In 2003, while U.S. troops waged war in Iraq, Research Triangle Institute won a huge contract to build the peace.
It wasn't just any contract. The deal was originally budgeted at up to $467 million over three years to help bring democracy to Iraq, part of the largest nation-building effort since World War II's Marshall Plan.
But now the U.S. government isn't renewing that contract, even as the country prepares for crucial national elections in January.
It was a rare piece of bad news for RTI, a nonprofit corporation created in 1958 as the cornerstone of Research Triangle Park. The organization had completed two years of work in Iraq, but on top of earlier cutbacks, the U.S. Agency for International Development decided not to renew the contract for a third year.
Now, RTI is downsizing its work force in Iraq as U.S. officials struggle to come up with reconstruction programs that will work in an incredibly violent and constantly changing situation.
The setbacks to RTI's Iraq effort aren't just another story of a government contractor in trouble.
RTI's organization and its workers were at the heart of the U.S. plan to build a new Iraq, a nation with respect for the rule of law and the rights of women. The project showed promise, but has struggled with massive problems.
Followers of rebel Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued death threats against workers, and some were assassinated. Insurgents overran RTI compounds in southern Iraq. Even the simplest assignments became onerous chores, and RTI was sometimes hostage to a monstrous bureaucracy that was literally unable to procure sand for defensive sandbags.
"They meant well, but in all honesty they were in over their heads," said Dennis Moore, a certified public accountant and Vietnam veteran from Massachusetts who worked on financial issues for RTI in Iraq. "But everybody was in over their heads."
RTI and others will be able to bid on a new multiyear USAID contract next year, but that proposal notes that the framework for the development of an effective system of local government "remains to be defined."
In the meantime, about 2,000 Iraqis and almost 200 international employees who once worked for RTI have gotten termination notices this year. About 1,000 remaining Iraqi staff and 40 to 50 project managers will keep working on the project until the end of March, when the contract year ends.
Ron Johnson, an RTI vice president and the head of the Iraq project, said that the company is realistic about the situation, but pushing ahead.
"Are we accomplishing enough that it's worth doing? Can we manage the risks that we face? We answer yes to both," he said. "It is a long road to go in Iraq. It has changed more times over the last 18-19 months than we ever anticipated."
Dr. Khalid Mirza was the first chairman of the Baghdad City Council after the American victory, and he has worked with various RTI employees for the last 18 months. "We will be very much disappointed if the U.S. government will not allow them to stay," Mirza said.
"I think democracy will work. It will take time. Obviously we will have to make sacrifices."
The Journal's investigation of RTI's operations used internal documents and e-mails from RTI, the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq from April 2003 until June 2004, and other contractors, such as Kellogg Brown & Root. The Journal also conducted dozens of interviews with people who worked in Iraq. The investigation found that beyond the sheer violence in Iraq, an unwieldy bureaucracy and constantly changing instructions from Washington has not only crippled the democracy-building efforts, but also compromised the safety of civilians working there.
The result: RTI's leaders were forced to struggle with questions that have no clear answers. Among them: When does the price become too high for a company to justify the work being done? Is one American death too much? Are four or five Iraqi deaths an acceptable cost?
Officials with the U.S. Agency for International Development have consistently praised the program. But earlier this year they cut funding in half, and in the end authorized just $236 million of work. That reality seems to bear no relation to official statements.
Just last month, RTI's project manager told the Raleigh News & Observer that the project was "on target." In April, a senior USAID official said that RTI's work was "critical to the stability of Iraq."
But the agency acknowledges that the contract isn't being renewed, for reasons that include a need to "rethink and redo" the mission.
"There's the need to insure you're getting the best work for the dollar," said Susan Pittman of USAID. "We feel it's the responsible thing to do for the taxpayers."
As far as the 2,000 Iraqis who have been laid off this year because of USAID cutbacks, Pittman said the agency "never considered it to be a jobs program."
