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With a meeting time set, the reporter on the phone jumps into interview mode, asking al-Marashi to speak, off the cuff, about his thoughts on the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.
"I mean, personal thoughts or political thoughts?" al-Marashi asks. "Personal? I'm still in shock. You can imagine that I grew up with this regime my whole entire life and I never thought that in my lifetime I would see it removed, so the shock really still hasn't set in ...."
He continues for nearly 10 minutes with the journalist, discussing family in Baghdad and his interest in working with Iraqi opposition groups to help rebuild the country. Despite his half-hour tirade on the failings of American foreign policy toward Iraq with me just a few minutes before, at one point during the conversation, he refers to the U.S. as the "liberators of Iraq."
At moments like these, al-Marashi's viewpoints seem conflicting. His politics are impossible to nail down, as even his co-workers attest. And in press reports that surfaced after the British dossier incident, for example, some newspapers wrote that al-Marashi favored the war with Iraq, while other articles stated that he was opposed to it -- most likely because his deep ambivalence doesn't translate well into soundbites.
Al-Marashi, however, maintains that he has always consciously avoided taking a position on the war. A true intellectual, he plays devil's advocate, especially with himself. One minute, he'll tell me that the invasion of Iraq was justified, though the current Bush administration used too much rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's unlikely links to al Qaeda. "More people were killed by the hand of Saddam than any kind of allied action, so in my opinion, no matter how many civilians were killed, a larger number would have been killed by the regime anyway," he says during our luncheon.
But a few sentences later, he tells me he didn't completely support the war because there were other ways to bring about a regime change. "This war should never have happened in the first place. They should have taken care of business in 1991."
His ideology is also unclear. Though he appears to strive genuinely toward nonpartisanship and is willing to scrutinize American foreign policy, he has also aligned himself with hawkish entities associated with the pro-Israel lobby, such as the Middle East Review of International Affairs(in which his plagiarized paper was first published), and Iraqi exile Anan Makiya, whom he worked under at Harvard University's Iraq Research and Documentation Project.
But al-Marashi doesn't seem to think these conflicts are problematic. He insists that his views simply cannot be categorized. "I would characterize my politics as a lack of any," he tells me later in his Spartan Monterey Institute office, where he works while listening to Turkish music. "It would be too hard to confine. [Politics] is a word -- 'right,' 'left,' 'Democrat' or 'Republican.' No, it fluctuates."
The first reports of the British government's plagiarism of al-Marashi's work emerged in early February, within a week of Powell's address to the United Nations. After the news broke in England, American media immediately jumped on the story, and the press calls began rolling in. Al-Marashi's cell and office phones would ring simultaneously, so he agreed to take a day away from work to do a frantic series of interviews with several outlets in San Francisco.
"We got to San Francisco and we were running from one place to the next," recalls Jacob Blackford, a co-worker who drove al-Marashi to his interviews. "There was a quick shoot at the Hyatt with ABC, [then] we ran across the street for a photo shoot with AP. We went to all these different affiliates, went to private studios. He was getting phone calls all the way through.
"He didn't seem fazed by the exposure. It seemed natural for important people to be aware of him. I said to him at one point, 'Do you realize that George Bush and Colin Powell know about your paper?' And he shrugged. He didn't think it was a big deal at all."
During these interviews, producers and editors approached al-Marashi about using him as a source in future stories. Though he was relatively unknown at the time, he seemed to have all the right credentials: He had done a stint at the State Department, had studied and translated the captured Iraqi intelligence documents stored at Harvard, was a researcher with the Monterey Institute, and was close to finishing his doctorate on Middle Eastern politics at Oxford University. It helped, too, that he is articulate and handsome.
As the conflict in Iraq heightened, camera crews began appearing in Monterey on a weekly basis to tape segments with al-Marashi; he had a contract to appear regularly on San Francisco's CBS affiliate.
Since the frenzy began -- within a matter of months -- he has become a seasoned media pundit who no longer gets nervous before interviews. On air, he has talked about various aspects of the war with Iraq, cautiously avoiding overt partisanship. Most recently, he assessed for Fox News the validity of documents discovered after the end of the war; talked to National Public Radio about the quick fall of Baghdad; and offered insights on the Iraqi Republican Guard on NBC's The News With Brian Williams.