A pro's look at the facts on the ground in Iraq

Review Iraq


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

Rory Stewart

Harcourt / 416 pages / $25.00

Rory Stewart, a Scotsman, is a courageous and entertaining individual. He has treated readers to two brain-expanding, eye-opening books this year, books that have exploded official government propaganda about the embattled nations of Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

The first of those books is The Places in Between, published in oversized paperback by Harvest. It describes in Stewart's always clear, sometimes ironic and frequently humorous prose how and why he walked across portions of Afghanistan and Iran during 2001 and 2002, as foreign governments vied for tribal loyalties and the tribes themselves were either killing one another's members or threatening to do so.

Born in 1973 and highly educated, Stewart could have chosen a safe life. Instead, he chose the life of a British diplomat, sought postings in strife-torn regions - especially Indonesia and Yugoslavia - without many material comforts, and then risked his career path, as well as his life, from time to time to explore as an unaffiliated civilian.

Stewart observes on the pages of The Places in Between that policy makers in Great Britain, the United States and other Western nations understood almost nothing about the rural areas where Afghans live. They knew little and cared little about 9/11 and al-Qaida and the militarism of George W. Bush. As for the brand of democracy that Bush wanted to implant - well, the very word, the very concept, meant nothing.

His walk ended, Stewart returned to Scotland to compose the book. But when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began during March 2003, Stewart says dryly, "I sent in my resume. No one replied. In August, I took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad to ask for a job from the director of operations." This time, Stewart received a reply. The British Foreign Office would send him to Maysan as deputy governate coordinator.

Maysan, in the southern portion of Iraq, turned out to be a long way from the teeming capital of Baghdad, where the recently overthrown Saddam Hussein had tried to rule the religiously, economically and politically fractured country through terror.

Stewart learned that "Maysan was in the marshes just north of the Garden of Eden. Or rather just north of the dead date palm and visitors' parking lot that Iraqis claimed marked the site of paradise." Western tourists, Stewart realized, had played into the Garden of Eden story line by describing the marshes of Maysan "as though they preserved something of that pre-Fall innocence. They wrote about flocks of rare birds in the sky over the watershed and reed halls built to a design more than five thousand years old."

Alas, by 2003, the marshes and all sorts of innocence had expired, the casualties of wars waged against Iraq by Iran, by the United States, by other aggressors intent on oil riches, not to mention the civil murderousness among various Iraqi religious sects and village gangs.

The Prince of the Marshes is presented largely as a diary starting Sept. 28, 2003, when Stewart arrived in Maysan, and ending June 28, 2004, when the Western occupiers known euphemistically as the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred sovereignty - if not self-determination - to what passed for an Iraqi government.

Throughout his work in the south of Iraq, Stewart seems motivated not so much by political ideology as by a sincere desire to help villagers who have suffered greatly, partly through their own doing, partly through the doing of homegrown despots, partly through the doing of foreign governments.

Unlike President Bush and so many other interventionists who have never seen what Stewart lived, the diplomat-author is realistic about how much can be accomplished in less than a year with so many obstacles to overcome.

In a brief book review, it is impossible to thoroughly convey the difficulty of the reconstruction task, especially when part of the mandate included imposing Western-style democracy on a population that did not understand it or understood it but rejected it. So I will end with a few sentences from Stewart, excerpted from two of the most insightful paragraphs in an always insightful book.

After explaining how impoverished or greedy Iraqis would tear down electricity pylons so they could sell the copper wire in Iran for maybe ten thousand dollars, creating ten million dollars' worth of damage, Stewart notes "It is very difficult to restore basic services in someone else's country. ... Saddam [Hussein'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."

Steve Weinberg is the author of seven books and a free-lance writer.

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