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?

On Feb. 5, with international dissent mounting against America's foreign policy toward Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell attempted to make one last case for an American invasion of the country before the United Nations Security Council. Armed with aerial photographs, wiretap transcripts, and intelligence documents, Powell said he had come to the United Nations to share "what the United States knows about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as well as Iraq's involvement in terrorism."

"I cannot tell you everything that we know," Powell told the international assembly, with appropriate gravitas. "But what I can share with you, combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling."

Not long into his presentation, Powell began referring to a document titled "Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation," an intelligence dossier on Iraq's security apparatus supplied by the British government. "I would call my colleagues' attention to the fine paper that the United Kingdom distributed yesterday, which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities," Powell said.

Now an expert on Arab politics, al-Marashi didn't focus 
on the subject until 1991.
Paolo Vescia
Now an expert on Arab politics, al-Marashi didn't focus on the subject until 1991.
After an article he wrote was plagiarized by the British 
government, graduate student Ibrahim al-Marashi 
became a favored media pundit on the war with Iraq.
Paolo Vescia
After an article he wrote was plagiarized by the British government, graduate student Ibrahim al-Marashi became a favored media pundit on the war with Iraq.
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.
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.

Despite the showy multimedia presentation and the dossier, Powell's attempt at a diplomatic slam-dunk at the U.N. ultimately backfired. Critics of American foreign policy remained unconvinced -- and worse, Powell's strongest arguments for war were deflated when it was discovered that the British dossier Powell had invoked had been plagiarized from an article in an academic journal written by Ibrahim al-Marashi, a 29-year-old graduate student from Monterey County, Calif. Worse yet, it was soon revealed that some of the original article's wording had been changed to make the case for war more compelling.

The press swarmed around the incident like vultures. British and American officials made statements acknowledging the snafu, even as they stood by the material and its accuracy -- and steadfastly maintained their argument for war.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim al-Marashi, the young scholar who penned the article and who lives with his parents, succumbed to a media tidal wave that swept him into the center of international public attention. His cell phone was soon abuzz with calls from press outlets like the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and CNN; he heard from radio stations in Germany and was flown to New York to appear on 60 Minutes.

Al-Marashi gladly gave interviews, though he was startled by the politicization of his research. "My piece was meant to be a historical piece [based on the 1991 Gulf War], and they took that information and made it look like up-to-date intelligence to convince the U.N. that this was a good reason to go to war," al-Marashi told SF Weekly in an April interview. "A lot of the information is still relevant, but it made a lot of people question how much the British government knows about Iraq. And that Colin Powell took that information to the U.N. ... It indicated a deficiency in their knowledge."

The young student would go on to do literally hundreds of interviews about the now-infamous dossier incident, and soon became a favored media pundit on the war in Iraq, especially in the Bay Area. His phone rang incessantly for months; at the height of the frenzy, his parents regularly turned on the TV to see their son -- sometimes unexpectedly -- on the evening news.

Photogenic and meticulous, al-Marashi remains unfazed by the attention. He always appears collected, donning suits tailored to fit his tall, trim stature, his curly hair carefully gelled. Indeed, he wears a veneer of cool professionalism that never seems to lose its polish, though he's also capable of moments of disarming candor. Viewed by those who have worked with him as a rising star in Middle Eastern scholarship, al-Marashi has a nimble mind and a deep understanding of and empathy for the region's history, politics, and culture.

His interest, however, isn't merely academic. For the past 12 years, al-Marashi has thrown himself into the subject, and it has grown into something of an obsession. But the second-generation Iraqi-American had never given much more than a passing thought to his ancestral country until 1991. That year, a series of dynamic world events ignited an imagination that had previously been distracted by sitcoms and blockbuster movies, and al-Marashi became irreversibly consumed with an intriguing, explosive subject: Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Al-Marashi lives with his parents off Highway 68 in Salinas, about 20 minutes from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where he works as a research associate. On a typical evening, he maneuvers a green Mercedes out of downtown Monterey toward home, along a scenic route in which rolling hills give way to thick foliage.

Turning off the main road into the Laurell Estates, he parks the car at the top of a winding driveway. The house looks like a Mediterranean villa, and his mother, Sabah al-Marashi, a petite woman with a soothing voice who works as a nurse practitioner, opens the door wearing a purple housecoat with a colorful Middle Eastern design. The interior is stylish, and the living room is opulent: A multitiered crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and the cream-colored divans with a scalloped pattern are laden with pillows.

Arranged on the fireplace mantel are several brass pots and platters from Yemen and Turkey, examples of al-Marashi's penchant for collecting. (The family affectionately refers to his bedroom and a nook near the stairwell as al-Marashi's "museum," because they're filled with ornate curios he has brought back from his extensive travels.)

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."

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.

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?"

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.

