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Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Prince of the Marshes

This is a fascinating and telling account of the difficulties encountered in Iraq due to poor planning, lack of understanding of local policitics, and other reasons during the attempt to rebuild Iraqi society after Saddam had been removed from power. This is part of a much longer article at Slate:

The Prince of the Marshes, by Rory Stewart, Slate:

In August 2003, 30-year-old Rory Stewart took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad and asked the British Foreign Office for a job. The Farsi-speaking former diplomat soon found himself appointed deputy governor of Maysan province in southern Iraq. His new book, The Prince of the Marshes, describes his experiences... This week we are publishing five excerpts from the book ... as he attempted to understand the system, the region, and the players, particularly tribal leader Karim Mahood Hattab, the "Prince of the Marshes."

Friday, Oct. 10, 2003 Commentators abroad complained that the Coalition did not remember history. They believed we had ignored important lessons from post-war Germany and Japan and 1920s Iraq. But history has few unambiguous lessons. Many of my colleagues were well respected Arabists with extensive experience in post-war reconstruction, but none of them could guess the exact effect of a foreign invasion, the toppling of the President, and a society turned on its head. No library could tell you about the Prince of the Marshes; there were no polls that would reveal his popularity, now that events tested his strength....

The afternoon of my meeting with the Prince for example, I watched an elderly visitor enter the compound. He did not offer a bribe or an official letter at the gate, so he must have been known by the guard. ... Then he was made to sit for ten minutes on a decrepit wicker chair on the sidewalk. Some Iraqi sheikhs who were passing greeted him. It was probably embarrassing to be seen waiting in the sun, but they embraced each other warmly. The man smiled politely when a translator came out to greet him and, after a brief discussion, escorted him up the path to the reception.

There, in the waiting room, on purple and yellow sofas, were eight other Iraqi men: two in baggy suits carrying files; three in torn and mud-caked flannel trousers, gazing at Arabic posters that, judging by their vacant expressions, they were unable to read; two in sheikhly tribal costume; and a young cleric in a black turban. The sheikhs immediately stood to greet the new man, the laborers quickly followed, and even the men in suits got up, although they were hot and fat. The cleric raised a hand and rose slightly from his chair. The visitor returned the greeting of the cleric; embraced the men in tribal robes and kissed them, asking them in a tone of great tenderness how they were; shook hands with the men in suits; and, putting his hand to his chest, wished the laborers peace. ... The group sat in silence for half an hour until a translator entered and guided the new visitor to my office. ...

"Seyyed Rory," said my guest, in English, "My name is Hussein Suwaadi." He then settled back into Arabic. He said he was in charge of the finance ministry for the province, or at least that was what the translator said. ... I had heard him say he was a "mudhir"—a director. What exactly did this mean? ...

"I have come to get your help in accessing our operating budget this month. The treasurer will not release it." Pause. "Because he says he does not have the correct paperwork or permission. ... This was a very common problem. The treasurer almost never paid out budgets, whatever kind of paperwork Baghdad sent. "I think he is a Baathist," continued the director. "That is why he will not release the money: he is trying to sabotage the ministries."

I nodded politely and pretend to scribble this down. I guessed that most people who were accused of being sabotaging Baathists were no more Baathist than their accusers: the accusation was just a convenient way of getting rid of rivals. ...

My telephone rang, the gate warning me that a senior visitor had arrived. I stood up, thanked Hussein for coming, and told him we would talk about it tomorrow when I had checked with Baghdad. He smiled. As I walked him out Hussein told me that he was the paramount sheikh of the Suwaad and that he should be the governor of the province; he knew everybody. We would be good friends, he could sense it, and he would help me with anything I needed.

As he walked through the waiting room everyone stood to greet him again except the cleric, and I reflected that these feudal lords and petty contractors understood my visitor's public life and private character in a way I never could. They had watched him at weddings and funerals and in the tribal meeting halls; they had a sense of whether he was funny or pompous, arch or considerate, wise or merely sly. They knew what kind of obligations he could be expected to fulfill; when a promise was sincere; when he would go out of his way and when he wouldn't.

These men also knew, I found out later, that Hussein's father was called Saad and that his grandfather Sehud was the brother of one of the paramount sheikhs of the Suwaad but that the most powerful sheikh of the Suwaad at the moment was Sheikh Muhajjer Ali Shiah, not Hussein. They knew that Hussein's two brothers and uncle had been killed by Saddam because of their part in the 1991 uprising; that Hussein had tried to take control of the province in the few weeks after the liberation but was beaten by the Prince of the Marshes... I knew none of this. Only perhaps the cleric, who was in his twenties and had spent the last fifteen years in Najaf, could have been as ignorant as me.

Saturday, Oct. 11, 2003 ... [entire article here] ...

Sunday Oct. 12, 2003 ...There were many poor and jobless in Amara, and our visitors were campaigning for a better economy as the route to peace. One of the first to tell me this was seventy-year-old Sheikh Ismail of the Bahadil tribe, who began, "We will never forget Mr. Grimley."

"Mr. Grimley?" I said.

