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In April 2004, Shi‘ite firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Jaysh al-Mahdi militia rose in revolt against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Revolt on the Tigris tells the tale through the eyes of Etherington, a British political officer in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) office in Al-Kut, the capital of the southern Wasit province.[1]

Rather than shed much light on Al-Kut, its political figures, and the complexity of the local society, Revolt on the Tigris offers inside baseball. Etherington describes his meetings with coalition administrator L. Paul Bremer, senior British representative Sir Jeremy Greenstock, and other diplomats. Local color is limited to a few short descriptions as Etherington hops from one coalition base to another. Overshadowing a one-paragraph overview of Al-Kut's demographics are thirty pages describing his compound, equipment, and staff, e-mails he received, and his thoughts of the local Ukrainian detachment and military contractors.

Revolt on the Tigris reflects well the issues dominating CPA attention in late 2003 and early 2004. Etherington describes his mechanism to elect local councilmen and the implementation of gas rationing, which subsequently degenerated into rioting. But he offers little insight into local politics. While he refers to meetings with local officials, he mentions few Iraqis more than once, and these only in passing. When he decides, for example, to visit every local council in the province, the resulting narrative centers more upon the division of his day, conversations with his deputy, and the amount of water he drank than upon the content of the meetings. Questionable assumptions supplant local understanding. Etherington criticizes the coalition decision to disband the Iraqi army, but does he really believe that a predominantly Shi‘ite province would have welcomed continued deployment of an army it viewed as an agent of oppression?

The description of Sadr's revolt continues the narrative's myopia. Etherington describes compound perimeter defenses, conversations with military officers, and his own weaponry, but makes little effort to understand the internal political dynamics that led to the revolt. His treatment of it is limited to a portion of one chapter. He offers no analysis of Sadr's subsequent decision to join the political process, nor does he consider the motivations and planning that underpinned Sadr's strategy.

Questions over Etherington's objectivity as narrator also undercut his recounting the CPA's governance of Al-Kut. An official assessment of what went wrong in Al-Kut placed blame on Etherington for, among other faults, "toning down" reports of Islamist activity.[2] Historians will find value in Etherington's account, though, in that it illustrates the isolation of the CPA as it consumed itself with its own bureaucracy while remaining oblivious to Iraqi political developments outside its compound walls.

[1] See, "Al-Kut, Iraq: After-Battle Report," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2004, pp. 68-9.
[2] Ibid., p. 69.