It is about the validity of the project of “regime change”; or, as Prime Minister Tony Blair prefers to call it, “value change.” In essence the US had two choices: either to try to run Iraq as a colony or to install a successor regime as quickly as possible, and let it get on with governing according to well-tried Iraqi precedents. The first option was never seriously pursued. Colonialism is not part of the American tradition and was deemed, rightly, contrary to the morality and realities of a post-colonial age.
The second option, a policy of conquer and then stand aside, might have worked, and might have stirred up the stagnant waters of Iraqi politics sufficiently for new forces to emerge. But this did not satisfy the moralists, who needed a grander project to justify an act of war which was both unnecessary and illegal. America had to leave its democratic spore in Iraq—”a full liberal democracy: peaceful, rich, stable, and humane,” as Stewart puts it. And because the attempt to create democracy in a rush involved the destruction of all the systems by which Iraq had been governed in the past—including Saddam Hussein’s, but not confined to it—the country was thereby rendered ungovernable, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
This larger history of the effort to “build democracy,” glimpsed through Stewart’s monthly visits to the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, is juxtaposed with his efforts to govern parts of Iraq. The total disconnection between these two sets of activities forms the leitmotif of his book.
In Baghdad, the American viceroy, Paul Bremer, had prepared a seven-point plan for Iraq, “seven steps to heaven,” Stewart calls it, replete with PowerPoint presentations with multi-colored charts, targets, and indicators; a kind of Gosplan for the implementation of democracy. He had imported Bernie Kerik, the ex–New York police commissioner, to bring zero tolerance to Baghdad, together with the American diet of “burgers and ice cream… hickory-smoked streaky bacon, pancakes and maple syrup, peanut butter, and half-and-half.” Stewart comments:
It appeared from all of this that we were being told that within the next seven months we should, among many other things, elect a transitional assembly, privatize state-owned enterprises, install electronic trading on the Baghdad stock exchange, reform the university curriculum, generate six thousand megawatts of electrical power, vet all the judges, and have thirty-two thousand Iraqi soldiers selected and trained in the new civil defense corps and ensure that 90 percent of Iraqis received terrestrial television broadcasts.
The Americans around Bremer knew some history, mainly about the successful creation of democracies in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, and assumed that they had a universal formula for success. Unfortunately, Bremer and his associates knew little Iraqi history, and discounted what they did know. They should have known that Iraq, unlike Germany and Japan, but somewhat like Yugoslavia, was a completely artificial state, created by the British from three provinces of the old Ottoman Empire, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra; it was divided along religious and ethnic lines, and had little internal cohesion. Most of the people were organized not in civil society or classes but in highly personalized relationships based on families, clans, tribes, and conspiracies. Iraqi principles of rule were based on this fact. The minority Sunni Arab elites ruled through a mixture of coercion and patronage. The army assumed a pivotal function as the chief agent of ethnic and religious integration; the non-Sunni elites were co-opted through distributions of land and (later) of oil revenues.
Between 1921 and 1958, the Hashemite monarchy commanded a certain dynastic allegiance from the traditional tribal chiefs, and repression was relatively muted (though uprisings of Kurds and Shias were brutally suppressed). Under Nuri al-Said, Iraq’s “strong man” and greatest statesman between the 1930s and the 1950s, a façade of democracy was allowed. However, this fairly easy-going, albeit corrupt, regime was undermined by the decline of the merchants, rural landowners, and other traditional groups that supported it, and the rise of new forces of military nationalism and urban radicalism which could not be accommodated within the old system. Following the coup of 1958, Iraq came to be governed by a succession of increasingly brutal military dictatorships connected with the Baath Party, culminating in the twenty-five-year despotism of Saddam Hussein. In view of this background, the project of creating a Western-style democracy in double-quick time was a complete fantasy.
The reality facing Rory Stewart was that he was sent into a collapsed rural region in a country of which he knew almost nothing, and in which he had to find his way through a maze of opaque tribal and religious relationships. His relative success in making things work in his brief time in Iraq can be attributed to his own personal charm and sensitivity, combined with firmness and a close attention to social etiquette. Wherever possible, he preferred to work through kinship networks which had partly survived in the south, creating personal relations with the leading local people.
