A few months ago, I asked a friend of mine who was then serving in a PRT in Iraq if he could recommend any books on modern Iraq. He told me that he had not had a lot of time to read since joining the PRT, but that one book which he found very insightful was Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. I read Stewart’s earlier book on Afghanistan first, but found a copy of Prince in CA last weekend and finished it this afternoon.
Prince describes Stewart’s experiences in 2003/2004 as the deputy governorate coordinator of Maysan and then of Dhi Qar, both provinces in southern Iraq. Stewart served as the top civilian authority in those provinces during the time when everyone still planned on turning over the country to the Iraqis in 2004. His experiences with the Prince of the Marshes, the Marsh Arabs, the Sadrists, the Iranians, the thugs, the beggars and the Sheikhs (not all mutually exclusive groups) were incredible. It really made me disgusted and tired to read about the duplicity amongst all the parties. By the time Stewart leaves Iraq, he’s got a pretty grim view on the West’s ability to force our version of democracy on the Iraqis. The book has both an Afterword and an Epilogue (2007), to try to give Stewart enough space to say what he wants to about Iraq and our efforts there.
Reading his eye-witness accounts of some of the major events in those provinces (sieges against the CPA offices, kidnappings, riots and political assassinations) and then contrasting them to the version of reality told in the news (particularly the “rescue” of the Western hostage) will make me think twice the next time I read the news from Iraq. The book wasn’t really about that, but that is another part of the overall problem he describes: we don’t know what we are doing AND they don’t want us to do it.