Iraq: The British Camp

Monday, October 6, 2003

On the three-hour drive north from Basra to take up my post in Maysan, I passed through the territory the Prince of the Marshes claimed to control. I saw the canal Saddam had dug: some reeds, a few fishermen in tin boats and some water birds. Long parallel lines stretched for miles across the drab earth. There were very few people to be seen: most Marsh Arabs now lived in slums on the edge of cities. Boats were no longer the standard method of transport and the buffalo herds had gone. The thicket of six-foot reeds in chest-deep water that once covered thousands of square miles had become parched and barren mud.

We turned off the highway down an avenue guarded by two rusting Iranian tanks kept as souvenirs, one with a drunken turret. We passed buildings whose roofs had collapsed under the impact of American J-Dam explosives, came up along the edge of a bastion wall serving as protection against car bombs and stopped at the guard house of Camp Abu Naji. Six months earlier it had been the base of the semi-mystical Saddam-funded terrorist group, the Mujahaddin-el-Halq.

A private from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers approached the car, recognized the driver, saluted, and lifted the drop bar for us. On either side were low, shabby concrete buildings, rolls of barbed wire, and corrugated iron. There were soldiers on the roofs, presumably sleeping outside because there was no air-conditioning in the tents. I dragged my bags out of the Land Rover and was shown to a room.

Pushing back the heavy black curtain that served as a door, I lifted the nylon mosquito net and put my sleeping bag on the camp bed and brushed some sand off the tin trunk. The window frames were lined with duct tape and the curtain-door stretched to the floor but, as I was to find over my next six months in the camp, nothing was able to exclude the sand, which accumulated in a thick yellow film across the cement floor and the canvas chair.

We ate at six-thirty. At the entrance to the cook-house an Iraqi in a blue boiler suit was pouring bottled water into a large tea urn. A private stood next to it, making sure that everyone, officer and civilian alike, washed their hands from the urn to prevent the spread of diarrhea.

I sat with a group of young officers and the regimental padre. A subaltern barked, "Red or green?" and returned with plastic cups filled with juice of the relevant and astonishingly intense chemical color.

I was, it seemed, the first civilian to live in the camp. The officer on my left glanced at me and asked, "Do you work at the airport?" He assumed I was a soldier from the divisional headquarters.

"No, I’m the civilian who is setting up the Coalition Provisional Authority office in the province," I replied.

"What’s that?"

"It’s the new civilian administration."

"Thank God you’ve arrived at last and we can all go home," he said, pushing his chair back. "Cake in a box, anyone?"

To shower after dinner I walked around the accommodation block, across the edge of the runway and behind the hangars. There was a roar from the diesel-powered generators, and the beat of the rotor-blade of a Chinook helicopter on the landing zone. I had to use a flashlight to avoid the rubble on the uneven sand. Above, I could see stars in a clear sky and imagine something of the desert just beyond the perimeter fence.

The showers were well-lit. There was a thick slurry of brown mud on the floor from combat boots and camouflage uniforms piled on the wooden benches. While someone cursed the lack of hot water, men dried themselves ostentatiously in the center of the room, talking about the day’s patrols, apparently oblivious to the two female officers brushing their teeth with mineral water at the sink.

The next morning at eight, I called on the colonel of the battle group. He was a slender man in his early forties, with gray hair scraped severely back from his head, dressed, like everyone, in desert camouflage. His office was decorated with the Leslie tartan of his regiment. He introduced me to the province with another PowerPoint presentation; one he seemed to have given many times before. He did not encourage questions.

"Maysan," he began, "is the size of Northern Ireland, and we are running it with only a thousand men." He explained that it was a very volatile place, and the battle group were short of equipment and development money. The regional corps headquarters of the Iraqi army had been looted, and all the weapons were now in the hands of the local population. The two key arteries of the province were Route 6, the highway that connected Basra and Baghdad, and the Tigris River.

"As for you, Rory–" I looked up, midway through my sixth packet of crackers "there are very high expectations here that the British will achieve things. If things don’t happen they believe it is because we are deliberately trying to suppress their economic and political future. There is no possibility of a Baathist revival here. It is a small place and the Baathists would not be able to move here. There is a potential for Shia opposition here, connected to Iran and criminal gangs. I believe that the supervisory committee we have appointed here is relatively representative."

He brought up a new screen on the monitor: "Vital Ground: Our vital ground is ‘the concept of regeneration.”

