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Iraq Inside Out: 'Revolt on the Tigris'

Jan 11, 2006 (Fresh Air)

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In October 2003, Mark Etherington became governor of the Shiite-majority Wasit Province in Iraq. Six months later, Etherington, isolated from the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, was forced to flee his headquarters in al-Kut, the province's capital.

That event culminated in a 16-hour battle with supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It is just one of the dramatic reversals faced by Etherington and his team as they try to instill a sense of progress and self-determination in Wasit. The province along the border with Iran is home to nearly a million Shiites.

A former British paratrooper who has also been trained in conflict management, Etherington has written a book about his experiences: Revolt on the Tigris.

It offers a close-up view of modern nation building, as Etherington deals with both townspeople and private contractors — and finds them both to be reluctant collaborators.

Raised in Kuwait and Qatar, Etherington attended York and Cambridge universities. In the mid-1990s, he worked in the former Yugoslavia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo. Etherington left Iraq in June 2005, after shepherding the transition to a new governor of Wasit.

Read an excerpt from Revolt on the Tigris:

Meeting L. Paul Bremer

It had been arranged for me to make a formal call on Ambassador Bremer. I thought his title, 'the Administrator,' marvelously bland.

It gave no hint of the extraordinary powers he enjoyed; indeed it removed all gravitas from his role. The contrast with the grandeur of his surroundings — unavoidable, given the tastes of his Iraqi predecessor — was acute. He sat at the centre of the Palace at one end of a long room behind double doors, in a suite adjacent to a dome of dizzying height and guarded by soldiers. The acoustics of this atrium faithfully relayed every step and whisper, and hence imbued entrance to these offices with a subtle dramatism which I rather enjoyed. At the opposite end of this room was a second set of double doors, behind which was the British representative, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. Between these two offices sat their respective staffs — security, military advisers, personal assistants and private secretaries. Tom Krajeski, a charming and cultured State Department official from the Governance office who had done a great deal to make me feel welcome, took me in.

My immediate reaction on meeting Bremer was that Britain does not generally produce people of this kind. It is clearly absurd to suggest that he might command a better education or mind than his putative British counterpart — no nation has such a monopoly. Yet he appeared to combine a rare mixture of attributes that struck me as peculiarly American. Of youthful appearance, medium build and tanned, with a luxuriant head of hair, he exuded tough self-confidence and carried himself like the athlete I was later told he once had been. He was casually dressed in an open-necked green shirt and tan trousers. It was difficult to say whether his U.S. Army desert boots were affectation or gave the lie to it. Here, his clothes suggested, was a man suited for all roles, be they in Bedouin camp or boardroom. I wondered whether the power of his position — he was after all the ultimate authority in the country — had somehow bred the man; or whether America, at the very apogee of its power, had created him herself. He was above all an executive, and resembled, I thought, the CEO of a large American company having a few sales difficulties in one of its more far-flung divisions. There was one more thing that struck me, and this was perhaps a peculiarly British reaction: there was something a touch inhuman about Bremer, as though this professionalism, with its firm dry handshakes and quick formal smiles, had somehow drained away his humanity. One felt he would be a difficult person to get to know.

The meeting was brief and workmanlike. Clearly conscious of the guilty frisson of post-colonial excitement among the British in Iraq, Bremer compared the task of Governorate Coordinator with that of a British colonial District Commissioner. What was needed was the broadest possible participation of Iraqis in the political and physical re-fashioning of the country. Where there was no civil society it should be created. Where we had established sets of regular nterlocutors we should now add others to broaden and reinvigorate political debate. Councils should be established in towns and villages where there were none — Iraqis should be given a stake in the democratic process. There was a caveat — there should be no elections. We were not ready for them because the requisite safeguards were not in place. I listened, both inwardly mesmerized by the job he described and slightly appalled at its scope. I refrained from questions, left the office and closed the double doors behind me. Tom Krajeski handed me a letter of appointment from Bremer and a sheaf of reports, before wishing me luck and returning to Governance. Entirely free of pomposity, remote, probably unforgiving of error, and somewhat unclubbable, as the British say — a man who would not mix or invite one for a beer in the evening: these were my impressions of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III. I wondered what the British Foreign Office thought of him.