"Mr. Grimley, your British predecessor here in the 1940s. He irrigated the fields. He worked for the Iraqi people. He made prosperity. The Grimley canal. Ah, Mr. Grimley. These young men outside know nothing. They are bored they are lied to by their clerics. Dealing with them is very easy. If you just give them jobs they will be too busy to turn up and make trouble. No one here really supports these radicals. We are a quiet society, a rural, tribal society that looks up to elders. Simple jobs would be enough: a dollar a day, cleaning the streets and some help with the irrigation. Remember Mr. Grimley."

We were surrounded by half-forgotten history. I had met some people back home who still remembered British political officers who had served in Iraq between 1916 and 1958. ... But no one had ever mentioned Grimley.

And yet it was somehow Mr. Grimley who had imprinted himself on the mind of the old sheikh and left his name in the landscape. Grimley couldn't have actually paid for the canal—the British consular office by the 1940s was famously short of money. Nor could he really even have ordered it to be built—by that date Iraq had not been a British protectorate for twenty years. Perhaps he had used his position to champion the project with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Sheikh Ismail remembered Grimley coming out weekly to inspect the progress, getting down into the ditch and showing people how to dig. The Sheikh left it to others to draw out the implications, which they did, taunting us in endless meetings: "What has the Coalition ever done for us? What will you be remembered for? Nothing."

It was not that we lacked money and power. We could get our hands on much more of both than Mr. Grimley ever had. ... Our position reminded people of colonialism. But we were not colonial officers. Colonial officers in British India served for forty years, spoke the local languages fluently, and risked their lives and health, administering justice and collecting revenue in tiny, isolated districts, protected only by a small local levy. They often ruled indirectly, "advising" local kings, tolerating the flaws in their administration and toppling them only if they seriously endangered the security of the state. They put a strong emphasis on local knowledge, courage, initiative and probity. But they were ruthless in controlling dissent and wary of political change.

By contrast, our governments, like the United Nations, kept us on short contracts and prevented us from going into dangerous or isolated areas. They gave us little time or incentive to develop serious local expertise, and they considered indirect rule through local elites unacceptable. They had no long-term commitment to ruling the country. Their aim was to transfer power to an elected Iraqi government. The British wanted to do it immediately. Bremer thought it might take a couple of years. ...

Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003 If the province was to remain reasonably quiet, I believed I would have to build a close relationship with the Prince of the Marshes and since I had failed to make an impression in his house, I invited him to my office. He drove his small Japanese car right into the compound—no one dared to search him—parked beside an armored personnel carrier ... and strode down the path...

I felt nervous. I went to the kitchen and told Karim to make coffee. I gave the kitchen boy ten dollars from my wallet and told him to hurry to the souk and buy two kilos of baklava. Then I rushed into my office, cursing the fact that I had not used insecticide and there was now no time to spray and let it dissipate. I re-emerged with toothbrush and toothpaste, took some water from the kitchen because the bathroom water was too sewage ridden, and brushed my teeth; pulled on a tie and, returning to the office, swept my papers off the table into a cardboard box I hid under the desk; pulled some of my books out of my suitcase and arranged them on the shelf ... thinking it would make me look more important ...

He swept past me into the meeting room, and everyone waiting for meetings stood to greet him. But he did not stop to shake hands or ask after people's health. He simply nodded and pushed through the archway and into the kitchen corridor without waiting for me.

At the door to my office, he said "Ya Allah" and entered ... and ... sat down. I smiled at him. He did not smile. He was immobile: his shoulders back, his hands quite still on his lap, his chin slightly cocked as if posing for a sculptor. ... He thanked me briefly and then immediately asked, "What is your position here?" At this point Karim entered the room with the coffee.

The Prince refused to have any coffee. This would have been rude if I had been an Arab. I guessed it was rude even if I was not an Arab. I sent Karim to get some Coca-Cola from the fridge. The Prince took it and thanked me but did not open the can. We were joined by Ahmed, a Yemeni development officer who kindly agreed to translate. The Prince did not trust local interpreters.

"Please have a baklava," I said, gesturing toward the tray where the pastry oozed sugar onto the porcelain plate.

He inspected the plate. "No, thank you. This is bad for your health. This sweet food will lead to weight gain and then will clog the arteries and put pressure on your heart. Then you will die. I take care of my health. I do not eat sugary food. I exercise regularly. I try to avoid colds. Perhaps I can send some of my herbal remedies to you." I thanked him. I knew, however, that in certain circumstances he had taken ample risks with his health. It was said that five years earlier, when Saddam's security service had spotted him in a restaurant and tried to arrest him, he took a hand grenade out of his pocket and threatened to blow himself up, and the room along with him. The officers ran and he sat to finish his breakfast. Presumably a fat-free breakfast.

"What is your position here?" the Prince asked again. The General had already told him. ... I answered gravely, emphasizing the immense honor he had paid me by his visit. "I am a British diplomat," I said. "I have spent the last nine years in the Islamic world. Before I came here I was in Indonesia and Bosnia, then in Iran and Pakistan and Afghanistan. I am now the acting governor and the head of this office. I am the representative of Ambassador Bremer. I will be here for one year." ...