The mixed messages and layoffs confused RTI's Iraqi staff members and reinforced suspicions about American intentions.
"The majority that worked with us were getting really tired of broken promises," Moore said of his Iraqi co-workers.
Michael Rubin, who had an inside view of the Iraq policy debates in the Bush administration and of RTI's work, said, "It was almost like we hired RTI to build an appliance, and then the time came to plug it in, and no one plugged it in." Rubin served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and in Baghdad from 2002 to 2004, and is now with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He said, "The fact that we're allowing this to fall on its face does a disservice to our whole mission."
The Fine Print
RTI has its headquarters on a sprawling 180-acre campus just north of Interstate 40 in Durham. Its scientists have done groundbreaking work. They discovered the cancer treatment Taxol, among other things, and in recent years have won awards from NASA for work on synthetic-fuel technology. Its board, drawn from universities and corporations, is blue-chip.
The organization won the USAID contract April 11, 2003. It submitted the only bid. Officials in Washington left no doubt how important it was.
"RTI is the linchpin, the catalysts, the enablers," a senior USAID project officer told The Washington Post, describing a plan for RTI teams to assess infrastructure, social, and political needs around Iraq. That effort was expected to provide a knowledge base to help guide the entire reconstruction effort.
The plan USAID had drawn up was enormously ambitious. RTI was supposed to open offices and hire staff in all 18 Iraqi provinces; design programs to help women, children and minorities; train local government officials and create neighborhood, city and regional government councils; process and administer small emergency-grant requests; and coordinate it all with the military and other humanitarian organizations.
The plan was also largely guesswork.
When USAID's inspector general reviewed the RTI contract in the summer of 2003, it found that "the contract budget was developed to justify spending the available funding ... rather than being based on an assessment of actual or estimated needs" in Iraq.
That meant that the government had set aside a huge chunk of money for democracy building in Iraq, and essentially filled in the blanks later. Before the RTI contract, the largest effort to reform local government was $26 million for a three-year program in Serbia, the review noted.
On the day the contract was awarded, RTI's Johnson said, "We won't actually enter Iraq until it's deemed safe for civilians by the U.S. government." A few days later he added, "If we were worried about gunfire, then we would not do work in Durham, Chicago or New York."
Though RTI had done smaller international projects over the previous 20 years in such countries as South Africa, Indonesia, the former Soviet Union and Pakistan, most of its experience was in scientific research, and company officials recognized that Iraq was different.
RTI's core directive was to establish local-government councils, but the U.S. officials weren't sure exactly who qualified to be on the councils.
The contract said that RTI was supposed to help "identify the most appropriate 'legitimate' and functional leaders" for coalition forces to work with. After 18 months of work in Iraq, Johnson still wonders about that question, which would soon take on deadly significance.
"A legitimate political figure (in Iraq) - I don't know how you would define that exactly," Johnson said.
One on One
Bureaucrats in Washington had put words on paper and lined up the money, but there was nothing theoretical about the situations that RTI employees found themselves in.
"I started out alone," said Amal Rassam, an anthropologist and Iraqi-American exile who arrived in Baghdad in May 2003 to work with RTI.
The question of just what RTI was supposed to do in Iraq turned out to have multiple answers.
The Coalition Provisional Authority, headed by L. Paul Bremer III, had authority over everything.
"What really happened - the CPA had a certain agenda," Rassam said. "We never really had genuine voting. They set a quota for the local councils. (They) had their mandate as so many Christians, Sunni, Shia, or Turkmen" per neighborhood - roughly equivalent to coming to an American city and telling inhabitants that local government must have so many Protestants, Catholics, African-Americans and Hispanics.
"The (Iraqi) people would sometimes say, 'But we elected these people!' of choices who had been deemed unacceptable," Rassam said. "Ultimately RTI, or any other contractor, was working within the general directives of the CPA."
And after that layer of politics, there was another.
"I personally came into clashes with the military commanders, when they had their own vision of what a council should look like," she said.
