Exiles feel shut out of Iraq's reconstruction

U.S. officials view them as foot soldiers, they say

August 11, 2003|By Warren Vieth | Warren Vieth,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Some Iraqi exiles recruited by the Pentagon to help rebuild their country are pressing for a bigger role in reconstruction, saying they have been sidelined by Americans who view them as foot soldiers rather than partners in policy-making.

One prominent political scientist has resigned from the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council, and others are threatening to leave if the U.S.-led coalition does not address their concerns.

Coalition officials say the grumbling is limited to a handful of the about 130 Iraqi expatriates serving in Iraq on the IRDC, which was formed by the Pentagon in March to help with postwar reconstruction planning.

But interviews with several IRDC members and other Iraqis familiar with the reconstruction effort suggest that the dissatisfaction is shared by more than a few, and might reflect a management style that is contributing to anti-American sentiment in Iraq.

"The population of Iraq perceives correctly that it is the occupiers who are running things. Everybody else is there in some secondary or subservient role," said Chicago lawyer Feisal Istrabadi, an adviser to Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi.

"It's just like in the old days under the British mandate," Istrabadi said. "Technically, you had an Iraqi minister. But it was the senior adviser, who was always a Briton, who was running things. If you wanted to get things done, you went and saw the fellow with the blue eyes, not the Iraqi. That is very much the situation as it's perceived today."

In the view of some Iraqis, the concerns raised by some IRDC members reflect a broader problem that is corroding the relationship between allied authorities who see themselves as benevolent liberators and a population that increasingly regards them as insensitive overlords.

Dan Senor, deputy press secretary to U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer III, said the coalition's management structure provides plenty of room for IRDC members to participate in policy-making.

"They do have a role," Senor said. "A lot of policy formulation takes place in the ministry planning groups and among the senior advisers to the ministries."

IRDC Chairman Emad Dhia, a Pfizer Corp. executive who assembled the exile group, also disputed the complaints.

"The majority of IRDC members are very proud of what they have done here," he said. "There is a team in every ministry and a team in every province. They are contributing effectively to the process."

But the perception that coalition officials are relegating prominent Iraqis to subordinate roles could reinforce suspicions that the United States is not really interested in transferring power to the people of Iraq anytime soon, critics said.

"I don't think there is the will on the administration's part to really engage Iraqis in running Iraq yet," said Hasan Alkhatib, a telecommunications entrepreneur who has advised the Bush administration on reconstruction policy. "This is troubling. The Iraqi people have a history of rejecting occupation in a very fierce manner."

The debate has been stoked by University of Amsterdam Professor Isam Khafaji, who said he resigned from the IRDC last month after concluding that the coalition was not fulfilling its promise to engage Iraqis as partners in reconstruction.

Instead of playing meaningful roles in shaping reconstruction policy, Khafaji said, many IRDC members have been relegated to carrying out orders issued by coalition authorities, collecting information on Iraqi bureaucrats, serving as translators and go-betweens, or simply whiling away their time reading e-mail messages.

"We were not doing the advisory role we were supposed to do," Khafaji said. "At best, we were implementing orders we were not consulted in devising, looking at things deteriorating, and having no say on how issues should be addressed. We felt we had something to say."

Khafaji said he was prohibited by the terms of his employment contract from discussing details of his work in Iraq, but said his job description included advising coalition officials on matters of policy.

When he arrived in Iraq in early May, Khafaji said, he found his advisory role consisted of "formally, nothing." Coalition authorities would sometimes solicit his opinion, but he was not allowed to participate in official deliberations.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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