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

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

3.6 9
by Rory Stewart

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

How does a young Farsi-speaking Scotsman with a smattering of foreign service and an award-winning book under his belt end up an interim governor of two remote provinces in occupied Iraq? We discovered the answer in this mesmerizing memoir by British diplomat and "professional adventurer" Rory Stewart. Recruited in 2003 to impose stability and democracy on the marshy regions "just north of the Garden of Eden," Stewart chronicles his 11 months in office, a maelstrom of chaos and confusion marked by interference from feuding sheiks, undermining allies, and neoconservative bureaucrats alike. We heartily recommend The Prince of the Marshes as a frank, forthright narrative that sheds light on the real-world impact of the Bush-Blair offensive in Iraq.
William Grimes
he 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.
— The New York Times
The New Yorker
In 2003, Stewart, a former British diplomat, joined the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and was posted to the southern province of Maysan, where he found himself the de-facto governor of a restive populace whose allegiances were split among fifty-four political parties, twenty major tribes, and numerous militias. Stewart’s account of his attempts to placate the various local figures who continually threaten to kill each other, or him, is both shrewd and self-deprecating. Money arrives from Baghdad in vacuum-packed million-dollar bricks, but there is no budget for such culturally crucial purchases as an ox for the funeral of an assassinated police chief. 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.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran
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.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
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. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Seattle Times
"[Stewart's] spare, vivid, understated prose serves him brilliantly."
Kirkus Reviews
"Rudyard Kipling meets Dilbert in this engrossing memoir."
Library Journal
In 2003, at the tender age of 30, Farsi-speaking British diplomat Stewart hailed a cab in Jordan and ended up in Iraq, where he spent a year as deputy governor of several marsh regions in the south. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-At the age of 30, the author, a former soldier and diplomat, speaker of Farsi but not of Arabic, was appointed as one of the leading Coalition civilian officials in Maysan, acting as deputy commander first there and then in Nasiriyah during the final nine months of the Coalition's authority in Iraq. Stewart's tale, even more than his complex identity, gives insight into the new and unexpected situation into which the United States and its allies were thrust after toppling Saddam Hussein. His story is one of relations: with his civilian and military counterparts from different nations in the provinces; with the leaders of the Coalition in Baghdad; and with the Iraqis with whom he was trying to build a new order and to whom he was to leave the provinces' leadership in but a few months. He recounts all this in fascinating and stimulating detail. The knowledge and the ignorance, the past history and the present reality, and the effects that they have had and are having become better clarified for Americans at home from reading this book.-Ted Westervelt, Library of Congress, Washington, DC Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Christian Science Monitor

"A thoroughly readable book."
Entertainment Weekly

"A surreal and futile yearlong struggle, scrupulously recounted...Stewart is a fearless reporter and smart observer."
The New York Times

"Richly detailed, often harrowing...Stewart seems to be living one of the more extraordinary lives on record."
Seattle Times

"[Stewart's] spare, vivid, understated prose serves him brilliantly."
From the Publisher


"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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Read an Excerpt


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.
 “What’s that?”
“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.
The colonel had been ordered by the commander-in-chief to support our office. But he had little interest in the constitutional relationship between the CPA and the military. He was critical of the CPA, which had so far done little. He was doubtful that I would be able to do much. But, he said, the military were forced to perform political and economic roles that were better done by civilians, and it was about time civilians took up their responsibility. He suggested I could start by getting money. He referred to himself as the de facto governor of the province.
Copyright © 2006 by Rory Stewart
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Meet the Author

RORY STEWART is the best-selling author of The Places in Between and The Prince of the Marshes. A former director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy and Ryan Professor of Human Rights at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services in Iraq. He is the Conservative member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border, a constituency in Northern Cumbria, where he lives with his wife.

