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Iraq: US-Backed Iraqi Exiles Return To Reinvent Nation

by Douglas JehlNew York Times
May 3rd, 2003

Arlington, Virginia - Munther al-Fadhal believes that there is no place for religion in a new constitution for Iraq. He favors the establishment of relations between Iraq and Israel. He even thinks Iraq should outlaw the death penalty.

Such an agenda might not seem surprising in Washington or in Sweden, Dr. Fadhal's temporary home. But in Iraq, even after Saddam Hussein, and in much of the Arab world, it is very radical indeed, challenging deeply felt views about Islam, Israel and Arab autonomy.

And yet, this very weekend, Dr. Fadhal is beginning a trip home to Iraq to try to put his ideas in place. As the designated senior adviser to the Iraqi Justice Ministry, he will be one of the leaders of a 150-strong team of exiles plucked by the Pentagon from posts in America and Europe to help shape the new Iraq.

A look at the team, assembled in a mere two months by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, shows how boldly the United States is trying to import secular, democratic notions to an Iraq whose political future remains the subject of profound division and flux. It also underscores some of the considerable risks involved.

"Maybe in five or six years they'll understand that this guy is a good guy," Dr. Fadhal said the other day over lunch near the Pentagon, referring to himself. More immediately, though, he said he expected that Iraqis who stayed behind through Mr. Hussein's rule will view him with hostility, not just as an import but "as an agent or a spy." As a precaution, he said, he has arranged for six Kurdish bodyguards to meet him in Baghdad, to supplement his American military guards.

Pentagon officials have described the team of advisers, which works from United States government-financed offices in suburban Virginia and is called the Iraqi Reconstruction and Redevelopment Council, as primarily administrators whose job will be to smooth a transition to an Iraqi-led authority by resuscitating moribund ministries and restarting basic services.

"It's an enormously valuable asset to have people who share our values, understand what we're about as a country, and are in most cases citizens of this country, but who also speak the language, share the culture and know their way around Iraq," Mr. Wolfowitz said in a telephone interview.

He said the Iraqi advisers would not play political roles. "They are going to give us technical advice," he said.

But some Iraqi exile leaders say the creation of the team was too narrow and overly influenced by the views of Mr. Wolfowitz and fellow conservatives, who have espoused a vision of bold change in Iraq.

"This is insulting," said Imam Husham al-Husainy, an Iraqi Shiite leader who runs the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Detroit, which is aligned with the Supreme Council on Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a group that is based in Iran and has so far kept at arm's length from the American government-building effort.

"We don't follow others," Imam Husainy said in dismissing as "yes men" the members of the Pentagon-assembled team. "Where is the democracy if you're just dictating our ideas? That's not democracy. Don't impose it on us."

Certainly most of the advisers espouse liberal, secular ideals that are at odds even with those of many other Iraqi exiles as well as powerful forces inside Iraq. The leader of the group is Emad Dhia, a 51-yeer-old engineer and pharmaceutical executive on leave from Pfizer in Ann Arbor, Mich. Among the other important advisers are Dr. Fadhal, a legal scholar and author of a draft Iraqi constitution, and Khidhir Hamza, a nuclear scientist who, with help from the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1990's, became one of Iraq's most prominent defectors.

The seeds for the exiles' team were planted at a reception that Mr. Wolfowitz attended in Washington last fall, Pentagon officials and the exiles say. There, Joanne Dickow, an Iraqi-American aide to Spencer Abraham, the energy secretary and former senator from Michigan, heard Mr. Wolfowitz talk about his hope of enlisting Arab-Americans in his campaign to rally sentiment against the Iraqi rulers.

The aide encouraged Mr. Wolfowitz to make contact with Iraqi-Americans in the Detroit area, home of the nation's largest Iraqi community. After a flurry of meetings in the Detroit area between Iraqi exiles and Pentagon officials, the plans for the group were devised at a February meeting at the Pentagon and cemented after a rally in Detroit on Feb. 23 at which Mr. Wolfowitz was the leading attraction. The team was assembled over the next two months, in a round-the-world burst of telephone negotiations and voice-mail messages left by Mr. Dhia.

By the middle of this coming week, at least two dozen exiles will be installed in key temporary posts advising Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general who has been the country's day-to-day administrator, and L. Paul Bremer, the retired State Department official who is expected to be appointed Iraq's senior American overseer. Some American officials openly hope that some of the Iraqis will stay on even longer to serve under the transitional government that Iraqi political leaders themselves are trying to assemble, under American and British supervision, with a target date now set for late this month or early June.

The roots of the exiles' team led back to the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, an organization that Mr. Dhia co-founded in 1998. Composed mostly of secular professionals from across the spectrum of Iraq's Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian populations, the group's declared mission has been "to promote democracy and democratic values for Iraq by peaceful means."