He was very good at this. His “one clear [early] innovation” in Maysan was to decree hospitality for visitors:
No Iraqi official would receive a guest without offering him a drink. The ritual greetings and hospitality were a social necessity that seemed almost an obligation. A cup of coffee delivered in the right way could win more friends than a new high school, and no amount of money could wipe clean an insult.
In Dhi Qar, he used the “tribal route” to secure the release of a kidnapped British businessman, Michael Teely, who was handed back to him as a “present” from the uncle of the kidnapper. But his story is also one of the waning of his belief that he could effect any real change. The narratives of Iraqi history would continue to evolve, he felt, according to their own internal logic.
Stewart’s flat and unemotional prose reveals almost nothing about the author. He has something of the “stiff upper lip” of the British ruling class, which British boarding schools—he went to Eton—are so good at inculcating. There is little explicit argument, and judgments are rare. His own ruminations on the art of rule have to be inferred through the quotations from Machiavelli that head most of the chapters. However, Stewart, an acute observer of human beings as well as of place, has a strong sense of history and is, evidently, an assiduous diarist. He makes more of conversation than description and this is well suited to conveying the labyrinthine, endlessly subtle, and apparently contradictory relationship between words and deeds, between what is said and what is understood, between loyalty and betrayal that formed the substance of his relationships with Iraqi magnates.
Stewart’s previous book, The Places in Between, which describes his journey on foot through the roughest parts of Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban, caused him to be hailed as a writer in the tradition of Wilfred Thesiger and Colin Thubron. But he is rather in the tradition of the best kind of imperial civil servant, with a strong dose of realism, and an enormous curiosity about, and sympathy with, non-Western cultures. These qualities combine to make The Prince of the Marshes one of the most valuable books to have come out of the Iraqi quagmire.
Rory Stewart took up the position of “deputy governorate coordinator” in the Maysan province of Iraq on September 28, 2003, replacing a deposed relative of Saddam Hussein. For five weeks, pending the arrival of Molly Phee, a US State Department official, he exercised full civilian powers as the representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The awkward title of his post reflects the uncertainty which dogged the Coalition’s mission from the start. What was he (or the “Coalition”) doing in Iraq? Not quite “governing” it, but coordinating its governance. The euphemism “did nothing,” he writes, to
tell us how much corruption and violence and incompetence we should tolerate before intervening…. In what circumstances were our governments prepared to kill Iraqis and in which circumstances were they prepared to have their own soldiers killed?
Maysan, with a population of 800,000, on both sides of the river Tigris, and opposite the Iranian state of Khorramshahr—which is largely Arab—had been in the front line of the Iraq–Iran war of the 1980s. It was an agricultural province, ruined by war and Saddam Hussein’s brutal suppression of its Shia population after 1991. It had liberated itself before the Coalition arrived. Most of Saddam’s local representatives had fled or disappeared from Amara, the capital. The British had cobbled together a supervisory committee, including an interim “governor” and police chief; but in practice what there was of “law and order” was provided by armed militias who had looted the armories of Saddam’s disbanded garrisons.
Trying to control these militias were a thousand British troops in a province the size of northern Ireland; there was a two-hundred-mile frontier virtually open to supplies for terrorists and to smuggling to and from Iran. In his five months in Maysan, Stewart commuted fifteen miles daily in an armored car between the British army base and the government building in Amara where the CPA had established a political and administrative unit. Its job was to create a system of government based on democracy and to help Iraqi civil servants restore local services wrecked by war and looting. The earliest advice Stewart received was from a British warrant officer on what to do if taken hostage: “It is likely that they will male-rape you. Remember that in seventy-five percent of cases where you are male raped, you will get an erection or ejaculate. Do not worry about that. It does not mean you are gay.”
Before Stewart arrived, the colonel commanding the British garrison had been running the province through the main local notable, a formidable figure known as the Prince of the Marshes. Much of Stewart’s book is about his tortuous relations with the prince, and why the old tech-nique of indirect rule could no longer work.
The Prince of the Marshes, Abu Hatim, had received military training from the Kurds and had waged guerrilla war against Saddam Hussein for seventeen years; he was now more than willing to work for the “New Iraq,” provided his tribal relatives were given local power. He had been made a member of the national governing council in Baghdad; his brother was chairman of the “regeneration committee” of Maysan. But Stewart soon realized that it was not possible for the British to put all their bets on the prince.
