Coker, a reporter with a long resume in the Middle East and elsewhere, shines a light on how Iraqis (like the citizens of most nations colonized and fought over by the so-called great powers) have borne more of the burdens and demonstrated a greater share of the virtues in our wars than our day-to-day political discourses admit. Necessary to that, she also provides a cram-course on the sectarianism which fuels every development in Iraq, unfortunately dooming many of them to failure despite all the good intentions in the world.
(Coker is wise enough also, to provide an early digression on how names are commonly-formed and casually-used in the region; not by the given- and sur-names to which Euro-Americans are so used, but suffixes for place of origin and prefixes that illustrate relationship, with fatherhood and first sons predictably given the same assumption of primacy they occupy in so many traditional cultures.)
The spymaster of the title is one Abu Ali al-Basri. After opposing Saddam and choosing exile over death, he returns after the US-led invasion, hopeful he can be part of creating a better Iraq, but despite talent, skill and dedication, ends up heading one tiny branch of a Hydra-headed intelligence apparatus that serves more to protect the power bases of its various legislative benefactors than to secure the nation. When ISIS forms though, the need for real success becomes undeniable and Ali is finally allowed to assemble a small force of serious spies, nicknamed The Falcons.
The al-Sudani family has suffered in its own ways, living in the Shiite near-ghetto of Sadr City, a Saddam-created slum lorded over by Muqtada al-Sadr and his descendants and militias. Two Sudani sons, Harith and Munaf, join Ali’s Falcons, for very different reasons, but with equal dedication and commitment.
Meanwhile the young Sunni student Abrar al-Kubaisi has lived a privileged life yet still succumbs to the lure of fundamentalism, as so many college-age women and men have succumbed to whatever political trend is ripe at the moment their own desire for a cause is flowering. She then ends up on the opposite side of the ISIS fight.
It is these players whom Coker follows as their stories converge, diverge and end in various forms of tragedy, as lives are lost, broken or destroyed with alacrity by a culture evolved and divided over centuries. There are good people here, and good intentions, but no magic wands. For every bit of progress, it seems, people like Harith sacrifice their lives at alters created by people like Abrar whose twisted morality makes them see horrendous evil for anything but what it is.
Not a screed for any particular military or political policy, The Spymaster of Baghdad is a dash of ice-water in the face of the notion that outside forces can readily fix any of this (and, incidentally, that keeping US troops forever in Iraq is the way to attempt it). Nothing new there, of course, but a message which deserves broadcasting, illuminated here from an unfamiliar aspect, and so vitally worth repeating and sharing.
Sometime the real James Bond speaks Arabic.