He has given hundreds of interviews -- and missed some because he couldn't keep track of them all -- but throughout the entire production, he has maintained an air of professionalism and confidence, even if some of it was an act.

"If I don't know an answer, I fake one," he confides. "The worst thing is pausing and not knowing the answer, so you learn how to fake an answer or change the question to your knowledge.

"It's a system you have to master. You give them what they want -- short, succinct answers, yes or no, black or white."

It would be only later -- after the media tumult had died down -- that he would realize that in perfecting the media game, he had sacrificed his original goal of offering a nuanced perspective on a misunderstood country.

In late April, the day before he left for Oxford to finish his doctoral dissertation, and with plans to travel to Iraq afterward, al-Marashi gave his last talk in the United States on the Iraq conflict at a high school in Monterey.

He spoke before a small after-school gathering called World Without Borders, a group he'd previously visited in September 2002, at the time surprising the class with his strident pro-war stance. Al-Marashi had made such an impression during that meeting, in fact, that the teacher heading the group had written in her notes, "Ibrahim proposed we attack Iraq to save his homeland."

This time, he gave the opposite message.

Settling into a chair at the front of the classroom, al-Marashi began his talk the way he begins every presentation. He carefully removed a tattered, mud-stained postcard with scalloped edges from a plastic sleeve and held it up in the air.

"This is a postcard that was found in Iraq [after the 1991 Gulf War]," he said. He translated the contents of the card from Arabic: It thanks Iraqi citizens for performing a "national duty" by reporting on neighbors, friends, and family who are suspected to be "murderous criminals and ... foreign agents."

"This is something the police department would send to you for giving them information," he continued. "It gives you a sense of the old Iraq, how people were encouraged to serve the state and turn against their neighbor. Any talk on Iraq, I'd open up with this card to give you a sense of what life was like in Iraq."

But unlike in previous talks, al-Marashi added, "I'm glad to say this is a piece of history."

Placing the postcard back into its protective sleeve, he shifted into a discussion of the war and the media -- the topic the students had asked him to address.

He began by lambasting the press' reliance on splash rather than substance. "[During interviews] I had two minutes to speak, and then they cut and they go to the next speaker," al-Marashi told the students. "[What] I realized about this is that this is not enough time to say what I have to say. Iraq is not a country you can summarize in 30 seconds before the commercial starts. That made us gloss over a lot of minute details of Iraq politics and internal dynamics. And a lot of times when you summarize something, you don't get the information across correctly.

"The thing is, you're under pressure. You have these bright lights on you and you have to, you know, say it in a couple of sentences to tell the whole thing. When you do that, you don't get the whole picture."

As the talk progressed, his tone changed slightly, and the speech transformed into al-Marashi's unintended mea culpa to the world. In an almost cavalier manner, he began listing several things that he and other analysts had predicted incorrectly, such as underestimating the Fedayeen army and predicting Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons.

"Analysts -- I include myself -- these overnight experts on Fox News and MSNBC, they got the war completely wrong," he said defiantly. "I admit my mistakes; other analysts don't. I put it out there that I and others were completely wrong, and we need to re-examine how we study these countries. And the other analysts would never say that because that's the end of their career, where I'm willing to risk that."

The students seemed unaware of the significance of al-Marashi's admissions, and interjected questions at random, asking whether Saddam Hussein was still alive and how the war would affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his responses, al-Marashi made a point of noting the suffering of Iraqi civilian casualties, and challenged what he now perceives as the U.S. government's self-interested agenda toward Iraq.

The teacher, a wild-haired woman with a gentle manner, seemed surprised by al-Marashi's answers. Finally she asked, "When you last visited us, you said that you would be glad, with qualifications, that the U.S. go [invade] Iraq. Do you regret saying that?"

Al-Marashi, fiddling with a pocket watch, laughed. Addressing the students, he said, "That's why, when Dalia [a student] asked me [to speak here], on literally the day before [I travel to] England, I said, 'Let this be my last talk in the U.S.' Because very much I regret what I said. I wanted to come back [to this group] because what I said back then has come back full circle.

"The way this war was conducted, what happened, I do regret it. I think there were other avenues. It made me realize that getting rid of Saddam could have happened without this kind of war, without these kinds of casualties. They just went in and destroyed the country. What I said in September 2002, I really did change my opinion. There's nothing wrong with saying that."

Later, in the quiet of his office, he tells me that his regret began to mount as Operation Iraqi Freedom drew to a close.

I ask him why.

He's rarely caught without a ready answer, and there's a moment in which he stumbles for words as he tries to explain his sudden change of heart.

"Things were churning a lot faster than a lot of us could handle," he says finally. "I had a chance to inform the public more than I could have -- that's my biggest regret.

"And I was a lot more optimistic about how the war would turn out. I didn't expect so much devastation and carnage. But you don't realize [the devastation] until it has started."

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