The different directives sometimes made RTI employees the bearers of bad news.
Sandra Tripp-Jones arrived in Kirkuk in September 2003 to lead RTI's work there. She found that local council members believed that they had the authority to set budgets and make final decisions about hiring staff - but they didn't. Officials in Baghdad did.
"My first assignment was to go in and straighten them out. We had some very interesting times around that."
But despite all the confusion and a slow but steady increase in violence, many RTI employees felt that by the end of last year, the project was making progress.
"The (Iraqi) people were very, very eager," Rassam said. "I think people got interested; they were given a forum to debate, at the very grass roots level." For the first few months there was "a lot of enthusiasm" for the RTI mission, even in Sadr City, the Baghdad slums that are home to many supporters of al-Sadr, the cleric.
In southern Iraq, where hatred of Saddam Hussein ran deep, there was an even warmer reception. Tripp-Jones worked with members of provisional councils to make sure that those officials understood the basics of local government. She was a retired city manager from Santa Barbara, Calif., and found that for all the talk of vast cultural differences between Islamic countries and the West, some things were the same, and funny at that.
"They had some very good leaders," she said of the Kirkuk council. "I found them much more respectful and cooperative and open to learning than many groups I've worked with here.
"One of my favorite council members - he would just berate me all the time," she said of Sheik Akar, a Shia Arab. In public meetings "he would holler and yell," and if he spotted a journalist in the audience with a camera, Sheik Akar would get up and make a speech.
"Just like politicians everywhere," she said.
Sheik Akar was assassinated March 15, 2004, one of scores of council members who have been killed by insurgents.
Signs of trouble
There were other hints of a wider unrest. By September 2003, some Iraqis were getting tired of being told who should serve on local governing councils. Al-Sadr's followers had formed councils of their own in Sadr City to deal with the security vacuum that followed the swift military victory in April, but then seen many of their choices undone by RTI.
In al-Sadr's view, democracy meant going to each neighborhood and asking the men who headed the households for their views. Women weren't included in the process. In rural areas, some tribal leaders were also suspicious of RTI's work.
In October, al-Sadr's followers stormed the local government office that RTI had gotten running in Sadr City, replacing RTI's council members with their own. There was a standoff, which ended when Iraqi police backed by U.S. armored vehicles mounted a counter-attack, arresting members of al-Sadr's council.
RTI was running into other troubles. The outfit was having problems getting its message and mission out. To people in North Carolina, "Research Triangle Institute" might bring to mind science and technology. To Iraqis the words were meaningless, especially compared with such other organizations as Save the Children, World Food Program or Doctors Without Borders.
Many RTI employees learned that the local rumor mills were suggesting that the company was part of the CIA, maybe even a front organization for Israel.
On a more practical political level, some members of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council in Baghdad felt that RTI's plan to strengthen grassroots government was "a bane to them because it bypasses Baghdad and sends the resources directly to the locals," Kenneth Pollack, a foreign-policy expert at the Brookings Institution, wrote in the January 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine after a trip to Iraq.
Rassam could sense trouble in the air on several fronts. Coalition authorities had disbanded the Iraqi Army in the summer, and that left more than 300,000 men who were the sole breadwinners for their families' unemployed and angry.
And while RTI tried to talk about democracy, there were more pressing issues for Iraqis, such as electricity and health care.
"I think the rate of reconstruction was nonexistent," Rassam said. "The people did not see anything. Hospitals, clinics schools - there was so much corruption and graft, on all levels."
Iraqis had a hard time believing that America, the richest and most technically advanced country in the world, couldn't get the power grid of a third-world nation up and running.
"I used to say the blood is in the water and all the sharks are out," Rassam said.
As difficult as 2003 had been, it was only going to get worse in 2004 for RTI's beleaguered Iraqi team. The situation would come to a head along a graceful loop in the Tigris River, in the southern Iraqi city of Kut.
• Kevin Begos can be reached at 727-7338 or at email@example.com
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