In August 2003, at the age of thirty, Rory Stewart took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad. A Farsi-speaking British diplomat who had recently completed an epic walk from Turkey to Bangladesh, he was soon appointed deputy governor of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, provinces in the remote, impoverished marsh regions of southern Iraq. He spent the next eleven months negotiating hostage releases, holding elections, and splicing together some semblance of an infrastructure for a population of millions teetering on the brink of civil war.
The Prince of the Marshes tells the story of Stewart's year. As a participant he takes us inside the occupation and beyond the Green Zone, introducing us to a colorful cast of Iraqis and revealing the complexity and fragility of a society we struggle to understand. By turns funny and harrowing, moving and incisive, it amounts to a unique portrait of heroism and the tragedy that intervention inevitably courts in the modern age.
THE BRITISH CAMP
A Prince cannot avoid ingratitude.
—Machiavelli, Discourses, Book I, Chapter 29
Pursuant to my authority as Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), relevant UN Security Council resolutions, including Resolution 1483 (2003), and the laws and usages of war, I hereby promulgate the following: The CPA is vested with all executive, legislative, and judicial authority necessary to achieve its objectives . . . This authority shall be exercised by the CPA Administrator.
Coalition Provisional Authority (Iraq)
Regulation Number 1
Monday, October 6, 2003
On the three-hour drive north from Basra to take up my post in Maysan, I passed through the territory the Prince of the Marshes claimed to control. I saw the canal Saddam had dug: some reeds, a few fishermen in tin boats and some water birds. Long parallel lines stretched for miles across the drab earth. There were very few people to be seen: most Marsh Arabs now lived in slums on the edge of cities. Boats were no longer the standard method of transport and the buffalo herds had gone. The thicket of six-foot reeds in chest-deep water that once covered thousands of square miles had become parched and barren mud.
We turned off the highway down an avenue guarded by two rusting Iranian tanks kept as souvenirs, one with a drunken turret. We passed buildings whose roofs had collapsed under the impact of American J-Dam explosives, came up along the edge of a bastion wall serving as protection against car bombs and stopped at the guard house of Camp Abu Naji. Six months earlier it had been the base of the semi-mystical Saddam-funded terrorist group, the Mujahaddin-el-Halq.
A private from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers approached the car, recognized the driver, saluted, and lifted the drop bar for us. On either side were low, shabby concrete buildings, rolls of barbed wire, and corrugated iron. There were soldiers on the roofs, presumably sleeping outside because there was no air-conditioning in the tents. I dragged my bags out of the Land Rover and was shown to a room.
Pushing back the heavy black curtain that served as a door, I lifted the nylon mosquito net and put my sleeping bag on the camp bed and brushed some sand off the tin trunk. The window frames were lined with duct tape and the curtain-door stretched to the floor but, as I was to find over my next six months in the camp, nothing was able to exclude the sand, which accumulated in a thick yellow film across the cement floor and the canvas chair.
We ate at six-thirty. At the entrance to the cook-house an Iraqi in a blue boiler suit was pouring bottled water into a large tea urn. A private stood next to it, making sure that everyone, officer and civilian alike, washed their hands from the urn to prevent the spread of diarrhea.
I sat with a group of young officers and the regimental padre. A subaltern barked, “Red or green?” and returned with plastic cups filled with juice of the relevant and astonishingly intense chemical color.
I was, it seemed, the first civilian to live in the camp. The officer on my left glanced at me and asked, “Do you work at the airport?” He assumed I was a soldier from the divisional headquarters.
“No, I’m the civilian who is setting up the Coalition Provisional Authority office in the province,” I replied.
“It’s the new civilian administration.”
“Thank God you’ve arrived at last and we can all go home,” he said, pushing his chair back. “Cake in a box, anyone?”
To shower after dinner I walked around the accommodation block, across the edge of the runway and behind the hangars. There was a roar from the diesel-powered generators, and the beat of the rotor-blade of a Chinook helicopter on the landing zone. I had to use a flashlight to avoid the rubble on the uneven sand. Above, I could see stars in a clear sky and imagine something of the desert just beyond the perimeter fence.
The showers were well-lit. There was a thick slurry of brown mud on the floor from combat boots and camouflage uniforms piled on the wooden benches. While someone cursed the lack of hot water, men dried themselves ostentatiously in the center of the room, talking about the day’s patrols, apparently oblivious to the two female officers brushing their teeth with mineral water at the sink.
The next morning at eight, I called on the colonel of the battle group. He was a slender man in his early forties, with gray hair scraped severely back from his head, dressed, like everyone, in desert camouflage. His office was decorated with the Leslie tartan of his regiment. He introduced me to the province with another PowerPoint presentation; one he seemed to have given many times before. He did not encourage questions.
“Maysan,” he began, “is the size of Northern Ireland, and we are running it with only a thousand men.” He explained that it was a very volatile place, and the battle group were short of equipment and development money. The regional corps headquarters of the Iraqi army had been looted, and all the weapons were now in the hands of the local population. The two key arteries of the province were Route 6, the highway that connected Basra and Baghdad, and the Tigris River.
“As for you, Rory— ” I looked up, midway through my sixth packet of crackers “there are very high expectations here that the British will achieve things. If things don’t happen they believe it is because we are deliberately trying to suppress their economic and political future. There is no possibility of a Baathist revival here. It is a small place and the Baathists would not be able to move here. There is a potential for Shia opposition here, connected to Iran and criminal gangs. I believe that the supervisory committee we have appointed here is relatively representative.”
He brought up a new screen on the monitor: “Vital Ground: Our vital ground is ‘the concept of regeneration.’”
The colonel seemed confident that he could keep order. He had been in command of his regiment for nearly three years and was a month from the end of his time in Maysan. He answered to no one nearer than a brigadier, two hundred miles away in Basra, had absolute control over his men and weaponry, and traveled incessantly. He knew the district well enough to answer the detailed complaints of local mayors. He had become close to the Beni Lam, an “aristocratic” tribe that had once been famous for their horses. But his strongest relationship was with Abu Hatim, whom the colonel described as “our local Robin
Hood, sometimes known as the Prince of the Marshes.” The two of them ran the province together.
I had no opportunityto discuss the briefings I had been given in London, and I left without a clear idea of our relationship. I had been told in Baghdad that, as the deputy governorate coordinator, I was to be “the deputy and alter ego of the governorate coordinator,” in charge of a civilian team of eight that would include a political officer, a development projects officer, and others. But there was as yet no governorate coordinator; a U.S. State Department officer was supposed to be arriving in that role in a few weeks’ time. Nor was there yet a political officer, a projects officer, or an Iraqi governor in Maysan. For the time being, I was a team of one, responsible for overseeing development projects and setting up Iraqi political structures. I had been told to act as something like the de facto governor of the province.
PRAISE FOR THE PRINCE OF THE MARSHES
"Rueful, richly detailed, often harrowing . . . [Stewart] brings his yearlong diary to a conclusion with a thrilling shoot ’em-up, an Alamo-like last stand in Nasiriya, where Sadrist forces attack coalition offices with mortars."—THE NEW YORK TIMES
"Rory Stewart can write . . . His spare, vivid prose serves him brilliantly . . . There’s sometimes something Monty Pythonesque about the way he sails gallantly, if not quite blindly, into danger."—MICHAEL UPCHURCH, THE SEATTLE TIMES
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