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The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq    by Rory Stewart order for
Prince of the Marshes
by Rory Stewart
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2006 (2006)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Having recently read Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, I expected travel literature when I opened The Prince of the Marshes. But though place (Iraq after the U.S. led invasion) is a very significant element of this personal memoir, its focus is much more on the complex politics of that area and on the huge challenges presented by the objectives the Coalition set for itself there.

At the age of thirty, in August 2003, Farsi-speaking British diplomat Rory Stewart had recently finished a grueling and dangerous walk from Turkey to Bangladesh (the Afghan portion is described in The Places in Between). In August, 2003, he traveled to Baghdad and was assigned the job of 'deputy governorate coordinator of Maysan, which lay in the marshes just north of the Garden of Eden' (the Iraqi claimed site of paradise) in the south of the country. In this role, he was to exercise 'all executive, legislative, and judicial authority in the province' - a daunting task! He tells us he hoped to 'help create a better society'.

Stewart opens his book with a list of Dramatis Personae, followed by a Timeline of Iraq from the first Sumerian civilizations in 3000 B.C. to the constitutional parliament election in December, 2005. Chapters are introduced by quotations, a large number by Machiavelli. Stewart tells us that the Marsh Arabs used to live 'in wicker huts on floating reed beds' but that Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and scattered their rebellious inhabitants in the 1980s. Factions vying for power during Stewart's tenure included tribal leaders, Iranian-backed groups, and the Prince of the Marshes who had waged guerilla war against Saddam for seventeen years.

Much of the book describes meetings (through an interpreter) with different factions; misunderstandings; blurred lines of authority; acquisition and use of funds; reconstruction projects building schools and clinics and prisons; job creation; bureaucratic and administrative challenges; security problems, police corruption, and the difficulties in appointing a police chief; shootings, kidnappings and mob violence; and how the author was the main impediment to the Prince of the Marshes' securing power in Maysan (in the latter's own words). Seven months after arriving in Iraq, Stewart was transferred to Nasiriyah, with only three and a half months left before the handover and a great deal to be done!

Stewart speaks of his reaction to the news of Abu Ghraib and his realization that 'the Iraqis had always assumed we were doing these things and had never believed my statements about human rights and the rule of law.' Soon afterwards his offices came under siege, a frightening situation that he describes with typical British understatement. He also covers the transition of authority in June, 2004, with a result that was 'not the kind of state the Coalition had hoped to create' but rather one similar to that in provincial Iran - 'reactionary, violent, intolerant toward women and religious minorities, and uncooperative with the Coalition.' The Prince of the Marshes is an absorbing memoir that offers insights into the complexity - if not impossibility - of effecting rapid societal change.

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