"So you work for Colonel Mark?"

"No. There is now a civilian government here and the military and Colonel Mark are here to support my office, which is the Coalition Provisional Authority." This was true at least in theory. ... But from my brief stint in the army I knew that the colonel was unlikely to consult me, let alone to take orders from a civilian.

The Prince of the Marshes was unimpressed. "And what of the American?" he asked. "I thought we were getting an American governor."

"I don't know. I think she is held up in New York."

"Yes, a very senior American woman, Molly Phee. I know all about her. She has very good contacts in the administration. The Coalition has done nothing for the people here, nothing. No construction, no jobs. The economy must be got going. People are poor and angry. Molly must come at once. She will get money for the province."

"Well, I intend to begin by getting money for the province. ... I have very good contacts—"

"No, not you. We need an American. The British can do nothing for us." ...

"I think you'll find—"

"When is Molly coming?"

"In about a month. ..."

"She must come sooner. I will tell Ambassador Bremer to make her come sooner."

I nodded and we sat in silence for a while. I gestured toward his Coke can, which he opened and, to my relief, sipped.

"Abu Hatim," I said, "one of the tasks I have been given is to reform the provincial council to make it more representative and then to select an Iraqi governor. It seems to me that there are three powerful political groups in Maysan." I meant his group, the Islamist political parties, and the Sadrists. "The first is a group that is more secular and independent and is supported by the tribes and the educated people." He nodded approvingly at this description of his group, which was seen by others as a collection of criminal, illiterate tribal thugs. "The second is the group with some members who have links to Iran." I meant the three militia commanders who had visited us.

"All of which have links to Iran. They are run by the Iranian Secret Service," he interrupted.

"And the third is the group associated with Muqtada al-Sadr."

"Forget about them. They are unemployed illiterates who like to riot."

"I realize that some of these groups are better than others but I think we must try to give them all a voice and a position on the provincial council. ... Otherwise we will have civil war."

"No," he said firmly. "There will be no civil war. Shut down the other groups. They have no supporters and if they try to make any trouble we together will kill them."

I laughed. "I understand what you are saying. But they would say the same about your group—"

"Are you comparing me to them?" he shouted. "Do you know how much power I have in this province? Have you asked anyone in the streets who they support? What are these political parties? Do you know how many members they have? Three apiece. Forget the political parties. We will run it better without them."

"Abu Hatim, I completely sympathize," I replied, surprised by his vehemence. "But you know we are moving toward a democracy here and in the end we have to rely on political parties. We need to train them, give them a voice, bring them along, so they are ready for an election."

"Politicians?" he said. "I hate politicians, so do the people. And me? You talk about me as if I was a politician. I want to return to private life. I have no interest in power."

"I respect that and you. As does everyone. But I am afraid that these changes are going to have to happen. We have no choice, this is from Bremer."

"I will speak to Bremer."

"And from our governments in Washington and London."

I waited for him to reply but he didn't; I continued: "My second task is to choose a governor for Amara. We are the only province without a governor, which is why I, a foreigner, am acting as the governor."

"It would be better if you just stayed as the governor. The people would prefer it. They will not trust an Iraqi governor."

"What I was going to suggest is that the new provincial council should elect the governor."

"La, la," he protested angrily, thrusting forward in the chair.

"This cannot be. Absolutely not. The Iraqi governor will be appointed by the governing council in Baghdad. We have agreed that already in Baghdad with Bremer."

That was not the impression that I had been given in my briefings. But since we received very little information from Baghdad, it was difficult to disagree.

"What qualities do you think a governor should have?" I asked.

"He should be an educated, independent man," he replied without pausing, almost as though he were reciting, "with strong opinions, a good reputation, no political connections but experienced in the bureaucracy. Perhaps an engineer."

The only man in the province who seemed to meet the description was his brother Riyadh, who had chaired the ministry meeting. I said so.

The Prince snapped. "I did not mean to appoint my brother."

"Would you be against the appointment of your brother?"

"It would have nothing to do with me. It would be decided by the governing council." The Prince was the only representative from Maysan on the governing council, and he would have overwhelming influence on the decision. I was almost certain he would try to appoint his brother.

The conversation faded again and again I offered my guest the baklava, which again he refused. ...

I tried to ask him a few questions about his life. Most of the Shia resistance groups were tied to Iran. But he claimed that although he had spent a certain amount of time in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and knew their intelligence services well and regularly met the Americans, he hated the Iranians and had never worked with them. I tried to ask him what exactly his group had done in the resistance. Some said that they had limited themselves to assassinations of local Baathist officials.

"We fought the old regime," he replied, and I could get no more out of him. I asked him about smuggling. He replied that it was going on in the marshes and indicated a broad area on the map but said he knew no more details. Then he said he needed to go. I thanked him and walked him outside. As we approached his car he pointed out that we were relatively safe from mortars if they were fired from the north but could easily be shot by a sniper on the west bank of the Tigris.

    Posted by on Thursday, August 3, 2006 at 11:32 AM in Economics, Iraq and Afghanistan, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (18)


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