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Picking up where Saddam left off

A young Scotsman tackles the government of the Iraqi marshes – a harder job than you can imagine.

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In January 2002, Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan. The young Scotsman traveled mostly alone, without escort or ammunition, chose the more difficult northern route, and took his trip during the brutal Afghan winter. Throughout his journey knowledgeable people continually advised him: "You will die."

He did not. He lived and went on to write of his journey in "The Places In Between," a splendid tale that is by turns wryly humorous, intensely observant, and humanely unsentimental.

One would imagine that it would be hard for Stewart to find an equally bracing topic for his second book. Not at all. In fact, by comparison to the task Stewart takes on in The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, walking across Afghanistan in winter seems a rather minor accomplishment.

In 2003, after coalition forces invaded Iraq, Stewart was asked by Britain's Foreign Office to be the chief administrator of Maysan, a province in the marshlands of Iraq. It was a daunting assignment, particularly for a 30-year-old who spoke no Arabic, even one who had served both in the British military and in two foreign embassies, and also walked across Asia (in addition to Afghanistan).

But Stewart accepted. He recognized, of course, that postinvasion Iraq "would remain, for some time, chaotic, corrupt and confusing." But he asked himself, how hard could it be "to outperform Saddam?" He would soon find out.

Anyone looking for any kind of assurance that things in Iraq are heading in a positive direction should not pick up this book. The story that Stewart tells would often be quite funny – for Stewart is a skillful director of farcical scenes – did we not know that it were true. That knowledge quickly sends the farce spiraling downward into tragedy.

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