By Jennifer Reese
Updated July 28, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

In August 2003, Rory Stewart, a 30-year-old Scot, hopped a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad and sought a job with the U.S.-led coalition government. His most relevant experience: an epic 2002 walk across war-torn Afghanistan, which he detailed in his stupendous book The Places in Between.

Because he was ”keen and available,” Stewart was appointed deputy governor of the rural province of Maysan. So began a surreal and futile yearlong struggle, scrupulously recounted in The Prince of the Marshes, to balance the violently conflicting interests of clueless coalition bosses, conservative Islamic clerics, ordinary citizens, criminals, and sundry powermongers, most notably the so-called Prince of the Marshes, a charismatic sheikh who, for a brief moment, embodied the coalition’s hopes for the future. Stewart is a fearless reporter and smart observer of Islamic culture. But his bureaucratic routine, taking endless meetings in heavily guarded compounds, doesn’t play to his strengths. His experience was both fascinating and constricted, and so too is his thoughtful, slightly arid book.

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