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For nine months in the formative post-invasion period, the author served in Iraq, a high-level civilian assigned to help the country rebuild. He had the best of intentions
I had been in Iraq a short while when one of the Iraqis who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority, a young man named Ali, asked me for a favor. Ali was trained as a pharmacist and had worked as a pharmacist’s assistant before liberation. With the coming of the Coalition he’d signed up to work as a bookkeeper with KBR—Kellogg, Brown and Root—the division of Halliburton that fed us each day. He and I had gotten to know each other fairly well. He had been making inquiries about scholarship possibilities in America and had somehow managed to irritate my assistant who was putting the scholarship program together, so he often came by late at night to talk with me. I would ask him about student life. He would tell me about his family.
This was the favor: His younger sister had started college, and even though she was enrolled in one of the better universities in Baghdad, she was in a field in which she had no interest. She had wanted to study computer science, but her entrance exam grades were not good enough. Could I put pressure on the university to let her switch?
Though my title was Coalition Provisional Authority Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, both Ali and I knew that this was something even I could not bring about. Iraqi students took a qualifying exam at the end of high school that determined what fields they could enter. Iraq is a society of strict rules, moderated only by family connections and payoffs—and those avenues were unavailable to Ali’s sister.
There was a way around that might work, however. Almost every university in Iraq ran what was called “night school.” These were classes that started late in the afternoon, were a bit laxer in their requirements, and for which tuition was charged. (All of higher education in Iraq is otherwise public and free.)
I called the Vice President of one of Baghdad’s best universities and first asked if Ali’s sister could transfer there and switch up to a concentration in computer science. He delivered a fairly paternal and anticipated lecture about how and why such a thing was impossible, then asked why I was concerned.
“She is the sister of a guy who gave up a career in pharmacy to work for the Coalition,” I answered, “so I thought I would lend a hand.”
The answer was still no.
Then I suggested that she be allowed to enroll in the evening classes. “But it’s getting late in the year; she may flunk. Besides, there’s a tuition fee for the night school,” he countered.
Not knowing her, I still replied, “I don’t think that will be a problem. I know her brother and she comes from a very smart family and I’m pretty sure the family can pay.”
“Okay, have her come by tomorrow and talk to me.”
When I ran into Ali a few days later, he told me that his sister had been accepted to the night school and was the happiest person he knew. He added that he had been thinking about me and about his boss over in KBR, whom he very much liked, and he had decided to change his life. He would start becoming “an American.”
He tried to explain. “Yesterday I stopped for a man begging on the street and I gave him lots of money. And before that I saw a mother having a hard time with little children, trying to get them to school, so I gave the whole family a ride to the school. See, I’m becoming an American.
“Every day I will try to do something good for someone I don’t know, like you did for my sister. That’s all.”
I took up my post in baghdad in the beginning of September 2003, four months after Ambassador Paul Bremer arrived in Iraq as the country’s civilian administrator. The first Senior Advisor for Higher Education and Scientific Research, Andrew Erdmann, had already left Iraq for a position in the White House. His deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Steve Curda, was pretty much holding down the mission alone. I had a meeting with Erdmann and a quick conference with Curda in Washington, and that was pretty much my orientation.
From Washington I flew to Texas, where I caught a military 747 to Kuwait. In Kuwait, where the temperature was 110 degrees at midday, I practiced putting on my gas mask.
From Kuwait it was on to Baghdad on a C-130, an immense cargo propeller plane left from the Vietnam conflict. The plane corkscrewed straight down into Baghdad airport to avoid enemy rockets, and leveled out just a few hundred feet above the tarmac.
There were 25 of us senior advisors in iraq, for 25 newly created ministries. In addition to Higher Education, there was a Ministry of Education that covered primary and secondary schooling, and ministries of Oil, Electricity, Justice, Transportation, Youth and Sport, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Planning, and so on. Each of us served as Bremer’s representative.
We senior advisors met together every morning (except Sunday) at 7:30 a.m., with Jessica LeCroy, Bremer’s executive assistant. The meetings would begin with someone from the military reporting on events of the previous day—number of hostile incidents, how many casualties the Coalition had suffered the day before, any foreseeable threats in the day or two ahead. We’d then talk over common problems or matters of common interest and be out by 8, when Bremer himself held daily meetings with the senior advisors to the “more important” sectors—Interior, Transportation, Defense, Oil, Electricity. We in the softer sectors didn’t mind not being invited, since it meant that we could work without constant micromanagement.
