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 in Maysan and Nasiriyah. This week we are publishing five excerpts from the book detailing episodes from Stewart’s early days in Maysan, 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. I continued to study Iraqi history; I visited neighboring governorate coordinators in four Shia provinces. But what mattered most were local details, daily encounters with men of which we knew little and of whom Iraqis knew little more.
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. The Iraqi police searched him and then a British sentry searched him. In exchange for a receipt he handed over his pistol. This indicated that he was not a policeman or a member of the supervisory committee. They were allowed to bring weapons into the building—loaded if they were policemen. 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. Space was made for him on the sofa and after politely suggesting someone else might sit there, he took the place and began running his rosary through his fingers. The group sat in silence for half an hour until a translator entered and guided the new visitor to my office. He said: Ya Allah as he entered. I kissed him on each cheek—he used a cologne that smelled of roses—and said:
“A salaam aleikum.” (Peace be with you.)
“Waleikum a salaam wa rahmatullah wa barakatu.” (And unto you be peace and the grace and mercy of God be upon you.) He said this with a smile, as though teasing me for attempting the Islamic greeting.
“Ahlan wa sahlan.” (Be welcome.)
“Ahlan wa sahlan bik.” (Be welcome, honorable one.)
“Shlon hadartak?” (How is the respected one?)
“Al hamdulillah. Shlon hadartak?” (God be praised.)
“Al hamdullilah. Shlonak? Shlon saha?” (How are you? How is your health?)
“Al hamdullialh. Shlonak?”
“Al hamdullilah. Shlon umur?” (How is your life?)
“Al hamdulliah. Wa enta?” (And yours?)
“Al hamdullilah. Min fadhlak.” (You, please.)
I gestured toward a chair.
“La, la, habibi enta min fadhlak.” (No, no, my beloved, after you.)
“Tfadle.” (You, first.) I smiled.
“Shukran.” (Thank you.)
My guest made to stand up. I took his arm and made him sit down again. We smiled. This was the first time we had met, and I had no idea who this man was.
I stood to ask for coffee. My one clear innovation so far had been to introduce more hospitality for visitors. The civil affairs team had been reluctant to spend on entertainment; there was no budget for it and I suspect they didn’t think such flummeries mattered. But no Iraqi official would receive a guest without offering him a drink. The ritual greetings and hospitality were a social necessity that seemed almost an obligation. A cup of coffee delivered in the right way could win more friends than a new high school, and no amount of money could wipe clean an insult. I hoped by treating people with elaborate courtesy to win consent for what would be unpopular decisions. So I paid Karim, who made traditional Arabic coffee by balancing a coffee pot on the toaster.
This man was in a short-sleeved shirt, his hair was scraped back, and his mustache curled slightly at the tips in the style of a World War I Turkish general. I knew he was not the leader of an Islamist party because they were usually bearded and Iranians wanted men to cover their arms. From the way he carried himself and had been greeted he could have been a professor, or a successful businessman. But whereas most such men dressed in khaki safari jackets or plain shirts, his was made of a shiny chiffon and caught the light in patches of dove-gray and gun-metal blue. He wore a thin leather watch strap when most people wore a heavy gold chain. And he had allowed his hair to go gray rather than dyeing it jet-black.
I returned with Ali, the translator. Karim came in with a handleless porcelain Chinese teacup rattling against a long-spouted brass coffee pot. The guest did not stand up but drank the half-inch of syrupy coffee, held out his cup for a refill, drank again, and then shook the cup to indicate he had finished.
“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. But the translator was ignorant of the ministry structure, and the man used Arabic words that were vague, perhaps deliberately so. I had heard him say he was a “mudhir”—a director. What exactly did this mean?
“Ali, please ask His Excellency Hussein whether he is a director of a section, the head of a department, or the provincial director-general of the ministry, controlling all departments.”
“He is the director-general of the ministry, controlling all departments,” said Ali.
“Ali, I didn’t ask you, I wanted you to ask him.”
“Are you the mudhir of the ministry of finance?” asked Ali.
“Yes, I am the mudhir of the ministry of finance,” Hussein said, smiling patiently and clarifying nothing.
“And what is happening?” I asked, choosing a suitably general question as a cue for us to move on to the substance. It was rude to ask directly why someone had come, and I winced to hear Ali translate, “What is your problem?”
“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. We can do nothing without our operating budget. My office is falling to pieces, we need to try to repair things and get staff back.” 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. “And what is your allocation for this month?”
“For this month we have been allocated two hundred million Iraqi dinars.”
“Two hundred million Iraqi dinars?” It seemed an incredible amount of money—about 150,000 dollars.
“For all budgets: salary, capital budget, and operating budget?”
“No, just operational,” he leaned forward so that I caught another whiff of cologne, mingled with what smelled like a big fish lunch, and produced a spreadsheet.
“But how much did you get last year in your operating budget?”
“That was under the old regime system.”
I nodded and chose another tack. “How much was in the budget for this July?”
“One million three hundred thousand dinars.” About a thousand dollars.
“Why have they increased it two hundred times?”
“Why have they increased it twenty times?” the translator asked. I corrected him.
“It is the new system,” Hussein replied.
“But what is the justification?”
“I don’t know,” he said and smiled.
I took a guess. “Is this perhaps not just for you but for all the ten departments in your ministry?”
“Of course,” he said. “And I have gathered them all together and we have agreed to split it equally, twenty million dinars for each of us.”
“But what are you going to do with that kind of money?”
“Computers, air conditioners, sofas, and cars—none of us have office cars. Just sign this piece of paper and we will do the rest.”
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; that he had a grand house, partially financed by corruption; that the contractor he favored was Hassan Ahmed, who had overcharged a thousand percent on a school complex in a northern province. 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.