War Stories

Mr. Grimley

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.”

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Sunday Oct. 12, 2003
Painted slogans had appeared on the walls, saying, we reject your occupation. The new politicians made public statements against us and appeared with their militias. 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.”

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“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.”

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Marsh Arab children
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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. St. John Philby was famous. Before he became political officer in Amara in 1917 and conceived his son, Kim, the British intelligence officer and KGB double agent, he had been a civil servant in the Punjab. The British representative in Basra remembered the old Etonian Dugald Stewart, consul in Amara, talking about driving his two-seater from Amara to Basra in 1952, for a black-tie dinner with the consul-general. But no one had ever mentioned Grimley.

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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.”

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It was not that we lacked money and power. We could get our hands on much more of both than Mr. Grimley ever had. Nothing was set in stone, and everything was newly invented, including our jobs. With enough confidence and theater it was possible to expand our roles, acquire millions, and do a great deal. But this involved manipulating people—not only Iraqis but also our own civilian and military colleagues.

The author and colleagues at a meeting
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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.

Tomorrow: An audience with the prince.

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