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The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
ResearchGuy More than 1 year ago
This is chronological journal of Stewart's experiences with the occupation military and the formal and informal local leadership in the chaotic aftermath of the Second Gulf War. Stewart was the British deputy governor of Amara and then Nasiriyah in the Maysan district of Iraq in the reconstruction after the Coalition invasion in 2003. I initially bought the book because of the title, confirming that it did involve the ethnic group called the Marsh Arabs. The "Marsh Arabs" are actually the remnant of the Sumerian people who lived in this area and ran a huge technological and commercial empire thousands of years ago. The Sumerians were great scientists and developed agriculture, urban centers and literature. The Sumerians were a major population group in this region of modern Iraq, and Stewart had to relate to their leader called the Prince of the Marshes. This is a fascinating first-hand portrait of the cultural and political threads of the lower Riverine cultures and their political tangle. Stewart's job entailed keeping peace, forming infrastructure and facilitating total rebuilding, in the midst of fighting factions who each wanted him to take their side against the others. The reader will gain insights on several fronts. This is a credible and coherent account of the administration and chronicled the specific needs, problems, accomplishments and failures of the new civilian administration led by the invaders. He provides vivid and thoughtful portraits of the local personalities and powers vying for power with the new administration, while following traditional lines of tribal jealousies and values of their honor- revenge culture, extending their old world into the structures of the new. Important cultural insights are provided as Stewart deftly analyzes the various dynamics and structures coming to play in this delicate and volatile situation. Stewart admirably outlines the deficiencies he observed from the very first in the occupying forces. They had no cultural training, none of the soldiers spoke Arabic, and sometimes killed civilians who could not understand their English commands. The early military administrators gave no attention to local leaders, made decisions without involving local decision-makers or even those involved in the matter. The cultural ignorance and insensitivity. The book reads like an exciting adventure novel or story of international intrigue. For a traditional diplomat and self-confessed bureaucrat, Stewart is an excellent and skillful writer of clear and flowing, scholarly but comedic prose! In that position, if Stewart was to keep his sanity, I expect he had to maintain a strong sense of humour! This 400-page work is enjoyable and informative. The reader can skim through the story for the light adventure, or pause and take time on the well-stated and well-analyzed detail. This combination is unusual in a diplomat writer and I commend Stewart in his readable and engaging style.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Rare is the writer whose second book equals or outshines his first. Rory Stewart is no exception. Even though this book is written well, it lacks the dazzle of his first book, ¿The Paces in Between¿, and I found it a lot less gripping. This book was first published by Picador in London in June this year, with the title 'Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq'. It has now been published in the USA by Harcourt with a new title: 'The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq'. The Prince of the Marshes is a tribal leader named Abdul Karim al Muhammadawi, who led a group of Shia men who opposed Saddam Hussein's reign over the marshy territory. This tribe fought with Saddam Hussein's army in the 1990s and until the fall of Saddam's regime. The marshes were drained by Saddam's army as a collective punishment to the tribe, to deprive the tribesmen of their source of food and trade. Writing about the marshes, Rory quotes Azzam Alwash, manager of the Iraq Foundation's New Eden project: 'In a few short years, Saddam drained them to allow access for his tanks to establish control in the area. After they were dried, the marshes were burned and villages were destroyed.' After the invasion of Iraq by the coalition army, Rory Stewart, seeking employment, sent his resume to the occupying British army, but received no reply. Writes the author: 'I had resigned from the Foreign Office, but when the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, I sent in my CV(Curriculum Vitae',resume). No one replied. So in August I took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad to ask for a job from the director of operations. A month later, the Foreign Office asked me to be the deputy governorate coordinator of Maysan, which lies in the marshes just north of the Garden of Eden.' This is how he describes Iraq as he saw it upon his arrival: 'But the province on election day looks a little like a police state. There are armed men at checkpoints every few kilometres up the highway policemen with vehicle-mounted machine-guns are checking IDs on almost every street corner no civilian vehicles are allowed to move on the streets. This may be part of the reason `security has improved.' Yet despite the checkpoints, which are in place every day, there are still daily car-jackings and roadside bombs, and towards the Iranian border there's drug smuggling, looting, and kidnapping of children.' As in 'Places in Between', the author's much acclaimed book, there are quite a few humorous passages in this book also. Writing about a reporter named James Astill, a reporter for the Economist, interviewing an Iraqi: 'Astill's longest conversation with an Iraqi in Fallujah was with a man urinating against a wall with a suitcase on his head, and thus unable to move for twenty seconds.' Here is an example of the author's wicked sense of humor: In a lounge the author decides to dance with an attractive woman to while away time, and talks with her in Bosnian as he dances. 'But I must have bored her with my bad Bosnian, because she turned her back on me and went to join a group of women who, from their build, looked as though they were in the army'. If you wish to know one of the reasons why the invasion of Iraq has turned into a fiasco, you can gleam it from this minor episode. The military officers of the occupying army know very little about the Iraqi people and their culture, and even less about how to deal with and talk to the Iraqi men. They have only contempt for the Iraqi men. Soon after Rory's arrival in Iraq, this is what a British military officer says to a small group of new recruits at the airport, in case they are taken hostage by Arabs: 'Since you will be taken hostage by Arabs, it is likely that they will male-rape you.' Also, he says something so outrageous that it's quite unprintable in a decent website. Shocking, isn't it, that this is what the British military officers think of Arabs? And now you know why they failed so mis
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TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
I was unprepared for this book. It surprised me utterly. I didn't know what to expect, given the author's previous book, which was his walk through Afghanistan, called The Places in Between. To say I liked that earlier book does not quite describe my reaction--I was bowled over. I gave the book as a gift to several people and looked to see what else he'd done. I bought this one and put it aside, thinking it would be nice to read someday. When I stumbled upon his participation in some interviews in which he claimed his world view changed after "his experience in Iraq," I decided I had to read this RIGHT NOW. As with The Places In Between, I listened to the audiofile and read the hard copy to clarify and review. Stewart had been at home in Scotland planting trees after his Afghan trek when the US entered Iraq. He was an ex-infantryman and ex-foreign service officer and was well connected enough to be somewhat known. He was still young: late 20s, early 30s. He wrote to Baghdad and the Powers That Be and offered his services helping to set up the new Iraqi government. He got no response. He took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad and offered again. His offer was accepted, and he was sent to a province in the south--ostensibly to work as deputy with several others on reconstruction projects. No one else showed up for awhile, so he managed on his own. He describes situations, individuals, conditions with a poet's eye and a truly sublime sense of the ridiculous. Even the photograghs he included are choice. In describing the clash of cultures that came with the occupation, something emerged that seems as obvious as 2000 years of human history: that only Iraqis can manage their country. We can help if they ask for our help, but the issues are so ancient, if you will, and culturally-specific, that really what we must do is avoid situations where we are fighting and occupying a foreign country with the idea that we can install a government that works. Some books turn on a light and illuminate dark corners where confusion reigns. This book did that for me, on a human scale and in a humorous way. It is one man's experience in one province, but it enlightens and enlivens all other discussions of these issues because of its particulars.
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