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The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraqby Rory Stewart
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Soon after Stewart, a British diplomat and professional adventurer, traveled to Iraq late in 2003 to search for work, he was named a provincial governor. In characteristic understatement, he says of his new role: 'I spoke little Arabic, and had never managed a shattered and undeveloped province of 850,000.' His job was supposed to be easy: the province, Maysan, nestled along the Iranian border deep in Iraq's Shia south, was one of the country's most homogenous, and nearly all of its citizens had fought against Saddam. Stewart spent most of his time navigating through a byzantine and thoroughly unfamiliar political landscape of tribal leaders, Islamist militias, Communist dissidents and Iranian intelligence agents. When he asks an adviser in Baghdad what his goals should be, his friend responds that if, within a year, the province hasn't descended into anarchy and Stewart can serve him 'some decent ice cream,' he will be satisfied. Engrossing and often darkly humorous, his book should be required reading for every political commentator who knows exactly what to do in Iraq despite never having dealt with recalcitrant interpreters or an angry mob. In the end, Stewart prevails and is rewarded with an appointment to Dhi Qar, a much more dangerous province with less military support. 16 pages of photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In June 2003, a little more than two months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, I traveled to Majar al-Kabir, a small farming town in southeastern Iraq, after an angry mob of Shiite Muslims had set upon the local police station and killed six British soldiers. To cover the story, I interviewed a few dozen people who lived nearby, talked to British military officials — and met with Karim Mahoud Hattab,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) a legendary Shiite guerrilla known across Iraq as the 'Prince of the Marshes.' During the Baathist dictatorship, Mahoud and a band of fighters had repeatedly ambushed government forces in the dense marshlands of southern Iraq. In a futile attempt to capture him and other Shiite rebels, Saddam Hussein had decided to drain the wetlands, transforming one of the few verdant corners of Iraq into an arid moonscape. The mercurial Prince, who fingered a chrome-plated handgun while we talked, blamed the attack on the British soldiers on unidentified provocateurs from Iran or agents of the deposed Baath Party. But others I talked to believed that the culprits were closer to home: They pointed to militiamen loyal to the Prince, a supposed friend of America and Britain. I left town both flummoxed and wiser. I hadn't fingered the killers, but I had learned two valuable lessons about Iraq's Shiite south: It was — and is — deeply riven by factional infighting, and its warlords often matter more than its would-be occupiers. Rory Stewart, a young British diplomat who helped to administer two provinces in southern Iraq for the U.S.-led occupation government, vividly depicts this chaotic world in his important and instructive new book, 'The Prince of the Marshes.' Through his descriptions of his day-to-day struggles to mediate disputes, promote democracy, facilitate reconstruction and otherwise manage his patch of Iraq, he lays bare the complexity of America's and Britain's mission in Iraq. Stewart spent 11 months in Iraq, arriving in September 2003, when he was just 30, and leaving with the formal handover of sovereignty in June 2004. He spins out his engaging, sometimes humorous tale in a series of diary entries, often penned late at night after a grueling day. Armed with rudimentary Arabic, he got out and about for much of his tour — as he did during his epic walk across post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2002, which formed the basis of his best-selling first book, 'The Places in Between.' In other words, Stewart's life in southern Iraq couldn't have been more different from those of his cloistered Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) colleagues in Baghdad, who spent their days huddled in the capital's fortified Green Zone debating fine points of constitutional theory. 'I spent my first week in Maysan (province) deciding how to mediate in a tribal war, deal with a flood, regulate religious flagellants, advise on the architecture of the souk, patch a split within a political party, set up a television station, arrange an election, and equip the police with guns,' he writes. 'I operated at a level that had nothing to do with new constitutions.' Stewart's dealings with the Prince and his brother, Maysan province's self-appointed governor, are particularly fascinating. In the Green Zone and the British command in Basra, the Prince was regarded as a hero. His militia had helped depose the Baathists who ran the province; he even had a seat on Iraq's interim Governing Council. But Stewart reveals that the Prince also has a dark side, dealing in smuggling, torture and extrajudicial killing. After seven months in Maysan, the Prince's stronghold, Stewart was transferred to the city of Nasiriyah, in another southern province. His time in Nasiriyah coincided with a violent rebellion by supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and a harrowing siege of the local CPA office. He brings to light, for the first time, the negligence and cowardice of the Italian troops there who were part of the 'coalition of the willing.' While no fault of his own, the change of venue deprives the reader of narrative continuity; characters such as the Prince and Stewart's CPA colleagues in Maysan are summarily dropped two-thirds of the way into the book. The two provinces in which Stewart worked were almost exclusively Shiite and supposedly quiescent, far from the violent Sunni Triangle that's been the epicenter of the postwar insurgency. The prevailing wisdom in Washington before the 2003 invasion was that Iraq's majority Shiites would be grateful for their liberation and would become willing partners in the transition to democracy. But Stewart encountered a far more complex reality, marked by local leaders' deep suspicion of both the occupiers and each other. Assassinations and kidnappings of fellow Shiites became commonplace. 