The Rashid Hotel Attack

'Terrorism' is now a much over-used word, but if it is best defined as a strategy of intimidation, the 26 October 2003 rocket attack on the Green Zone's Rashid Hotel, in the very heart of the Coalition Provisional Authority's Baghdad complex, was a highly successful example of the genre. The salvo of rockets killed only one person in a crowded building, but succeeded in inculcating a sense of fear and insecurity in the CPA's headquarters staff that was never again banished. The Green Zone was at once HQ and emblem. Its presumed impregnability — its walls, check-points, wire and U.S. troops — now ironically fed a new sense of fear; if this assemblage of defenses had once proved inadequate, who could believe in it again? The senior State Department official who had replaced the amiable Tom Krajeski, who had welcomed me when I first arrived, left Iraq after only ten days in-country and did not return, leaving the key Governance office still more stretched. Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary, had coincidentally been in the hotel when it was hit, and this had lent emphasis to a sense of public shock. Wolfowitz was an Administration hawk and an architect of the war; he was reported by Agence France Presse after the attack to be 'visibly disturbed'. Clearly no one was beyond reach, and it was no longer possible to assume that personal security could somehow be insulated from policy. The hotel was evacuated and closed, throwing accommodation plans into confusion. Andrew Bearpark, my friend in Operations, was forced to sleep in the bathroom of his office at the Palace.

Probably the most insistent of the doubts aroused by that salvo concerned the truth of political claims that the Coalition was winning the 'war on terror' in Iraq. On the contrary, the impression was now that we faced an expert, determined and courageous enemy able to strike at will; and it was this realization more than any other that steadily eroded morale. These attacks had a further, more damaging effect: the defenses of the Green Zone, which were designed to protect its inhabitants, had also deprived them of sensation, and in further buttressing them and tightening procedures CPA HQ staff began inexorably to lose the ability to accurately judge the situation outside.

Neil Strachan, our Political Adviser and a British Army Reservist, arrived in Kut later that day with a CRG team from Baghdad. He had been seconded by the Foreign Office. He too had been in the Rashid Hotel when it was hit, but seemed unshaken by the experience. Although he was a civil engineer he had spent three years doing intelligence work — his Reservist speciality — in Germany, where he had just become engaged to a U.S. Air Force officer. He was wiry, tough and fit and his quiet manner belied a principled passion for his work and a steely determination. His only obvious idiosyncrasies were a hatred of puppies and an inexplicable passion for U.S. Army combat rations, known officially as 'MREs' or 'Meals Ready to Eat' and unofficially by U.S. soldiers as 'Mr Es' or 'Mysteries.'

Sally Bond, our Administrative Officer, had volunteered for a four-month stint in Iraq during the British 'trawl' of its Civil Service. She had established a set of desks on the Villa's first floor from which we intended to operate till Tarawa House was ready. She had travelled little outside Britain, but said that conditions in Kut were better than she had imagined. Actually these remained spartan, and the recently installed lighting and electrical systems in the Villa were still erratic. Cold showers were the norm — I later found that this was because our locally contracted plumber had connected the hot water tank to the lavatory cistern. Distance and time had not improved KBR's food, which now verged on the inedible.

The Sadr Uprising

I awoke early on the morning of 5 April with the blunt certainty that somewhere, in the barrage of almost imperceptible sensations that continually inform the human mind, something was very wrong. Dressing quickly, I walked into the sun-lit compound, tense with premonition. The city seemed quiet, almost leaden; and the daily traffic jam at the barrage was missing. As I watched, I saw a convoy of three Ukrainian armored vehicles cross the river on their way to Delta, and was partly reassured.

Majed arrived at 0745. Concerned, I walked to meet him at the gate. He told me that Sheikh Abdul Jawad al-Issawi had addressed a group of 200 armed men outside the river-side Sadr office that morning at 0200 hours, and again at 0700. Shortly afterward a bus had allegedly rammed a Ukrainian vehicle in the city, and a U.S. Special Forces vehicle had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade — both its occupants were injured.

Over the next sixty minutes our Province institutions began to fall apart as though they had never properly existed. Bad news flowed into our base like an incoming tide, littered with the wreckage of our efforts. Less than half of our local staff came to work at 0800. The morning shift of our new guard force failed to report, leaving us at half strength. Ministry officials stayed at home. The police, I was now told, had deserted their posts, as had the paramilitary Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

It was difficult to think. Clearly some form of Sadr coup was in train. We had to stop it, but we would need troops. I immediately briefed the others, and asked our Ukrainian liaison officer to call General Ostrovskiy. It was imperative that we strengthened the key points of the city — the government building, the bridges and above all the television centre. Without these locations Sadr had nothing worth the candle. The liaison officer looked uncomfortable. Majed then told me that there was no Ukrainian presence in town at all, and that their vehicles had been withdrawn across the bridge to Delta. I had seen the last of them go. The liaison officer, visibly frightened, said he did not want to call his General. I marched him to the Ukrainian garrison radio myself.