My office never exceeded 12 people, including three translators and three Iraqi exiles who dropped in sporadically from Britain or America to help out. We had no budget to speak of. I’d learned when I arrived in Iraq of the administration’s decision that certain sectors with possible international appeal would not be supported in any serious measure by American funds. Education, Youth and Sport, Health, and Culture would largely rely on the generosity of the “international donor community”—that is, good-willed nations other than the United States. By early 2004, it was clear that we in higher education would be getting next to nothing from the donor community, and nothing from the United States.
Colonel Curda arranged my escort from the airport to the Green Zone, the secured area of Baghdad where the Coalition authority worked and was housed. We had: a Humvee in front of our car with well-armed soldiers and a guy manning a machine gun on the roof. The same setup behind us. In my car, there were two shooters with long guns in the backseat, Curda, driving with a pistol on his lap, and me, unarmed in the passenger seat wearing a flak jacket and helmet, scanning the rooftops on my side for snipers. For all the weeks that Curda remained in Iraq, this was how we traveled outside the Green Zone. As soon as he went back to the States, we made other arrangements.
The military made it obvious that it didn’t relish babysitting Coalition civilians. Escorting us from one destination to another, waiting for hours outside while we held meetings, not only put soldiers at risk, it made us greater targets. Half the people in my office were Iraqis, and I could pass for Iraqi so long as I kept my mouth shut. We preferred to travel in our translators’ cars (including an 11-year-old Oldsmobile with velvet seat covers), unarmed, without flak jacket or helmet, with me usually up front, window down, and always, always, without a seat belt. Wearing a seat belt was a dead giveaway that you were American.
My staff and I went out almost every day, for tea with the Ministry staff or dinner at the houses of Iraqi friends, to talk with students at a university or walk a campus with a dean. We varied our routes and times. We never told anyone, not even a university president, when exactly we’d arrive—”between ten and one” was accepted. Our precautions seemed adequate. Still, it was disconcerting to drive by a beggar on the street with a cardboard sign around his neck that read in Arabic, “Will Kill for Money.”
My staff and i became close friends with an older woman who worked fairly high up in our Ministry. She was a Christian. While she seemed pleased that the Coalition had swept out Saddam Hussein’s Baathists, the rumor persisted that her family had prospered greatly under the previous regime. Christians being a clear and easily crushable minority, Saddam often relied on them. Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s deputy, was a Christian, as were, I’m told, Saddam’s barbers and cooks. Anyone who could poison him or slit his throat had to be Christian.
On September 29, 2003, just two weeks after I arrived in Baghdad, kidnappers took this woman’s middle-aged son. He was a dentist, and they grabbed him as he left his clinic. The ransom was set at $300,000.
During the son’s captivity, which he spent mostly sitting in a chair with his blindfold removed, he got a good look at the kidnappers. There were about 12 of them, all about 20 to 25 years old. They had primitive tattoos and bragged among themselves about how long each had spent in prison. In all likelihood, they were among the thousands of common criminals Saddam released and pardoned just before the Coalition forces arrived. There was one person whom the son was not allowed to look at: the head of the gang, a person referred to as “Hajji”—that is, a man who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The kidnappers kept the son for five days, maintaining contact with the family using his mobile phone. The son was no fool—he knew he was only worth money alive, so he refused all offers of food and drink. His keepers would put roasted chicken to his mouth, and he would refuse. Finally, he collapsed. Probably not wanting a worthless corpse on their hands, the kidnappers settled for a payment of $23,000.
The woman’s husband was instructed as to where to drive with the ransom. He was told which of his cars to take and to stop when he saw headlights blinking at him. Without anyone getting out, he handed the money through an open car window to two men in their thirties dressed in jackets and ties. They sported “Elvis Presley” hairstyles, with a big wave in the front, and they drove a white BMW, without plates.
The son was returned in a convoy of three cars, with him in the middle car. He could tell that the convoy passed through at least two Iraqi police checkpoints without incident, this despite the fact that he sat upright in the back seat blindfolded.