'Everything seemed to be unraveling at once,' Stewart wrote in late October 2003, after one hit and two kidnappings. 'We were now facing civil war between the three most heavily armed factions in the province. The Prince's militia wanted to avenge the death of their comrade. The Sadrists wanted to avenge the first kidnapping and the Iranian-linked groups wanted to avenge the second. Every faction saw an opportunity to eliminate its rivals.' The standoff happened almost three years ago, but its components — Iran's meddling, Sadr's ambitions, the militias' brawn — all sound distressingly relevant today. Stewart is no Larry Diamond, the former CPA adviser who unleashed a barrage of criticism at the occupation administration in last year's 'Squandered Victory.' Nor is he an L. Paul Bremer, the former Bush administration proconsul, who remains an apologist for everything that occurred on his watch. Stewart is far more nuanced: He supported the mission of bringing democracy to Iraq, and he left Maysan believing that he had changed things for the better. But he also remains clear-eyed about his own shortcomings and those of the overall occupation. As he prepares to leave, he tells squabbling Iraqi leaders in Nasiriyah, 'To be honest, I am not very optimistic about this place.' Stewart returns briefly to events in Maysan at the end of the book. New alliances have been formed among some of the rival factions, but all the progressive figures have been pushed aside. The choice then, as it is now across the Shiite south, is between two bad alternatives: Iraqi thugs (in the form of an alliance between the Prince's men and Sadr's goons) or Iranian-backed militias. The result, he writes, is a militia-dominated, failing state that is 'reactionary, violent, intolerant toward women and religious minorities' — hardly 'the kind of state the Coalition had hoped to create.' By recounting his experiences in Iraq's often overlooked south, Stewart helps us understand how a democratizing experiment that began with such high hopes wound up offering Iraq's majority group such dismal options. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post and its former Baghdad bureau chief. His book, 'Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone,' will be published next month." Reviewed by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Stewart was able to forge strong bonds with individual Arabs, and his description of his personal relations form the core of an interesting look at a region of Iraq rarely covered in the mass media." Booklist
"Despite its exotic setting, the story is strangely familiar. Will reward readers interested in the Iraq war, or disaster management, or anyone interested in taking an intelligent adventure." Kirkus Reviews
"The Prince of the Marshes is his rueful, richly detailed, often harrowing account of his yearlong efforts to build a new civil society from the ruins of the old Iraq." New York Times
"Stewart's exasperation with the cultural ignorance of C.P.A. directives is as manifest as his affectionate regard for the rhythms and customs of Arab life, a quality that often recalls an earlier generation of British travel writer." New Yorker
"Important and instructive . . . [Stewart] lays bare the complexity of Americas and Britains mission in Iraq."—The Washington Post Book World
In August 2003, at the age of thirty, Rory Stewart took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad. A Farsi-speaking British diplomat, 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 Stewarts year. By turns funny and harrowing, moving and incisive, this book amounts to a unique portrait of heroism and the tragedy that intervention inevitably courts in the modern age.
"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."—The New York Times
"Rory Stewart can write . . . His spare, vivid prose serves him brilliantly . . . Theres sometimes something Monty Pythonesque about the way he sails gallantly, if not quite blindly, into danger."—The Seattle Times
RORY STEWART is the author of the national bestseller The Places in Between. A former infantry officer, diplomat in Indonesia and Yugoslavia, and Fellow at Harvards John F. Kennedy School of Government, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire by the British government for his services in Iraq. He now lives in Kabul.
Stewart chronicles his 11 months of negotiating hostage releases, holding elections, and splicing together some semblance of an infrastructure in an impoverished region of southern Iraq.
About the Author
Rory Stewart has written for the New York Times Magazine, Granta, and the London Review of Books, and is the author of The Places in Between. A former fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire by the British government for services in Iraq. He lives in Scotland.
Table of Contents
Waking Up Dead
Part One: The Prince of the Marshes
The British Camp
The Supervisory Committee
Part Two: Death of a Hero
And Would Not Stay for an Answer
Part Three: Iraqi Pastoral
The Paths That Lead to Destruction
Import Substitution Industrialization
The Islamic Call
Majority and Minority
A New Chief
Death by the Office Wall
Part Four: Nasiriyah
A Second Governor
Sage of the Assembly
Echoes from the Frontiers
Return to the Green Zone
The Rule of Law
Part Five: Besieged
The Quick Reaction Force
Last Days in Amara
What Our Readers Are Saying
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