Iraq: Making the Most of a Bad Situation

BAGHDAD – As proponents of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq constantly assert, not everything taking place in the "New Iraq" is bad news. Indeed, there are people trying to make the best of a nightmarish situation. Here are a few of their stories.

Generations of Artists

Kareema al-Husseini was standing in a spacious room surrounded by art, and she was beaming. It was March 2004, at the opening of the first women’s center in Baghdad. Various high-ranking officials of the American-led coalition had arrived, then-chief of the occupation, Paul Bremer, was among them. They had come to join the women who had worked to organize the center for the auspicious occasion.

Al-Husseini, 45, the director of the prestigious Fine Arts School for Girls, provided a room in the center for her students’ various works of art to be displayed.

And to Al-Husseini’s delight, the art was selling rapidly – and in U.S. dollars.

"This is the first time the girls are selling their works," said al-Husseini, 44, a secular Shi’ite woman sporting a stylish hairdo and an elegant dress. "It was forbidden before. We always had to give them away to visiting high-ranking government officials."

The unfamiliar combination of capitalism, feminism and art was making al-Husseini heady.

It was a positive turn, she thought. Since the fall of the previous regime, the circumstances for women of all ages had only worsened. The rampant crime – particularly in the form of kidnappings – forced many women to stay home out of fear – not just fear of terrorism, but fear of any contact with men. Chauvinism and its attendant crimes were on the rise in the wake of the U.S. invasion.

Girls stopped attending school and the university, women stopped going to work. Many of those who did venture out covered themselves in the traditional Islamic long black jubba in order not to attract attention, even when that had previously never been their custom.

Some girls and women adopted a fundamentalist religious approach in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, hoping God could provide them some solace amidst such tumultuous times.

For al-Husseini, a Ph.D. candidate in art history, a school director, and the mother of five, these trends were cause for concern. As she saw it, women were losing the little independence they had in Iraqi society by not pursuing education, working or participating in civic life and cultural events to develop themselves and enrich their lives.

Moreover, so many more unskilled and uneducated women needed to find work because they had lost their husbands, the traditional breadwinners in Muslim Iraqi society, either in the invasion or afterwards by common criminals, coalition troops, resistance fighters, or terrorists.

Yet, as the people’s situation worsened, no foreign institutions were arriving to provide support. For Iraqis, the concept of solving their problems by forming grassroots organizations, establishing volunteer groups or making change on an individual basis as activists was a foreign one. In fact, before the war it was forbidden by the state.

As someone who lived in Iraq when it was widely considered the intellectual center of the Arab world – before the wars of the ’80s and ’90s – al-Husseini had a different perspective than do the younger generations, who she says were conditioned by the Saddam regime not to question or take initiative, but rather to simply comply and do as told.

"Even art had rigid rules in the previous regime," she said in March. "Now it’s a year since the war and my pupils still can’t decide anything for themselves. They ask me, ‘Madam, which color should I put here?’ I tell them, ‘You are free to put any color you want.’ But they hesitate."

The Fine Arts School for Girls taught painting, glass staining, ceramics, still photography, lighting and even cinematography, among others arts. But it had no paint, no glass, no oven, no cameras and no lights. Girls bought their own art supplies, baked their ceramics in the sun and learned about the use of cameras and lights in theory through drawings on the chalkboard.

The women’s center opening event was a turning point. There she started pestering the officials to support her school. "I asked anyone I knew in the coalition to help," she said later said.

Today her school has a ceramics oven, computers, cameras and lighting equipment. The art supplies and equipment were paid for by an NGO that receives money from USAID, the agency charged with allocating most of the money the United States has earmarked for Iraq’s rebuilding efforts. The U.S. Army itself renovated the school.

Al-Husseini is happy to be rid of Saddam. But she says the price was high – possibly too high. "For two days after the war I cried," she said. "I cried for all those wasted years and I cried for the loss of the national treasures." She and her family had sat huddled together watching the looting of Iraq’s museums and palaces on television as it took place outside her house.

"It is a tragedy," she said, her voice deep with pain as she pondered of the loss of the ancient treasures of the National Museum. "[The American soldiers] let the people take everything. They stood there and didn’t do anything as our national heritage was stolen."

This summer she set up a women-only art studio and gallery in an addition on the side of her house. "I want girls and women to do things to develop themselves," she said. The studio offers courses and a place to come and just paint. "No women will take a class with men in some studio in the center of town," she said. The reason, she explains, is mainly because it is not acceptable in traditional Muslim society and partly because of the fear of terrorism, which was nonexistent before the arrival of foreign forces last year.

In August, al-Husseini celebrated the completion of the first course for novice artists. "We can do so much now, we just need to be optimistic and try," she said with enthusiasm.

Asked if the opportunity to freely create new works of art was worth the loss of so many ancient artifacts, al-Husseini paused and looked downward, then shook her head. "No," she said. "It was not. Saddam would have died one day, but we will never have that Iraqi art back."

Lessons in Grassroots Democracy

Dr. Baher Butti, 42, is from the same generation as al-Husseini, and is equally driven to make grassroots change in his society. But his attempts have been far less fruitful than hers.