For one thing he was not a prince—not even the chief of the Abu Mohammed, the great marsh tribe of southern Iraq. For another thing, ruling through the prince was contrary to the CPA mandate: “We had arrived promising democracy, not a warlord.” The CPA vision required creating a “civil society” made up of all the “interests,” not just tribal ones. Thirdly, the tribal system was itself in decay. In 1991, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and scattered their inhabitants as part of his ruthless suppression of the Shia population, which had links with Iran, with whom he had just fought a bloody war. Saddam ruled Maysan and the adjoining province of Dhi Qar through the Baath Party and using special army units with heavy armor and numerous checkpoints. Secret surveillance by the security and intelligence services was combined with arbitrary mass arrests, blackmail, torture, and execution.
The invasion led to the collapse of the Saddam state and the political and economic infrastructure it controlled. In its quest for “regime change” the Coalition disbanded the army, sacked all senior Baathists, abolished the security and intelligence services, and refused to allow the police to carry heavy weapons or set up secret units. Returning exiles from Iran in robes and turbans replaced the Baathist officials in their ties and safari jackets, and occupied the now empty villas. The result was a power vacuum, filled by warring militias. Pipelines and power lines were regularly sabotaged by insurgents and gangsters; looters used tractors to pull down pylons and sell the smelted copper wire to Iran.
Into this vacuum stepped the Prince of the Marshes, offering to restore order for the Coalition by reasserting traditional tribal power. But his authority was challenged not just by the unemployed urban masses but by the the fundamentalist religious parties banned by Saddam. Stewart faced three main factions. The prince’s party was rural, tribal, and relatively secular. The other two, SCIRI (the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) and the Sadrists, were Shia clerical parties. Both were splinters from the original al-Dawa party, founded in late 1950s by Ayatollah (or senior Shia cleric) Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was killed by Saddam Hussein in 1980. Both wanted to establish a theocratic state governed according to Sharia law, but whereas SCIRI, many of whose supporters had fled to Iran in the 1980s, was linked to the Iranian ayatollahs, the Sadr-ists, led by Baqir al-Sadr’s nephew, Moqtada al-Sadr, wanted Iraq to be an independent Islamic state. Each controlled a militia: SCIRI, the Badr Brigade, trained in Iran; Sadr the Mahdi militia, powerful in Baghdad and elsewhere today. “The Prince’s semiliterate Marsh Arabs,” writes Stewart,
had confirmed their reputation as thieves by thoroughly looting Amara. The other militias were beginning to enforce very restrictive Islamic social codes…. Mafia gangs connected with diesel [oil] smuggling, kidnapping, and car-jacking were flourishing.
It is little wonder that Stewart had to struggle in order “to find the leadership of which Baghdad dreamed,” one that supported a “full liberal democracy.”
The Prince of the Marshes’s idea of local government was simple: close down the other political parties, whom he regarded as criminals, Iranian spies, and unemployed illiterates. “They have no supporters and if they try to make any trouble we together will kill them,” he told Stewart. His method for dealing with a strike in the oil refinery was to knock down the strike leader with his fists and order his men to beat the others with rifle butts—all in the presence of British troops. “Miraculously,” Rory Stewart was told, “everyone has now returned to work.”
The prince was wrong about one big thing: the Sadrists had more support than he did, and as Stewart said, though they were enemies of the Coalition, they had to be included in the power structures to avert violence. He told Baghdad that he planned to set up a new provincial council, based on a “more inclusive approach,” which would elect a governor. At his first meeting with the supervisory council, the councilors’ chief complaint was that they had not been paid their salaries.
Soon after he arrived, the Coalition-appointed police chief, Abu Rashid, a kinsman of the Prince of the Marshes, was murdered on the steps of a mosque where a Sadrist leader, Seyyed Hassan, was preaching a sermon denouncing the Coalition. An hour later some of Abu Rashid’s hundred cousins in the police force stormed the mosque and kidnapped the Sadrist cleric, whom they accused of being responsible for the murder. The Sadrists and their allies, armed with Kalashnikovs, then attacked the po-lice headquarters. The prince’s militia defended it with heavy weapons. The prince’s men also kidnapped Dr. Amin, the SCIRI leader, whom they accused of being a member of Iranian intelligence.