The colonel seemed confident that he could keep order. He had been in command of his regiment for nearly three years and was a month from the end of his time in Maysan. He answered to no one nearer than a brigadier, two hundred miles away in Basra, had absolute control over his men and weaponry, and traveled incessantly. He knew the district well enough to answer the detailed complaints of local mayors. He had become close to the Beni Lam, an "aristocratic" tribe that had once been famous for their horses. But his strongest relationship was with Abu Hatim, whom the colonel described as "our local Robin Hood, sometimes known as the Prince of the Marshes." The two of them ran the province together.

I had no opportunity to discuss the briefings I had been given in London, and I left without a clear idea of our relationship. I had been told in Baghdad that, as the deputy governorate coordinator, I was to be "the deputy and alter ego of the governorate coordinator," in charge of a civilian team of eight that would include a political officer, a development projects officer, and others. But there was as yet no governorate coordinator; a U.S. State Department officer was supposed to be arriving in that role in a few weeks’ time. Nor was there yet a political officer, a projects officer, or an Iraqi governor in Maysan. For the time being, I was a team of one, responsible for overseeing development projects and setting up Iraqi political structures. I had been told to act as something like the de facto governor of the province.

The colonel had been ordered by the commander-in-chief to support our office. But he had little interest in the constitutional relationship between the CPA and the military. He was critical of the CPA, which had so far done little. He was doubtful that I would be able to do much. But, he said, the military were forced to perform political and economic roles that were better done by civilians, and it was about time civilians took up their responsibility. He suggested I could start by getting money. He referred to himself as the de facto governor of the province.

Outside the colonel’s office, I was introduced to a tall man with a mane of black hair who was wearing dark glasses and a cream linen jacket over a crisp checked shirt with cufflinks, suede trousers, and suede boots. This was A.J., currently in charge of CPA finances. He was a territorial cavalry officer and the only man in the camp, apart from me, who wore civilian clothes. He offered one of his collection of exotic confiscated weapons for the ride into town. I took a chrome-plated Kalashnikov because it was the only one of the weapons I thought I could remember how to use. The bodyguard team I had been promised by the Foreign Office had not yet arrived.

I sat in the front passenger seat with the rifle between my legs as we drove north from the camp. After about ten miles, we reached the outskirts of Amara, where there were jerry-built brick houses with fancy new concrete columns. We turned past half-decaying apartment blocks, villas, an old covered souk, and an avenue of mature willows and clanked across a pontoon bridge over the Tigris. On the main road was the pink tiled façade of the building that would have housed the Iraqi provincial council and governor, had either existed. We stopped across the road, facing heavy metal gates set in a high concrete wall. They swung back, revealing British soldiers and men in Iraqi police uniform, a dusty yard the size of a soccer field, an empty swimming pool, and the white villa that housed the new CPA office. The Tigris, sluggish and brown, rolled past two sides of the compound. Across the water was a date-palm grove and a small white mosque. This tiny CPA compound on a peninsula in the heart of the old Ottoman city of Amara, fifteen miles from the British military base, was surrounded by three hundred thousand Iraqis and protected by a guard force of thirty.

At the door stood a man with neat pressed desert camouflage, a dark blue engineer’s beret, gray hair, dark brows, and a huge smile. The badge on his chest said Butler. Major George Butler was the commanding officer of the civil affairs team, had set up the office and had been in Iraq for four months. He was a reserve officer, a senior water engineer in normal life and had worked in Egypt. He was friendly, explained that he already had my office prepared and guided me round the compound.

The villa had originally been the home of the young and newest wife of the great Albu Muhammed Sheikh, Majid Bin Khalife. She had been murdered here in the early 1950s by her stepson, who had in turn been murdered in the date palm grove across the river, probably by his father. It had then become the residence of the Iraqi governor, who had added the glass-fronted bungalow on the waterfront. There was no longer any electricity or furniture in the villa — it had been looted before our arrival — and there were only two cramped bathrooms. Major Butler had been saving money to paint the walls, install a generator, and provide some hot water. There were offices like these in the capitals of every province in Iraq, established by military civil affairs teams. During the first five months of the CPA’s existence it had not deployed officials to the provinces. In Maysan, Butler’s team had taken on the role of the CPA and grown from managing small popular engineering projects into providing support for twenty Iraqi ministries.

I was the first civilian administrator in Amara and part of the first group of British CPA administrators across the country: as I arrived in Amara, Mark Etherington, who had traveled into Iraq with me, was arriving upstream in Kut, and a veterinarian who spoke fluent Arabic had just settled into our twin province of Nasiriyah on the Tigris.

