War Stories

Coffee With the Prince

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.”

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, returned the policeman’s salute and strode down the path, lifting his fine gold-braided cloak out of the dust.

A crowd of demonstrators at the gates of the CPA in Amara

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; put my laptop and satellite phone on my desk and then, thinking it would make me look more important if my desk were clear, removed them again before I went to the door to greet my guest.

“A salaam aleikum,” I said.

“Waleikum a salaam.”

“Ahlan wa sahlan.”


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. Behind him, I gestured toward a seat and he 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. Only his narrow eyes moved, glancing from me to the floor, over to the desk and back as I began the formal greetings. 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.

British Land Rovers return to the CPA compound in Amara

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 wasn’t sure how to reply. An acting governor shortly to be a deputy governor with little power who needed to be taken seriously.

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.”

“What has happened to Major Edward? Are you working for him?”

“No. Major Edward will be working for me.”

“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. One of the military’s two formal missions was to support the CPA. 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. You will see now that I am here, that we will begin to get the development aid that you have been promised. I have very good contacts—”

“No, not you. We need an American. The British can do nothing for us.” He had observed in Baghdad that the United States not only spent 90 percent of the money and took 90 percent of the casualties but also took 99 percent of the decisions.

“I think you’ll find—”

“When is Molly coming?”

“In about a month. But I’m here and I will be here for a year, whereas—”

“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. We want them on the inside. We want them arguing in the council chamber, not on the street. 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. The translator had another, licking his fingers, and chuckled as Abu Hatim again told him that if he kept eating them he would have a heart attack.

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.

Tomorrow: Stewart goes out in the field.