Stewart was facing civil war between the three most heavily armed factions in the province. The prince’s militia wanted to avenge the death of the police chief, the Sadrists and their Mahdi militia wanted to avenge the kidnapping of Seyyed Hassan, and SCIRI the kidnapping of Dr. Amin:
The oil in the province was about to run out and the police were on the verge of disintegration and mutiny. I had made a dubious and probably illegal appointment of a new police chief; the Prince of the Marshes was still putting pressure on us to attack the Sadr office; the Iranian parties wanted us to arrest the Prince.
But after a surprisingly conciliatory visit from Seyyed Hassan, the Sadrist cleric, who had by now been released, he saw “a chance to bind into our structures the most hostile, heavily armed Islamist group in the province [the Sadrists]—a group no one really had the will or strength to confront.” He would call a “grand summit with all the provincial leadership in which I would ask them to suspend their differences and uphold the law.”
This bold gamble paid off, but nearly didn’t. One must imagine the slight, youthful-acting governorate coordinator—”Seyyed Rory” to the Iraqis—sitting alone at a small desk in the middle of a room of two hundred bearded sheikhs and clerics all shouting at one another and at him, as he demanded that
you all…walk up to this desk and commit to upholding the rule of law, to controlling your followers and handing over any of them who break the law. Then we will all sign a document confirming this.
What happened next was an argument between Stewart and Seyyed about, among much else, the kidnapping of Dr. Amin, after which no one moved. The day was saved by an academic from the London School of Economics, Yahya Said, whose parents had been famous Communist leaders in Iraq. Yahya Said took over from Stewart’s official translator, launching into “a stream of Arabic that brought sudden smiles of understanding to the audience. People began approaching my desk in groups.” Stewart had his document renouncing violence, and it was “the most popular thing I did in Maysan…. The next day everyone did what they had promised….” In the remaining two months of his rule “there were no more kidnappings, public vendettas, or RPGs fired in the streets.” It struck Stewart that he had “mounted something closer to a performance than a negotiation.”
The American Molly Phee took over in November 2004, with Stewart staying on as her deputy. Their first joint task was to appoint the provincial council to take over from the Coalition Provisional Authority. (The CPA had vetoed elected councils as premature.) Stewart fought to include the most powerful sheikhs and clerics in the council, on the reasonable ground that it was better to have them in the tent than fighting each other on the streets. He was only partially successful. The CPA officials in Baghdad refused to condone a “Shia theocracy,” insisting that the council be filled with liberals and minorities who represented almost no one (twelve Christian families got a representative, as did a hundred people who said they were followers of John the Baptist).
The prince allied himself with the efforts of Baghdad and Molly Phee to restrict the role of the Iranian-linked parties. As a result his brother, Riyadh, was elected governor. The new governor reminded Stewart that “security was at the heart of all our problems,” and that “he intended to take full control of the police, establish a secret intelligence service, ban demonstrations, arrest a journalist who had criticized him, and expel his Sadrist opponents from the council.” When Stewart pointed out that such acts would be illegal, “his face became impassive, his eyes suspicious.” An American expert on democracy came from Baghdad to do some “capacity-building” with the new council. He drew an oblong box to represent the council, beneath it four boxes to represent its committees. “He is drawing a dog,” muttered one sheikh. “Welcome to your new democracy,” said the democracy expert. At this, “two of the sheikhs walked out.”
With the security situation temporarily under control, the regeneration of the ruined province could get underway. It did not get far. The money Stewart was able to extract from Baghdad, in order to rebuild schools, hospitals, and offices, disappeared into “inscrutable systems of contracts, invoices, and receipts.” With 70 percent unemployment, he managed to get a public works scheme started, which gave work to 2,500 people, selected at random to avoid accusations of tribal patronage. But more ambitious schemes had to be shelved. Advised by his American economists, Bremer proposed to save $5 billion by “monetizing the food basket”—i.e., substituting cash for rations—and cutting the oil subsidy. But the Iraqis refused to give up their ration cards, and attempts to raise fuel prices led to riots. An $18.3 billion program for civil reconstruction was stalled in Congress.
Although the province was temporarily quiet, bizarre incidents continued. One morning, an unshaven man gathered a chanting crowd of hundreds outside the CPA office. Allowed in, he read out a long statement condemning the iniquities of the Coalition. It turned out he had cut off the tip of his penis while shaving his pubic hair and wanted the CPA to supply him with money to visit the doctor. Stewart gave him $20 from his own pocket. “Within ten minutes the crowd had gone.” Reports of unusual late-night activity in a ruined factory led to the deployment of a covert observation team, equipped with expensive night-vision gear. It turned out that “what they had seen, highlighted in the green glow of their night-image goggles, was men gathering for gay sex.”