I was led to a large meeting room filled with heavy yellow and purple cushioned sofas and decorated with garish local paintings of Marsh Arabs. On the sofas sat the dozen heavily tanned young men and women of the British military civil affairs team. The electricity had failed, and the air conditioning with it, and there were sweat patches on their desert camouflage.

Most were reservists who had been called out of civilian jobs to serve six months in Iraq. Major A.J., the linen-jacketed finance officer, was a banker; Private Charlotte Morris, the social affairs officer, was a twenty-five-year-old who had been running a project for street children in Egypt. They had only one week’s leave in a six-month tour in Iraq, and they slept in dormitories. Their lavatories at camp were unlit green plastic Porta-Johns. This was an innovation. Previously there had been long benches without partitions where the men could chat Roman-style as they did their business. The women were forced to wait until late at night and to cover themselves with sheets of newspaper. Flies were everywhere. The female captain who dealt with walk-in inquiries had just tested positive for malaria and, despite the enforced hand-washing, many soldiers from the colonel down had diarrhea and were vomiting much of the time, which made the privies unpleasant, especially during the heat of the day. There was a rumor that one soldier had died of heat exhaustion while sitting inside. Civilian contractors in Basra could earn a thousand dollars a day; Private Morris was managing projects worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and earning less than fifty dollars a day.

Although I was impatient to appoint a new provincial government, to develop key relationships with Iraqis and with the Coalition, and to acquire new funds and implement new projects, I spent the first couple of days learning from the civil affairs team. Every time I walked through the open-plan space on the ground floor of our villa office, I passed groups huddled in different corners, each consisting of a civil affairs officer, who often appeared to be striving for patience, a young Iraqi interpreter struggling to translate technical terms, and a couple of Iraqi civil servants nodding politely. Strewn across the tables were databases of the four hundred schools in the province, plans, tender documents, and bundles from the local kebab shop, waiting to be opened for lunch. Nearly fifty projects were waiting for money from Basra, and each officer continued to produce a flood of proposals and ideas. In addition to the half million dollars’ worth of wheat and barley seed requested by the director of agriculture, the prison specialist sought four hundred thousand dollars for a new prison, and another civil affairs officer wanted to refurbish the souk. They had already repaired about a quarter of the schools in the province and most of the key ministry buildings. They did many of these projects by providing money to one of the half dozen international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the province, who managed and monitored the projects for them.

The civil affairs officers showed a sharp, ironic grasp of Amara’s needs and seemed tough and sympathetic in the right measure. The health officer had concluded after a survey that there was no need to build new hospitals and clinics: the real priority was training and hygiene in the existing facilities. Some were learning Arabic, and all liked dealing with Iraqis.

And yet, despite the energy and competence of the civil affairs team and the hundreds of productive projects, they were failing to communicate their achievements to Iraqis. This may have been due to the soldiers’ modesty or a distaste for politics or a lack of understanding of Iraqi expectations. Whatever the explanation, Iraqis were suspicious of our motives, disappointed by our performance, and often contemptuous.

Each morning, the convoy left for the office at eight, the civil affairs team gathered for our daily meeting at 8:30, and the rest of the day I found myself either talking to Iraqi officials or dealing with office problems and politics. Each evening, I drove back to the base and went for a run, shirtless in the astonishing heat. After supper, I saw the colonel. I went to sleep with fragments of Arabic in my mind, no longer hearing the roar of the generators, and woke often repeating the same fragments.

From one perspective, I had acquired near-absolute authority over eight hundred and fifty thousand people. A CPA governorate coordinator ranked theoretically as a one-star general, and the main mission of the lieutenant colonel who commanded the battle group was to support the CPA by keeping security. From another perspective, I was almost powerless. The Iraqi state was large and functioning, however poorly. I was constrained by the Geneva Convention and occupation law. The battle group did not take their orders from me. Even the newest private was part of an army with 150,000 men and clear lines of command. I was a lone foreigner who commanded nobody. If the Iraqis or the British chose to ignore me there was very little that I could do.

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Rory Stewart has written for the New York Times Magazine, Granta, and the London Review of Books, and is the author of The Places in Between. A 2004 fellow of the Carr Center for the Human rights Policy at Harvard’s John E. Kennedy School of Government, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his foreign services. He now lives in Kabul, where he has established the Turquoise Mountain Foundation. 

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