Before Saddam was captured, sightings of him were everywhere. He was seen dressed as a woman. He was driving a taxi. He was hidden in this house, or that house, or down the block; in Baghdad, in Tikrit, in Mosul.
If everyone knew someone who knew someone who knew where he was, why, I would ask, did no one turn him in? The reward, after all, was $25 million.
Ah, the reward. “That’s the problem,” a professor told me, “the reward is too big.”
“Why is the reward too big?”
“Because it should only be a thousand dollars, or maybe two.”
“Okay, I give up; why should it only be a thousand or two thousand dollars?”
“Because of what happened to the poor man who turned in the two sons.” That is, Saddam’s two sons, Uday and Qusay.
“Well, from everything I know, he was paid the money—$30 million—as promised, and is now living secretly somewhere, probably in Europe, enjoying himself. Do you think he was never given the money, or that he’s terrorized by the thought of friends of Saddam finding and killing him?”
“No, Saddam has no friends; besides, the man is already dead—everyone knows the story. Yes, the Americans gave him the money, just as they said they would. They didn’t even give him a check, because no one would trust that—they gave him real money, green money [what Iraqis call U.S. bills], and the American soldiers brought him to the Turkish border so he could get out of Iraq.
“But in the valley just before the border, the American soldiers killed him and took the money. Thirty million dollars is too much for anyone to have. Besides, the soldiers have families, too.”
I asked a number of Iraqis over the weeks if they had heard the story. “Yes.” Did they believe it? Everyone said yes except Hasan, my translator. “No one could carry that much money in cash,” he said, “even if he drove it in a truck.”
Every now and then the u.s. army would find a cache of money in a raid on one of Saddam’s hiding places. Since it was money that belonged to the Iraqi people, the Army would give it to the various ministries or to the senior advisors to use beneficially. Much of it went to rebuild primary schools, and a good bit went to clinics and hospitals, the sentimental favorites of the troops. But some of it we managed to secure for higher education.
In one case, my predecessor obtained a little over $43,000 to give to one of the universities that had been looted after the war. The funds were earmarked to fix doors, windows, and walls that the hooligans had broken down.
Months went by, and the administrator who’d received the money left his job for one at another university, without the work being started. I called him at his new job, and in my most irate and sententious voice asked him what he had done with the money. We all knew that corruption was endemic to Iraqi society, as much after the war as before, but this was money provided him by the Army, I said, and the Army wanted to know what had happened to it; one way or another, the Army would get it back. (Actually, the military hadn’t given the money a second thought—my staff and I were the ones who were miffed.)
There was quiet at the other end. Then this: “I haven’t done anything with the money. I never spent it and I’ve been waiting for you to come and take it back.”
“Where is it?”
“Under my bed.”
“You have $43,000 sitting under your bed?”
He added, “I’ve been waiting for months for you to call. My family and I are very afraid to go to sleep each night with all this money in the house.”
We made a date to get together the next morning at his new office to transfer the cash back. It was a Friday, so there would be few if any people around. I took Jim Mollen, a colleague from the office, and Marv, a former Green Beret who would be our protection, and Hasan, who knew the way and would drive. We managed to get past campus security with our weapons, barely. Jim had his pistol hidden behind him, under his belt. Just as we passed the guards the gun slipped and fell down his pants leg. Why it didn’t go off and blow off half his ass is still a mystery.
We met the administrator in a corner office, down a long hall. He was sitting behind a big desk with a large paper grocery bag in front of him. In it was the money—more than $43,000 in twenties.
With Marv outside the door, we counted out the bills into thousand-dollar piles, then recounted. It was all there, almost. About $80 was missing. The administrator stared at us in disbelief. He didn’t take the money; he swore he didn’t.
Of course we believed him. If he’d had a larcenous heart he would have kept it all and given us some cockamamy story about how the university still had it or how thieves robbed him on the way to the office. My guess is that the Army miscounted it at the beginning. Still, the man was so mortified that he took out his wallet and made up the difference.
Hasan, the translator, took a taxi to work one morning. The driver was spooked by something that had happened earlier in the week, and he seemed desperate to talk about it.
