War Stories

Playing by the Rules

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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Saturday, Oct. 11, 2003
The day before my meeting with the three Iranian-linked militia commanders, I drove with George Butler to the regional finance meeting in Basra, where we met with the other Coalition governorate teams. There were still only five British civilians contracted to work in the governorate offices outside Baghdad and Basra—besides Mark Etherington in Kut and John Bourne in Nasiriyah, Liane Saunders and Emma Sky were now acting governors in the Kurdish areas in the north. The rest of the eighteen governorates were to be run by Americans, most of whom were State Department Officers with backgrounds in the Middle East.

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I sat opposite John Bourne, the veterinarian. I knew that he had left the British Foreign Office to join the agriculture ministry, and I had heard that he been educated at Eton, but there was no swank to him. He was a small, wiry man who was known to work sixteen-hour days, impatient of any idea of holiday or rest. No one knew as many tribal sheikhs, and few had such a nuanced understanding of the local social structures and political parties. He drove every day into remote areas and returned late. To be on his bodyguard team was to be frequently forced into the middle of gangster towns without a chance to perform reconnaissance and to be deprived of lunch and dinner. The bodyguard teams learned to carry military rations. John apparently rarely ate.

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Meeting of the governate team leaders in Baghdad
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In Maysan, the British battle group was keen to administer the province, and the civil affairs team was happy to work closely alongside me. John however, received almost no support from his Italian military team, but he was serious in his beliefs about how government ought to function, and he flung all his considerable energy and courage into those beliefs. He did not like the evasions, manipulation, and compromises of much of Coalition office politics. He thought, with reason, that the head offices in Baghdad and London had little understanding of the local situation and that the contracting and financial rules were absurd.

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I had practiced my speech on Major George Butler on the way down in the car. I was, therefore, able to give the Basra meeting a very structured presentation peppered with statistics. I painted a gloomy picture of the poverty in our province but was optimistic about our capacity: I told them that with our civil affairs team and the local NGOs as “force-multipliers” we could administer hundreds of projects. I requested a larger team, more security, and more money.

John Bourne followed with a lengthy and ironic disquisition on the complexities of Nasiriyah, the weaknesses of the Italians and the peculiarities of the agricultural system. After the meeting I visited all the senior officials in their offices, reemphasizing our requirements and capacity. My pre-packaged blarney was rewarded with a quarter of a million dollars in cash. John emerged with nothing.

As we walked back to our cars, John told me that he was waiting for a project officer to arrive before he began to apply for development funds. I offered to show him how I got round the rules. He declined, not approving of my indifference to procedure. He didn’t have the authority to sign off on money and he intended to do it properly. A month later, by which time we had gathered nearly two million dollars in Amara, he still had no money for his province.

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