More fragmentary messages came in. The police station was empty, Governor Nema Sultan had co-signed a document with Sadr, and the Sadr office had appointed a new province police chief.

We turned on the television. Moqtada al-Sadr had called on his followers to 'terrorize your enemies.' The Ukrainians had abandoned the city without a word of warning to us and the province appeared to have simply collapsed. For a moment I felt absolutely paralyzed. What in God's name was one supposed to do?

We had to know more. I quickly briefed CRG and got into the cars. Bob, who was again team-leader in Russ's absence, did not hesitate; nor to his great credit did my interpreter. I elected to go alone and to leave Timm in charge. We knew each other well enough for there to be no need of further words. We considered taking a Ukrainian escort but discarded the idea. I wanted speed and agility, and they were as likely to get into trouble as we were.

We sped out of the main gate into a deserted city. There was no one on the steps of the police station and few cars were on the road. We crossed the intersection and accelerated across the dam. Turning right, we now ran parallel to our base as we drove under the grain silos on the opposite side of the river; and there, as we slowed to cross the lock gates at the river junction, we were suddenly among a dozen heavily armed men. All gazed at us steadily, their kefiyas wrapped tightly around their faces. Some wore sunglasses. Others were in uniform, but I could see neither badges nor insignia.

Rocket-launchers lay propped against a nearby wall. I saw two medium machine-guns on tripods and piles of grenades beside them. All these men held Kalashnikovs. We were in their midst before we could react. Bob said over the radio 'Keep going' and we moved steadily through them and over the lock bridge to a point 100 meters beyond. They did nothing. I saw, incongruously, a group of three uniformed police sitting together in chairs and stopped the cars. They made salaams cheerfully as though these circumstances were quite normal. I asked them about the identity of this militia. 'Jaish al-Mahdi', they said. Why had they not removed these people? 'We have an arrangement with them.'

I was about to berate them for their folly and ineptitude when I realized that we were in serious trouble. The militia blocking position was now between us and the CPA base, and there was no certain way back except along that same road. I was cut off from my team, and it was clear that this emergency had just begun. We might need these fools again; and so, face set, I congratulated them on their professionalism and vigilance. CRG drove us the remaining kilometer to Delta as I sat in the back with ice in my heart. Where were our new Chief of Police and his Deputy?

I found General Ostrovskiy in his office, and asked him levelly what had occurred and what he had done. He said that because of disturbances in other cities like Najaf and Karbala, Sadr followers had said that the safety of Ukrainian forces in Kut could not be guaranteed. These had accordingly been withdrawn from patrol as a precautionary measure and to avoid bloodshed. He was due to meet a Sadr delegation shortly in Delta to discuss the matter. Would I like to attend? I heard myself say no, and that this was a time for strength not negotiation; but I felt powerfully as though an alien power had seized control of the minds of everyone I met and turned them into dissembling automata.

Aghast at the scale of this secret capitulation we drove to meet the American Special Forces and Marine contingents inside Delta. I briefed them in their quarters as they huddled around me with radios crackling. They told me that intelligence indicated that Sadr had placed explosive at the lock gates, and that their checkpoint had been strengthened in the last hour to prevent any attempt by the Coalition to move forces back into Kut. I asked what they intended to do; I expected them to call for air support and clear the road. There was a long silence. One said 'There's not much we can do.' I said we had no choice but to return, and left the building.

I felt very alone. I found the Ukrainian withdrawal astonishing, and was equally shocked by the apparent paralysis of these two elite American units. Every minute that we permitted militia to remain in control of the city damaged us terribly. I briefed Bob about what I had learned and said that we had to go back; to leave the CPA team isolated in these circumstances was unthinkable, and I could not contemplate staying where I was. I said I thought it would be very dangerous, and quite understood if he wished to say no. He got into the car without a word. At that moment I felt something akin to love for my security team. They had every right to refuse. We drove without further conversation to the front gate. The lock was visible ahead, and the empty road that led to it shimmered in the unseasonal heat.

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