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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?

Wednesday, May 7 2003
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.

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.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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