Regime Changing

This all-American kid from Monterey is now one of the foremost experts on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Where does he go from here?

Not far from the antiques, al-Marashi's parents have hung a large photo of their son, along with his university diplomas. They beam at the mention of him. In recent months, they've closely monitored his media appearances. "I have read all the articles!" his mother cries. "There have been 724 articles with Ibrahim's name in it!"

"Six thousand people have visited Ibrahim's bio page on the Monterey Institute Web site," adds his father, Murtadha al-Marashi, a small man in an oversize gray suit who is a doctor at Monterey County's Natividad Medical Center.

As proud as al-Marashi's parents are, they initially tried to steer him away from studying the Middle East. "To tell you the truth, I tried to discourage this interest, because of a fear for his safety from Saddam and Saddam's followers," Mrs. al-Marashi says. "Because I know they are everywhere. Maybe it's the paranoia of having lived in Iraq, and seeing firsthand. ... I left when I was 17, so I left very early, but these things never leave you."

Al-Marashi holds up a postcard commonly issued by 
the Iraqi government that was found after the 1991 
Gulf War.
Paolo Vescia
Al-Marashi holds up a postcard commonly issued by the Iraqi government that was found after the 1991 Gulf War.
Al-Marashi holds up a postcard commonly issued by 
the Iraqi government that was found after the 1991 
Gulf War.
Paolo Vescia
Al-Marashi holds up a postcard commonly issued by the Iraqi government that was found after the 1991 Gulf War.

The al-Marashis immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s, after the Ba'ath Party began its reign of cruelty and fear, but a few years before Saddam Hussein officially took power. Mr. al-Marashi was raised in Tanzania and spent only a limited time in Iraq. He was introduced to the teenage Mrs. al-Marashi, who lived in Baghdad, through a family friend; they were married in 1971. The couple moved soon after to the East Coast, where Mr. al-Marashi had secured a medical residency; in 1979, the growing family relocated to Monterey so that Mr. al-Marashi could take a job at an Army hospital.

The boy and his two sisters would spend most of their youth in the quiet, coastside town living typical suburban lives -- seemingly minus the angst. Ibrahim Al-Marashi's parents insist that their son was a model child. He never scratched the family car, always came home before his curfew, and kept busy with school and extracurricular activities (model United Nations, Junior Statesmen of America). He also read voraciously, loved watching movies, and had a noticeable artistic bent. And as the older brother to two sisters, al-Marashi had a close but protective relationship with his siblings.

"He's always had a really good sense of humor," says 20-year-old Laila, the youngest sister, a junior at UC Berkeley. "He'd always say, 'Aren't you glad you have such a fun big brother?' And it's true."

Huda, his other sister, a 26-year-old new mother living on Staten Island with her husband, says that she remembers her brother having an interest in history growing up, and that he often reread books several times to absorb all the information. Still, the household rarely talked of Iraq.

"[Iraq] was not pushed on us growing up," Huda says. "We both had a curiosity -- we wanted to know why my parents felt the way they did, or how come they didn't want to discuss it."

"I wanted him to just stay away from [Arab politics], but somehow the more I shielded him, the more drawn to it he was," Mrs. al-Marashi explains. "He has almost a hunger for it, to really know what it is."

It took the 1991 Gulf War to realign the axis of al-Marashi's world toward Iraq. He became obsessed with studying the country's history, learning to speak its language in college and by living abroad, and absorbing its culture and arts through frequent travels to the Middle East. In a kind of personal regime change, al-Marashi refocused his attention away from art and film, and decided to learn as much as he could about what he perceived to be a misunderstood nation. "The whole reason I got into this field was because [there is] a lack of knowledge on Iraq," he says.

Even now, with al-Marashi regarded as an expert on the topic, Middle East politics remains "a dead subject" within his family.

"We do not talk about politics," Mr. al-Marashi says firmly.

"I hate for Saddam to rob me away from my family," adds Mrs. al-Marashi. "This is precious time. My son is only here maybe hours, minutes, and I'm not going to spoil it [talking about] Saddam Hussein."

In January 1991, George H.W. Bush launched Operation Desert Storm after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. At the time, al-Marashi was a senior in high school, and he watched the war unfold through unrelenting press coverage.

He had never spoken in depth with his parents about it, but he had an instinctual sense of the horror of Saddam Hussein's regime. As a result, he supported the war and hoped it would eliminate the dictator, though he was deeply disturbed by the images of civilian casualties and the sight of bombs blowing the formerly prosperous country to pieces. He remembers internalizing the deep ambivalence he felt -- he says he didn't think any of his friends would understand.

By early March he had heard of the uprising by Shi'a Muslims in the south -- his kinsmen -- that reportedly began when civilians and soldiers defecting from Saddam Hussein's army fired at a portrait of the dictator in the city of Basra. Al-Marashi monitored the news reports of this remarkable and chaotic rebellion, and felt hopeful about the successful overthrow of the regime. Kurds in the north soon followed the Shi'a example, and, for a few days, the prospect of a democratic takeover of Iraq seemed possible.

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