A few days before, a scruffy man with a package got in his cab and asked to be taken to a street in the heart of downtown Baghdad. By his accent it was clear he was not an Iraqi.
“I am going to blow up a place where the Americans are. Will you take me there and die with me?”
“What do you mean to do?”
“I have a bomb in this package, and I am willing to blow myself up to have the Americans die with me. Will you come?”
“No, I’m afraid to die. I’m not ready to die.”
“But those who die for Allah, those who die for just and holy causes, are given the greatest of rewards.”
“Still, many innocent people will perish with you. You may not kill them. It’s not right that they should die.”
“They will go to Paradise with me.”
“But if they are not ready? If they have sins?”
“In martyrdom, Allah forgives all sins.”
“But if you kill the fathers of children? Why should the children suffer?”
“They will be the children of martyrs. Allah will provide. Are you coming with me?”
When the driver again said no, the foreigner made him turn off the cab and give him the car keys. He then walked down the block and set off the bomb.
I was having breakfast with the dean of a college at one of the major Iraq universities. He was an amiable person in his gruff way, and would, I think, call himself a realist. “Tell me,” he said at one point, “you’re an educated American—do you really think Arabs crashed those planes into the Twin Towers?”
“Yes,” I replied, “don’t you?”
“Absolutely not. Couldn’t be. Arabs can’t fly planes like that.”
I had heard this silliness before about Arabs and their inability to do anything remotely complicated; it’s a Middle-Eastern form of self-effacement, to make a larger point or put blame on others.
“But what of the 19 Arabs who were on the planes? What were they up to?”
“I heard they were all going to a wedding.”
The fact that the planes took off for different cities didn’t matter. That was the rumor and therefore, as Hasan might wryly say, it had to be true. (Hasan was a secular Muslim and an architect. There were two things you could count on when dining at his home with him and his wife: as much beer and scotch as you might want, and the Fashion Channel on the television.)
“Well, then,” I asked the dean, “who did fly the planes?”
“Americans,” he answered. “You flew the planes into the buildings yourselves.”
“Why would we do that?”
“In order to blame us, then come here to get our oil.”
I explained that, if oil were what we wanted, we could more easily have cut a deal with Saddam.
He thought about this for a second or two.
“From what I understand, you cannot have blacks for slaves anymore in America. Your Supreme Court won’t let you. But I think that you could have Arabs for slaves, and I think you flew the planes into the buildings to blame the Arabs so you could come here to take Arabs to be slaves in your houses.”
I’m not sure what exactly I said in response, but it was something to the effect that Americans are interested neither in having Arabs as slaves nor in killing our fellow citizens for that purpose.
At this he brightened. “Of course you would kill each other to get slaves. I know you had a civil war with each other because many of you wanted to have slaves. But put that aside. Maybe you crashed the planes for the sake of learning, for the sake of science.”
I’m sure my face went blank. “Science?”
“Yes, like when your great President Reagan blew up the Challenger in order to see what would happen scientifically. You remember, he gave that speech where he praised the astronauts for having sacrificed so much for the progress of science.”
I’ve said that we civilians preferred to go out by ourselves rather than with military escort, to be less visible. But there was another reason. Too often, traveling with soldiers was simply unbearable. Often, in the lead Humvee there would be a soldier standing in the hatch, pointing his fist, often in a black glove, at any car that dared get near. “Back off, you f****r,” would be the repeated refrain, as he pointed his weapon at Iraqis. These were, in almost every instance, ordinary people going to work, going to market, minding their business. And they didn’t need a grasp of English to know that they were being cursed on their own streets.
Don’t misunderstand me. There were also military doctors who saved countless Iraqi civilians from death and disfigurement, who made no distinction between our soldiers’ lives and theirs. Some military personnel helped us set up nursing programs and supply medical schools with books and equipment. Others cadged computers from their companies back home to distribute to Iraqi universities, built classrooms, found money to fix dormitories. One colonel helped to start the first agricultural extension service in Iraq and also organized fishing tournaments for Baghdad children. Others managed to get TVs into women’s dormitories to help increase their openness to the outside world. Most of these good things were done by the civil affairs part of the military operation, primarily by soldiers in the Guard and Reserves—people with a few years on them and real-world experience.
