Occupational Hazards
by Rory Stewart
320pp | Picador | ISBN 0330440497 | £17. 99

Rory Stewart, a young British diplomat, was posted to Iraq in September 2003 as deputy governor of the province of Maysan for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). After a few months he was appointed governor of Dhi Qar, a neighbouring province, before handing over his authority to the Iraqi government in June 2004. During this period he kept a diary, later to become this book. His chronicle of events in southern Iraq soon after the invasion puts the current grim situation into perspective. It makes sobering reading.
Although Stewart states in his foreword that it “was not grand policy but rather the meetings between individual Iraqis and foreigners which ultimately determined the result of the occupation” it seems clear from his account that it was a mixture of the two. Although most Iraqis hated and feared Saddam Hussein, friendly relations with the liberating armies quickly evaporated. The author, a cultured, hardworking and courageous man, sensitive to the ancient civilisation which confronted him and keen to deal fairly with the myriad of colourful personalities who presented themselves to his office, found himself powerless to bring together all the conflicting elements in the fractured and divided populace and make them work towards a western democratic ideal.
He describes Maysan as a “shattered, unstable and underdeveloped province of 850,000 people”. The size of Northern Ireland, the CPA was struggling to control and develop it with only 1,000 men. Stewart recognises that theories produced in Western capitals “by foreigners in a hurry” are not likely to be effective in the short term. He compares their efforts with the British colonial administration of India: there the colonial officers served for forty years, spoke the local languages, understood the indigenous customs and were prepared to risk their lives. By contrast, Western personnel in Iraq were moved in and out every few weeks or months. The comparison speaks for itself.
During his first week in Maysan, Stewart had to mediate a tribal war, deal with a flood, set up a TV station, arrange an election and regulate a procession of religious flagellants. Clearly he was very competent in dealing with this varied workload; indeed, the sad fact is that if the local bigwigs had cooperated with the CPA, it would have achieved a great deal. Stewart and his colleagues were operating a huge budget and were beginning the laborious work of creating a proper infrastructure: reconstructing schools, clinics, prisons and youth centres, installing electricity and sewerage and finding employment for the great numbers of unemployed youths who would otherwise have fallen prey to the insurgency. What constantly undermined their efforts and ultimately nullified them was the political in-fighting.
As Stewart details in his book, the power vacuum in Maysan following the invasion was filled by a motley collection of rival tribal chiefs, bandits, theocrats, mafia gangs and corrupt politicians. Though divided among themselves, they all mistrusted the CPA. The educated Sunni career civil servants who had kept the country functioning under Saddam Hussein had disappeared. There were more than 50 Shia political parties in the province, all indistinguishable and all vying for power. There was also corruption, violence and incompetence. Essentially it was a conflict between those who wanted a police state and the Coalition, who wanted democracy. Stewart ruefully comments:” Direct foreign rule was never going to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy.” An American colleague confessed that if they had wanted to destabilise the country “we couldn’t have done a better job.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” observed Dr Johnson. This detailed record of the unforeseen results of good intentions is very depressing. As an administrator, Stewart could not move about without a bodyguard of six; at one stage he cuts short his leave to return “to what I believed had become a war zone.” What redeems the story is the author’s decency, his scrupulous attention to the demands of his job, his refusal to be cowed by the impossibility of the task. He brings a certain imaginative scope to his chronicle: one chapter is laconically entitled “Our war against Mordor” and there are many other literary allusions, not least to Machiavelli, who peppers the chapter headings with his cynical realism. This gives the story larger bearings, as if the author has had to lift his thoughts from the sheer chaos and random brutality surrounding him in order to stay sane and hopeful. He quotes from a document of 1224: “Baghdad was a veritable city of palaces… There were numerous colleges of learning, hospitals, infirmaries for both sexes, and lunatic asylums.” Leaving aside the decaying mansions of the former dictator, where now, Stewart implies, is the civilisation of yesteryear?
At the handover of power Stewart predicted “there would be civil war in a few weeks”. Surprisingly this did not happen. By early 2006 the Islamists had taken over the province: reactionary, violent, intolerant of women and uncooperative with the Coalition, but bringing a level of stability and security – for the time being.
In his conclusion the author laments that “despite billions of dollars in developmental aid and impressive reconstruction projects, the Coalition has had only minimal political impact in southern Iraq.” His graphic account, which includes a direct attack on the CPA compound and its evacuation under mortar fire, should be required reading for all who want to impose Western-style political systems on former dictatorships, in countries with only a fragile sense of nationhood.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.