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. 17, 2003
I had introduced a compulsory Friday holiday for the civil affairs team because I could see they were exhausted from working seven-day weeks, and I decided to use mine to visit the southern town of al-Qala, which was in the Prince’s Albu Muhammad tribal area. I had spent my first two weeks almost entirely in my office or in camp, and I was eager to visit rural towns, which I heard were bastions of corruption, inefficiency, and political tension. Many of the problems seemed to be connected with the district councils. Al-Qala was by all accounts a typically lawless place with an inactive police force that I thought we needed to restore with a combination of development projects and political compromise. We had so far, according to our records repaired three schools and a clinic in the district and provided three hundred jobs.
Al-Qala consisted of a few blocks of cement houses on either side of the Tigris, surrounded by rich agricultural land. Much of the land had recently been marsh. Unlike many other communities, al-Qala had benefited from Saddami draining of the marshes and was strongly opposed to reflooding them. There was a pontoon bridge connecting the two halves of town, and a small open-air market on the right bank. There was, it transpired, not one district council in al-Qala but two—one on the west bank of the Tigris and one on the east, fifty yards across the river. They were not speaking to each other. The Iraqi translator who was with me explained that after the collapse of Saddam’s forces and before the arrival of the Coalition, the Prince’s militia had divided the seats on the council with the Iranian-backed groups. The British military had left this arrangement in place. Then the Sadrists, who felt excluded, had formed an alternative council that competed with the official one. The two councils were now in continual dispute. Some people thought there would be civil war.
I had already met Sheikh Raisan, the most powerful figure on the official council. His family, the Beit Feisal, a clan of the Albu Muhammed, had controlled the area for more than a century, and his great-great grandfather was the brother of the great-grandfather of the Prince of the Marshes. Other members of the official council were from Islamist parties and had been in exile in Iran and in the resistance against Saddam. They received salaries from the central government, when the treasurer got round to paying them, and oversaw municipal projects in the surrounding towns. People said they were selling government equipment and vehicles, taking bribes, and stealing from budgets. I called first on the official council and found only one man in the office, the deputy mayor.
“You have repaired no schools in this district,” he began.
“We have repaired three,” I said and named them.
“I meant,” he said “no high school had been repaired. And there are no jobs.”
“But we have just provided three hundred jobs for al-Qala.”
“I meant no jobs for graduates. The Salvation Army has been dealing with the ‘illegal’ council across the river. That council is controlled by anti-Coalition Sadrists who are levying taxes on local ministries, issuing travel permits, intimidating anyone who breaks Islamic social codes, and stealing kerosene. This is only the calm before the storm. The government and the police have not been paid. It will take only the smallest thing to turn the tribes against the Iranians and the Sadrists and then you will have a civil war. You must give me a weapons license and grant us control over the local police force.”
I did know why he needed a weapons license; I told him he should apply to the British military, not to me. Later I was told that he ran the local diesel smuggling ring.
I then crossed the river to inspect the alternative council. Whereas the official council offices had been empty, theirs, a school classroom, was filled with a hundred young men, who from their clothes seemed to be mostly poor. I introduced myself and then sat and listened. The discussion was dominated by religious rhetoric.
The many posters of Sadr II on the wall confirmed that these men were followers of the charismatic preacher who during the nineties had lectured on the evils of Western decadence, prophesied the return of the hidden Imam—the Shiah messiah—and talked of a new leader for the Muslim world, who had increasingly resembled himself. Samizdat videos of these sermons, like the one I had seen in the souk, were distributed everywhere. He had reached out to the poor with an extensive and well-funded charitable foundation. The most senior leader of the Iraqi Shia was still Ayatollah Sistani, a much more learned scholar. But Sistani was an Iranian and did not give public sermons—some said because he did not want people to hear him speak Arabic with a Persian accent. Young men sometimes mocked him in private, calling him “the silent leader” and gave their hearts to the unimpeachably Arab Sadr II. Tens of thousands of young men often from deprived backgrounds attended the mosques where Sadr’s young disciples preached.
After they had finished the religious discussion, one of the young men asked if I could contact the Kut dam to let more water down the Tigris. Another told me to ask Turkey to release water from their dam. Others asked practical questions about the refurbishment of buildings. I promised on the spot to refurbish the al-Qala secondary school and to create another three hundred jobs in the town. After the meeting I was taken aside by a man who was the leader of the alternative council structure in Al Amara. He was dressed in a suit, spoke intelligent English and had a kindly face. The NGOs had praised him to me for the work he had done in distributing emergency rations and allocating jobs; others had told me that he was a dangerous revolutionary, connected to the Sadr office.
He wanted the official council to be replaced with his alternative council. The official council, he claimed, were tribal criminals who had stolen forty thousand dollars. Then he complained about the Prince of the Marshes.
