Skilled Iraqis line up for work restoring services in Baghdad

Doctors, teachers, police, many part of old regime, are among those sought

War In Iraq

April 15, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Pressed against prickly coils of razor wire outside the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad yesterday, Kassim Madlool waved his Iraqi identification card like a drowning man calling for help.

But what the university-trained mechanical engineer really wanted was to throw his war-ravaged country a lifeline.

Madlool, 35, was one of hundreds of doctors, teachers, accountants, police officers, engineers, bureaucrats, television producers, translators and other professionals - many of whom were part of President Saddam Hussein's regime - who answered the call by the U.S. military for skilled workers to help restore water, electricity, telephone service, medical care and order to this chaotic city of nearly 5 million people.

They crushed together outside the wire barriers leading to this high-rise hotel where the U.S. Marines are based, waiting for a chance to get an interview with military officials.

"I worked in the oil fields," Madlool said as he jostled to keep his place in line. "I know my country's resources."

Until a month ago, Madlool had worked on an oil tanker near Basra for the state-run industry. Two days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he fled with co-workers. He has no idea whether he has a job to return to, but hopes the U.S. government will find a place for him in the new Iraq.

"I heard Bush promise that he is going to liberate us and then he is going to bring a new government with a good life," he said. "We are waiting to see if his promise is good or bad. I don't know if he is a liar or not."

Muhammed Hussein, a 47-year- old accountant, has been out of work for a year after being jailed for criticizing the Iraqi leader. He was willing to take any job.

A man who asked that he not be identified, fearing that Hussein's henchmen might still come after him, produced youth programming for the television station owned by the dictator's son Odai. When he was last at work several weeks ago, an American missile tore into a wing of his office. The station has been off the air since.

Now he hopes to help produce radio and television shows for the new government. He was asked - like many with needed skills - to come back in a day or two for further instructions.

To get an interview with military officials required equal parts patience and muscle. Madlool was among the scores of applicants trying to get past the Marines armed with .50-caliber machine guns and M-16 rifles who have been guarding the Palestine Hotel.

The job-seekers were mixed in with a parade of political activists, onlookers and the sorrowful.

A woman begged to use a satellite phone to call her family overseas. A bearded man escorted his teen-age son whose tongue was cut out by Hussein's henchmen, the fedayeen, the father said, after he spoke out against the regime.

A Kurd carried a slip of paper with a message crudely scrawled in pencil: "I want to wark. I need a job blease. I can drive."

A group of about 20 men who had apparently stolen a truck-mounted crane drove around Fidros Square outside the hotel, chanting support for their nation.

"We've come to protect our Iraq! We will protect you with our souls and our blood!"

Those permitted to cross the razor wire arrived at the desk of Marine Sgt. Jesus Duarte, a civilian affairs officer who directed them to interviews.

Duarte was looking out for those who had been department heads and managers in the Iraqi bureaucracy. Such people will be crucial if the military is to ease the headaches and dangers created by the invasion, he said.

"We are trying to get all these people back," Duarte said. "Almost every person I spoke to doesn't even want to get paid. They just want to get back to work."

Those who reached his desk were interviewed, checked to see whether they were wanted for war crimes and then encouraged to return to their jobs as quickly as possible.

Much of the city remains without power because of damage caused by U.S. bombs. In some sections of the city, though, employees just turned off power plants and water purification facilities and walked away.

U.S. military engineers walked into some plants and simply turned a switch to restore service. Others will need to be completely rebuilt.

The military is interviewing those who can restart a radio station and newspapers to get messages out to the Iraqi people.

"We are trying to make it a joint effort," Duarte said. "What we are trying to establish is a system that they work for themselves."

A group of doctors heard the call and arrived at the Palestine Hotel lobby. Navy Petty Officer Ed Martin asked them to go back to their hospitals and clinics or to volunteer at any functioning hospital.

Martin said a number of hospitals are still operating in Baghdad, but the main problem is getting electricity and water restored.

"It's better than we thought," he said. "It's not as much work to rebuild."

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