Dr. Maha Hussein, a Detroit-area oncologist and professor at the University of Michigan who now heads the group, helped link up Mr. Wolfowitz and Mr. Dhia, but she emphasized that members of the organization now working for General Garner were "working in their personal capacity," although the group was supportive of their efforts.

Some Iraqi-American critics said they were troubled by the speed of the process.

"Many of us are really upset that we didn't know about this," said Raz Rasool, who fled Iraq in 1998 and is a member of the advocacy group Women for a Free Iraq. "They started this two months ago and we read about it just this week."

In the interview, Mr. Wolfowitz took issue with the idea that the selection process had in any way been improper. "What we're saying is they share our values, so we shouldn't be dealing with them?" he said.

Still, the Pentagon has kept the Iraqi exile operation under close wraps, although officials say their motivation is to provide security. During their time in the Washington area, Mr. Dhia, who returned to Baghdad late last month, and other members of the team have lived and worked in apartments and offices paid for by the United States government, and received salaries and pocket money paid by American taxpayers.

Before heading to Baghdad, each member of the team has been required by the Pentagon to undergo several days of training at American military bases, to learn how to protect themselves against possible attack. Dr. Fadhal, for one, is stopping at Fort Hood, Tex., beginning today before heading on to Kuwait or Baghdad probably late next week, although the timing of that trip remains unsettled.

In Baghdad, Dr. Fadhal said, the team will live and work in compounds guarded by American soldiers. But technically, they are working for SAIC, a defense contractor, and their heavily guarded offices outside Washington have been equipped with telephone numbers and e-mail addresses that betray no hint of a Pentagon link.

Most members of the team have post-graduate degrees, many from American universities, according to Pentagon officials and the exiles themselves. A substantial number are naturalized citizens of the United States or European countries. While some are well known, many others are well not.

Among the latter group, Mohammad Ali Zainy, an American citizen designated as senior Iraqi adviser to the Ministry of Oil, held only a mid-ranking position in that ministry before he fled Iraq in 1982. Now 64, he worked in Colorado as an oil company executive and energy consultant before joining the Center for Global Energy Studies in London, where he has been analyst for several years.

If nothing else, said Julian Lee, an associate at the energy studies center, Dr. Zainy deserved the Pentagon's nod simply for being so "willing and keen to go back."

Dr. Hamza, also 64, on the other hand, is a nuclear physicist who became well known in the West after he fled Iraq in 1994, first to Libya and then to the United States. His six months of experience in 1987 as director of Iraq's efforts to develop nuclear weapons made him valuable to the C.I.A., which, after rebuffing his initial attempts, ultimately helped Dr. Hamza and his family resettle in the Washington area.

David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, an advocate of the inspections, worked closely with Dr. Hamza in the late 1990's, but describes him as becoming sharply critical of the process.

He said Dr. Hamza believed that the inspections threatened to undermine his goal of ousting Mr. Hussein. "If the inspections work, then the regime change can't happen,' " Mr. Albright says Dr. Hamza told him.

Dr. Fadhal, 52, who left Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, was a law professor in Baghdad who had drawn attention to himself by criticizing Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. He fled first to Jordan and then to Sweden, where he and his family now live.

He was among 32 Iraqi exiles who helped to prepare a State Department report last year on the future of Iraq. In that role, he prepared a draft of an Iraqi constitution, a task that he said he hoped to complete on behalf of a future Iraqi transitional government, among other tasks.

"I will take care of the Ministry of Justice in Iraq, and abolish all of Saddam's legal system," he said, "to create the new legal system toward democracy that will accept human rights, that will fight corruption in Iraq, and create new laws to build democracy."

A Shiite Muslim whose family is from the holy city of Najaf, Dr. Fadhal now describes himself as a secularist who believes that Islam should play no role in that Iraq's constitution. That would set a future Iraq apart even from pro-Western Arab countries like Egypt, where the Constitution describes Islam as the principal source of the country's laws.

In that regard, Dr. Fadhal's views are more secular than those of most Iraqi opposition groups, and go beyond even the most recent stance taken by the Bush administration. The White House said last month that it would not allow Iraq to become a theocratic state like Iran, but could endorse what it called an "Islamic democracy" for the country.

Ultimately, Dr. Fadhal said, he would prefer for family reasons to work abroad for a new Iraqi government - perhaps as its ambassador to Sweden or to a United Nations organization in Geneva. He would not rule out serving as a future Minister of Justice, but said he recognized that he and other exiles would face high hurdles.

"I have a dream," he said, "to build in Iraq a civil society, a democracy, like Switzerland or Sweden. But now there is chaos and risk - from Islamic fanatic groups, and from the Baath Party and from the Arab terrorists who supported the Hussein government.

"The Iraqi people have been brainwashed," Dr. Fadhal said, "and it is our responsibility to build a new brain."



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