Iraqi exiles, Pentagon unite to plan rebuilding

Expatriates: Former citizens jump at the chance to help country move from oppression to democracy.

Postwar Iraq

April 26, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CRYSTAL CITY, Va. - When she fled northern Iraq in 1976, walking for 21 straight days to the Iranian border with her family - the smell of burned flesh from Saddam Hussein's executions of Kurds dizzying her senses - 11-year-old Pakeza Alexander promised herself that, if she ever had the chance to help people gain freedom from oppression, she would.

After two years in Iran and a marriage arranged by her parents, Pakeza came to the United States - a young teen with a 7-month-old boy in her arms and twins on the way - and built a life with her husband in Nashville, Tenn.

Today, a quarter-century later, Alexander, 38, feels she finally has the chance to make good on her promise.

She is among roughly 130 Iraqis in the United States, Canada and Britain who have been recruited by the Pentagon to help reconstruct Iraq, some of whom left this week.

Named the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council, they include doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, civil servants - non-politically aligned exiles who will serve as liaisons between the Iraqi people and the U.S. government team, led by retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner.

They will serve, too, as cheerleaders of a sort for democracy.

"With my heart, I want to help the people of Iraq," says Alexander, a government worker in Tennessee who is still married to the man she wed when she was 12.

"It's not just something I want for power or for money. I look at this as a mission. I taste the taste of freedom," she said. "The people of Iraq, for 35 years and under this regime, they're alive - they eat, they walk - but they're not alive."

For weeks, Alexander and her fellow Iraqi expatriates have been working in a heavily guarded office in this Washington suburb as they await orders to leave for Iraq. Once there, they plan to work with their U.S. counterparts to set up an interim government and pave the way for democratic elections.

Some will head to Baghdad to help establish roughly two dozen government ministries, including for health and justice. Others will fan out to provinces throughout the country to help the police gain back authority, maintain the social fabric of the communities and build grass-roots support for democracy.

For now, their space here, where cardboard and felt-marker signs taped to the cubicles proclaim "Ministry of Justice" or "Ministry of Sport and Youth," hums with activity and anticipation. There are meetings, all in Arabic or Kurdish; videoconferences with Garner's team members in Kuwait; a series of inoculations; as well as a crash course in military training.

Having said goodbye to their families in Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and taken unpaid leaves from their jobs, they've been told to expect to stay in Iraq for three to six months. Most say they will stay as long as they're needed. A year, two - longer, if necessary.

"It's a duty I have to do," says Said Hakky, a urologist from Tampa, Fla., who is leading the effort to refashion Iraq's health ministry and who left for the region yesterday. "There are Americans there, who are not Iraqis, paying the ultimate price, sacrifice - they're dying. The least I could do - be there. I'm an American, and I'm an Iraqi."

Vital participants

Hakky, 58, served as the top assistant to Iraq's minister of health - who was executed by Hussein - and also in a presidential palace until he fled, fearing for his own life, in 1983. A father of six, Hakky says his mission now is to help build a medical system in Iraq based on the American model.

Especially now, as thousands of Iraqis are protesting the U.S. military's continued presence and as some Shiite Muslim leaders try to move into the power vacuum and assume authority, the Iraqi exiles represent great value to the U.S.-led efforts. They help America convey the message that the reconstruction of Iraq must reflect the wishes of Iraqis, not the will of the United States.

"We need these people because they are the Iraqi face," says Victor Rostow, the Pentagon's link with the Iraqi group, "and because they're the principal contact for the Iraqi bureaucracy and those who don't want to be ruled by Americans."

The exiles, too, say they think their voices - and those of Iraqi citizens working with U.S. forces - are vital to establishing a democratic government.

"We need to earn their trust," says Zakia Hakki, of Annandale, Va., the first female judge in Iraq, who fled to the United States in 1996 after 20 years under probationary arrest.

"We need to succeed in our mission, and the first thing for us to succeed, we need all these announcements from General Garner - maybe there will be announcements, instructions - we want these things to be issued through the Iraqi Justice Department, not from General Garner directly. This is very sensitive for Iraqis. We know our people."

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