During an early interview in August 2003, the bespectacled intellectual was earnestly trying to figure out if the American government had intentionally let the country go out of control: no utilities, no municipal services, phones still not working. "Maybe they thought that this would encourage people to develop their own sense of initiative, civil society and leadership," Butti said uncertainly, without a hint of sarcasm, as we drove through the garbage-strewn streets of the city. "I mean, did they expect by not replacing the garbage trucks and not rehiring the collectors, that the people will take initiative in their own neighborhoods and do something about the trash problem?" he asked.

"Maybe they had a plan to teach us to take action over our own lives," he said.

As a leader in the Christian community and a man who, like al-Husseini, believes he can make a difference, Dr. Butti did take action: he became heavily engaged in various grassroots projects. Beyond his responsibilities at the hospital, the father of three children successfully ran for election by his neighborhood to the local and district advisory councils representing his area. Those bodies were a project of the coalition, set up in the big cities for the express purpose of fostering democracy and local involvement in community affairs, as well as to fulfill a liaison between the residents and the military unit governing of each district.

Dr. Butti was later placed on an alternate slate of candidates for the 100-member National Council that advises the Iraqi Prime Minister and reportedly possesses some political power. But he quickly learned that members of the former Governing Council – which Butti cynically refers to as the "Governing Club" – predetermined the winning slate.

In July 2003, Butti set up a non-governmental organization (NGO), members of which work to address the needs of the mentally ill. They formed a plan for a psychological trauma center – the first of its kind in Iraq.

More than a year later, Butti said he no longer believes the American occupiers intentionally allowed chaos to reign so that Iraqis could learn to take control. Otherwise, he figures, they would not have allowed all of his hard work and sacrifice to result in failure. If the U.S. wanted the efforts of Iraqis to bear fruit, they would fund a worthy project like the mental health center, he reasons.

"There’s no doubt that this country needs at least one [psychological] trauma center," he said. "So if the Americans wanted to encourage grassroots action, then why did they not approve the plan when it was coming from an Iraqi NGO?"

"I tried so many channels and so many different organizations, and every time I think it will be approved it falls through," he said.

Now a relative of Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has given the project a tentative nod, but, as Dr. Butti noted as odd in a recent e-mail, he requested a copy of the project proposal in English.

Reconstruction Woes

While American soldiers clashed with Iraqi insurgents just a couple of kilometers away, a very tall man in uniform sat crouched with a laptop on his legs on the lower level of a bunk-bed in a U.S. military base. Master Sergeant Keith Crabtree was working in his "office" at Camp Eagle on the southern edge Baghdad. His goal: to finish a report on the infrastructure situation in the adjacent Shi’ite slum, Sadr City, before returning to his life as a scuba diving instructor Texas come October.

The report is meant to help his successor, the next Civil Affairs Team officer. It assesses all the utilities and services problems of the overpopulated district and describes the status of the various U.S.-funded reconstruction projects.

According to Crabtree, the problems outnumber the solutions by a large margin.

Part of the reason, he believes, is the coalition’s inability to make decisions about who will receive the contracts for large-scale projects. The other cause is the Shi’ite uprising that erupted in April and has raged almost constantly since, save for a brief respite in mid-summer.

Whatever the reason, reconstruction has almost completely halted, making Crabtree’s job seem nearly impossible.

The delays have kept Crabtree, a civil affairs instructor in the Army Reserves, working from his bunk rather than in the field. What he would rather be doing is checking present and assessing future "SWET" sites. SWET is the acronym Crabtree uses for Sadr City’s major troubles: sewage, water, electricity, and trash.

"I think the main reason [reconstruction] was so slow before is because of competing agendas," said the 41 year-old, who operates a diving goods store in Houston. "The problem was that there were a lot of people competing for a lot of large-scale projects, and they couldn’t get them to mesh."

As a result, Crabtree said rebuilding projects had to be broken into small pieces costing less than $10,000 and then submitted to unit commanders for approval since money is more easily attained from Commanders Emergency Relief Program funds in small amounts to avoid the bureaucracy clogging higher levels. But, said Crabtree, "You can’t rebuild Sadr City $10,000 at a time."

According to Crabtree, "Large-scale projects did not really get off the ground till April," when they were promptly interrupted by the uprising of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

To make matters worse, Crabtree explained, al-Sadr’s men began executing local Iraqi site foremen. "Three of my foremen were killed by the Mahdi Army," he said.

As long as a job is funded by the U.S., Crabtree explained, the insurgents oppose it, even if they would benefit from it. And the foremen of the few projects that still run prefer that Americans like Crabtree remain out of sight.

"A lot of them don’t want us coming by to check on the project," he said, "so that they’re not seen as working for the Americans."

That basically leaves Crabtree without a job. "The foremen prefer that people think the Iraqi government is doing the work so they don’t get killed."

Sadr City, as Crabtree sees it, did not improve for about a year after the war because of the coalition and now because of the Mahdi Army’s opposition to U.S. involvement in reconstruction in its district.

Asked why not transfer the money to the Iraqi governmental ministries to allocate, Crabtree said that is not possible. "This is American taxpayers’ money, and we have to watch over every cent," he said.

Meanwhile, as American troops, Iraqi security personnel and local militias battle in the streets, reconstruction work is at a standstill. How far along that work would be today is anybody’s guess. But the U.S. government’s handling of those taxpayers’ money has come under heavy criticism by fiscally-minded Americans across the spectrum as numerous stories have come to light suggesting reconstruction funds are being erroneously withheld in many cases, and misspent by private contractors in still other instances.