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Iraqi exiles feel excluded: Reconstruction

August 12, 2003

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WASHINGTON: Some Iraqi exiles recruited by the Pentagon to help rebuild their homeland 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 US-led coalition does not address their concerns.

Coalition officials say the grumbling is limited to a handful of the approximately 130 Iraqi expatriates serving in Iraq on the IRDC, which was formed by the Pentagon in March to assist with post-war reconstruction planning.

But interviews with several IRDC members and other Iraqis familiar with the reconstruction effort suggest 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 attorney 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 US 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, and that’s where they’re completely plugged in. The nuts and bolts of policy-making is done at those levels.”

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

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 San Jose 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 in July 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-mails.

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

Other IRDC members agreed with Khafaji’s characterization, and said the frustration he described is shared by many. They noted that none of the coalition’s senior advisers is Iraqi, and IRDC members are not invited to the daily sessions where policy issues are discussed by top officials.

“In policy-making, literally, we are not there,” said Farouk Darweesh, a senior engineering professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona who joined the IRDC to help rebuild Iraq’s higher education system. “Every morning there is a meeting of the ambassador group. You will never see an Iraqi there. We are excluded.”

Farouk said he has a constructive working relationship with the senior adviser for higher education, Drew Erdmann, and he thinks the Americans’ intentions are good. But he said the decision-making structure of the Coalition Provisional Authority provides no formal role for Iraqis.

The 130 or so Iraqi professionals, academicians and technocrats who joined the IRDC are divided into four-person teams, each of which is assigned to a different Iraqi government ministry or province.

Mohamed Rubeai, a biotechnology professor on leave from the University of Birmingham in England, said the level of satisfaction varies significantly from one working group to another. Some coalition officials have allowed their IRDC team members to play significant roles, he said. Others have not. To be sure, some IRDC members said they generally are satisfied with their roles in the reconstruction process.

London archeologist Lamia Gailani said the people on her IRDC team are pleased with the progress they are making in restoring Iraq’s extensively looted museums.

Bassim Hilmi, an information technology consultant from Montreal, said he thinks the coalition’s top leadership genuinely wants to include Iraqis in the decision-making process, but their intent is sometimes frustrated at lower levels of the organization.—Dawn/The LAT-WP News Service (c) The Los Angeles Times.