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?

This uprising was prompted in part by the first President Bush who, in two separate radio addresses made from the United States several weeks before, called for Iraq's military and civilian populations to rise up against Saddam Hussein; some Iraqis interpreted the broadcasts as American support for a civilian intifada. As the revolt ensued, it became clear that it couldn't succeed without American support. Iraqi insurgents claim they asked for U.S. military aid several times and were rebuffed; former President Bush denies receiving any such requests.

The Bush administration ultimately extricated itself from the country for a host of political reasons, including the hope that a military coup would maintain regional stability (democracy in Iraq was not America's expressed goal in that conflict). According to Out of the Ashes, a book by two Middle East correspondents about the resurrection of Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War, a veteran of CIA operations in Iraq says many of the Bush administration's concerns about continued involvement in the country were based on assumptions made by government analysts who had never set foot there.

Without American support, the opposition groups were quickly and violently toppled by Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. The entire state of affairs incited the anger of numerous parties -- including American liberals and conservatives alike, and, not least, the Iraqi people, who felt that the Bush administration had left Iraq before finishing the job.

Watching the events unfold on TV and then discussing the incidents with family, al-Marashi, too, became enraged. "Here you are, an [Iraqi-]American, growing up in California, and your two countries wage war against each other," he says, his eyes flashing. "Of course, I despise the government of Saddam Hussein, but the U.S. at the time destroyed my country without removing him. For me, I was furious. You went that far, you destroyed the country, but you still left him in power. That was why it was such a turning point in my life. I was angry with both governments; what I saw was a betrayal of the Iraqi people.

"It was my conception that the U.S. still didn't have a good grasp of the Iraqi politics and the different ethnicities there. I believe, had they been better informed [in 1991], this war could have been avoided altogether in 2003. It was really the Gulf War that made me realize that I can't ignore this country where I originally came from. I have to engage in it."

When al-Marashi left for college, he couldn't avoid the call of Iraq for long, and soon changed his major from film to political science and Near Eastern studies at UCLA. He continued to study the region at Georgetown University, where he earned his master's degree in political science at the Arab Studies Center. After graduation, al-Marashi took a research position at the State Department, hoping to help shape smarter American foreign policy on Iraq. He didn't last long as a bureaucrat.

"I thought, OK, I was in a key position to really influence how foreign policy was made on Iraq, informing government circles," he says. "But in that position I was really frustrated. In August 1996 there was an uprising of Iraqi opposition in the north of Iraq, and again, the Clinton administration abandoned that uprising. So twice I could remember that I felt the U.S. was not really trying to change the regime wholeheartedly. That destroyed any aspiration of going into the government."

On April 9, news reports that the allied forces had taken Baghdad swarmed into the United States. In a highly symbolic moment, Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops collaborated in dismantling a massive statue of Saddam Hussein in the city, and it appeared that, for all practical purposes, Operation Iraqi Freedom had been a success.

With the war winding down, al-Marashi's days were finally returning to a more manageable pace. He had only five interviews scheduled for the day; for a while, he had been handling about a dozen.

That afternoon, we lunch at an Italian restaurant a short walk from his office in downtown Monterey, and he muses over the surprising ease with which allied troops took over Baghdad, cautiously thrilled that Saddam Hussein might actually have been removed from power. Still, he confides, he isn't entirely sure what all of this will mean for his career and his purpose.

"A good chunk of my life, of my work, is coming to an end," he says. "This sick fascination with this demented regime, and now that it's gone, the need to study it and supply information to the public isn't there anymore. As a historian for Iraq, there's very little I can do for my country."

His cell phone rings. It's the press officer for the Monterey Institute. "Hi, Jennifer. I thought it was set, confirmed," he says, speaking over the restaurant din. "Oh, KPIX. I'm doing them at 6:30, so I could squeeze them in. Do you have their number with you? I'll call 'em now."

"This is a slow day; you can't imagine," he tells me.

He hangs up and calls a radio station to negotiate an interview time. "My time period is a bit tight," he says. "If I could get done by 6:10, it's possible, but otherwise. ... I've already committed to another interview at 6:30. Unless you want to tape it earlier?"

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