“His kinsman the new police chief is a gangster, his Marsh Arab Albu Muhammed followers have looted the province and terrorized the people. No one supports the Prince, and I am astonished that the Coalition continues to deal with him. It is only a matter of time before the unemployed and frustrated Muslims take the law into their own hands.”
The Sadrists were no friends of the Coalition, but they had many supporters in al-Qala, and I believed that if we did not begin to include them and give them representation they would take to violence. I promised to meet the man again to discuss the competing town councils. I was, in fact, tempted to merge the two, but I wanted to discuss this move with the supervisory committee in the capital before I announced it.
I finished in al-Qala by checking on some of the work being done on public buildings. In the center of town, the local hospital was being refurbished and reed huts were being constructed as emergency housing for refugees. I was surprised to see from the metal signs outside the buildings that many of these projects had been undertaken by international NGOs. Iraq was not Kosovo, with traffic jams of white Land Cruisers marked “Kuwaiti Relief Aid” or “Clowns Without Frontiers.” This war was dangerous and unpopular, and few agencies came. During the time I was in Iraq, Tanzania was visited by a thousand donor missions, Maysan by a dozen.
The clinic in al-Qala was being refurbished by Gordon, a thirty-four-year-old New Yorker. His agency, Mercy Corps, was funded by the U.S. government, but refused to do joint projects with the Coalition: before he came to Iraq, he had organized large demonstrations in America against the war. His ambition was to leave Iraq and set up a beachfront cappuccino bar. I liked Gordon. I had been to his house in the evening for a lentil curry, which was shared with young Czechs from an NGO called People in Need, one of whom I had met before in a small village in Afghanistan. After dinner he had played the trumpet, Gordon played the trombone, a colleague played the guitar, and I and the others played the local drums, made from pottery and a stretched fish skin. These were increasingly difficult to obtain, since the Islamist parties had attacked most of the music shops, apparently considering music to be un-Islamic. Later the band came to play in our office but a drunk Marine punched the Czech guitarist and they did not return.
The reed huts for the refugees were being built by the Salvation Army. Many of its staff were priests at home. They received no salaries, and they did not participate in our brass band. One might have predicted disaster for a Christian missionary organization that called itself an army, operating in the Shia south. Yet the Salvation Army were probably the most successful and popular NGO in the province. Our local office funded many of their programs, from computer training to playgrounds. They had opened a dressmaking school, which was run by a very reserved young woman called Muna. Her father had died and she was the only breadwinner for five brothers and five sisters, all of whom had long black pigtails and wore purple and green smocks made by Muna. Even conservative fathers seemed happy to send their daughters to her classes. When Muna talked about her work, she lost her solemnity and smiled like her younger sisters, saying, “I am so grateful, more than words can say, that the Salvation Army has given me this chance, this hope, when before I had no hope.”
The high school at the north end of town had, I found, no heating, no water, no electricity, and not a single pane of glass in its windows; and it was surrounded by an open ditch of sewage. Every classroom was missing its door and was occupied by a family of returnees from Iran, crouched round a kerosene stove. Two young men spoke to me for a few minutes in Farsi, seeming relieved to find someone who knew something about Iran.
“You can see the conditions in which we live. We have no work, we have no houses. We returned for this? We are thinking of going back to Iran.”
On the way back to Amara, I saw a compound up a dirt track, off the main road, and decided to pay a visit to what appeared to be a typical farm. The farmer seemed happy to have a visitor to whom he could show his rusting machinery and his sheep searching for grass on the sandy soil. I asked him how things were. He said, “Look around you. I am rich. I have a tractor, seven sons, three hundred sheep, and all the land you can see is mine. There is nothing else I could want.”
As I left, I asked him what I should be doing. “Don’t trust the police chief,” he replied. “He is a gangster. Don’t trust anyone who lives south of al-Amara. They are all thieves and bandits.”
“But you live south of al-Amara,” I protested.
“Don’t trust me either,” he said. He presented me with a live guinea fowl in parting as a gift.
When I got back to Amara, I submitted a proposal for the Salvation Army to refurbish the high school, and the project was approved. With its own money, the Salvation Army built more emergency housing from traditional reed huts at the south end of town and resettled the refugees from the school into them. We were able to find work for the Farsi-speaking men. Six weeks later, the school was fully renovated and filled with teachers and children.
I did not ever see the farmer again, although I frequently tried to contact him. Perhaps he was not keen to spend time with an agent of the Coalition. The guinea fowl was christened “Larry” and released into our office garden, and Tommy Smith, our new agricultural officer, later established Larry was a female and brought her two companions. They roosted in the central courtyard, and they were so noisy that meetings had to pause while they shrieked.