In March 2004 Stewart was appointed deputy governorate coordinator in Nasiriyah, capital of the province of Dhi Qar, an adjoining area of flat silt in the delta between the Tigris and Euphrates. Here he drew on what he had done in Maysan. “I established the foundations of a three-thousand-person employment scheme, met and documented all the political parties, wrote a forty-page paper on the tribes of Dhi Qar; organized the selection of a new police chief, managed staff inside the office, helped Toby [the political officer] select the provincial council, dealt with riots and large demonstrations outside the door, went on leave.” Economic achievements were meager, though; the exception was a scheme, financed by the Prince of Wales Trust, to teach 250 boys a month carpentry skills.
By comparison with his experience in Maysan, Stewart faced two handicaps. The CPA had a poor relationship with the local political leaders, and the Italian garrison had no stomach for maintaining security. The Sadrists under Sheikh Ali Zeidri were out of control, breaking up meetings of the local councils, ambushing Coalition forces, attacking fuel trucks on the main highway, burning Internet cafés, torturing, kidnapping. When they captured the town of Nasiriyah, Bremer ordered the Italians to drive them out. Instead, the Italians promised not to attack them. This was the start of the nationwide “insurgency” against the Coalition. Back in the Green Zone an American governor of a Sunni province said, “If we want to destabilize the country we couldn’t have done a better job. We are haemorrhaging out there: abolishing the army, opening the borders, destroying industry.”
On May 11, 2004, the CPA compound in Nasiriyah came under mortar fire from the Sadrist insurgents. They had cut the compound off from the Italian barracks on the south side of the river. In the compound were Stewart’s six-person bodyguard, a New Zealand policeman, six Americans and their Filipino support staff, and a platoon of Italian soldiers—about sixty armed men, as well as fourteen civilians. The Italian guards refused to leave the compound to engage the attackers; the Italian garrison promised to send a quick reaction force across the Tigris in twenty minutes. When it arrived seven hours later, it evacuated wounded Filipino sentries and rushed back to the barracks. The siege lasted three days, with more than a hundred mortars and rocket-propelled grenades hitting the compound in a single night. Miraculously, only one person was killed. Those in the compound were eventually rescued by a US AC-130 Specter gunship, which strafed the mortars from 10,000 feet.
On June 28, 2004, the CPA transferred sovereignty to the Iraqi government. In Amara, which was peaceful when Stewart left it, a full-scale anti-Coalition insurgency broke out. When he returned six months later, after national and local elections, he found a Sadrist state established in southern Iraq, enforcing Sharia law. It was “reactionary, violent, intolerant toward women and religious minorities…. This was not the kind of state the Coalition had hoped to create.”
Stewart’s brief reflections on his experience are as ambivalent as one would expect. Prolonged occupation and rule of a foreign country, he writes, is unacceptable; but it may bring about the transformations that the invaders generally want:
The CPA in the Green Zone wanted to build the new state in a single frenzy. 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. We acted as though there could be…no necessity to think about sequence or of timing.
But the frenzy was not just the result of technical hubris. It reflected the fact that the occupation was transitory.
Stewart does not think that colonialism would have done any better (though a colonial approach would have been much more professional) because the population of Iraq was too suspicious and hostile, and local power structures too damaged by Saddam to allow for colonial occupation. He thinks that in retrospect it would have been better to get out as soon as possible, and that this is still the best option, leaving it to the Iraqi leadership to solve their problems and create a workable nation.
In his magisterial survey of Iraqi history, published just before the invasion, Charles Tripp reminds us that the history of Iraq is made up of a number of different narratives, of which Saddam Hussein’s regime is by far the least attractive:
The population of Iraq is not condemned to repeat this history, since certain key players and factors will have changed significantly. However, those who are seeking to develop a new narrative for the history of Iraq must recognise the powerful legacies at work in the country if they do not want to succumb to their logic.
Stewart’s book shows that this was excellent advice, rarely followed.
 The English edition, published by Picador, is entitled Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq.
 Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq(Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2000), p. 293.