Two and a half months after arriving in Iraq, I returned to Washington to speak at various think tanks in hopes of drumming up interest in Iraqi higher education. Word reached me that the World Bank was interested in talking about support. I met with an enormously unpleasant European at the World Bank who made it quite clear that she preferred to talk only with Iraqis. She had tried, repeatedly she said, to contact the Minister of Higher Education, but he had never returned her phone calls.
I found out later that the minister had no idea what the World Bank was. I could only envision his face when his assistant would tell him the World Bank was on the line—he probably had the same reaction most of us do when our bank calls: Does any bank ever call with good news? So he repeatedly refused her calls.
Sadly, she was stuck talking with me. When she asked me what projects were under way, I mentioned the need for everything from desks, chairs, and chalk to the rebuilding of whole libraries and establishment of modern Internet connections. I noted that at least three Iraqi universities were toying with strengthening their liberal arts offerings, to the point of creating new liberal arts colleges. With that, the woman’s attitude changed from boredom to contempt. “Just what the world needs,” she said, “more unemployed Iraqis.”
During the week of Ashura, one of the most highly placed professors I knew, a devout Sunni, asked me if I had seen the TV pictures of Shiite pilgrims whipping themselves. No, I hadn’t, though I did know that during this week devout Shi’a would do penance by flagellating themselves with chains, often tipped with blades or sharpened points.
It is “horrible, disgusting” what these people, these Shiite people, do to their God-given bodies, he said. “Animals. People who do this are nothing but animals.” Then he paused for a second and said, in a lower voice, “No, they’re worse than animals. Not even an animal would do that to itself.”
Another Sunni acquaintance had recently made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. He’d found himself thrown in with a group of Shiite pilgrims. He had never spent time with the Shi’a before, didn’t know any personally, but he had always thought of them as coreligionists. The Shi’a began to sing a hymn, he said. All around him they were singing that the Archangel Gabriel had violated Allah’s command by giving the Koran to Mohammed instead of Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law. The hymn portrayed Gabriel as, in his words, “a traitor to the will of Allah.”
“How could they say that?” he asked me. “These people are not real Muslims. These people are heretics, all of them. They shouldn’t be allowed to sing that.” And in a lower voice, “They shouldn’t be allowed.”
Sunday, January 18, 2004, began like any other morning in the Green Zone. Scrambled eggs, bacon, coffee, grits. Then came the thud that meant a bomb had gone off or a mortar had landed someplace nearby. This was odd. Since Christmas, when attacks against the Green Zone had begun in earnest, almost all the bombing had come at night, between eight and midnight. Still, it seemed pretty far away, so we kept on eating.
In fact, the war took a new turn that day. Instead of targeting Americans and Brits, someone blew up a car and himself as well at the Green Zone’s north gate, used by most Iraqis who worked with the Coalition. Thirty-six Iraqis were killed.
Among them was Hadeel. I’d met Hadeel for the first time just the day before, though I had seen her working down the hall in the Finance Ministry office. She was 23, with light brown hair and a friendly smile, and she was engaged to be married. On Saturday I sat with her and four or five other young women, and with Suhail, one of our translators, and his wife, who had been newly hired by the Coalition. Hadeel was a Christian; Suhail had been her catechism teacher.
Today she was dying. Tomorrow, Monday, she would be dead. “Burned black all over,” I was told by those allowed to visit her in the hospital. The other young women had been with her in a car. They’d been blown out of it by the explosion. Hadeel was left in the car and burned as it melted around her. In some ways, she was the lucky one. The others, I am told, no longer have faces; they are blind and deaf, with metal and glass pieces embedded in their bodies. I don’t know this firsthand, but it’s likely true. For sure, Hadeel is dead.
Not all the Iraqis killed that morning were going to work for the Coalition. A van of girls on their way to high school also crossed the bomber’s path. They, too, burned to death.
Soon after, a number of Iraqis who worked for the Coalition quit. Most who stayed stopped telling people where they worked. Suhail’s wife left the first week. By the end of six months, of the three translators in my office, only one, a man without wife or children, remained.
John Agresto ’67 served as acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Ronald Reagan and as president of St. John’s College in New Mexico from 1989 to 1999. His article is drawn from Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions (copyright © 2007 by Encounter Books), by permission of Encounter Books.