A civilian 'soldier' does battle in the struggle to rebuild Iraq

When you drive up to the compound in Baghdad where an American consulting firm has its offices, you are struck first by the security. It's not surprising - we all watch the news - but it is sobering when you consider it is designed to protect people who, in this case, are simply trying to improve a nation's healthcare system. Several armed guards - Iraqis with AK-47s - mill around and eye the driver and passengers of any vehicle approaching. They have reason to be wary; the police station next door was almost bombed a few weeks back. Alert guards captured the attacker before he got too close.

Books have been written comparing business to war. In Iraq, the relationship is not just metaphorical. Civilian consultants to the United States government, helping to rebuild this country, must look as deep for daily courage as any soldier.

Getting to the firm's compound can be a battle. If you drive from Amman, Jordan - commercial flights to Baghdad are often eliminated for safety reasons - you must endure a 12-hour, 100-m.p.h. dash across the desert to get to Baghdad before dark. Upon reaching the Euphrates River near Ramadi, an hour from Baghdad, you start to watch for the "Ali Babas," thieves who prowl the highways in stolen BMWs and pickups. Foreigners are easy to spot: They are the ones in the white Chevy Suburbans staring out the windows with groggy expressions - a mixture of fatigue and fear.

The American soldiers in the capital look like teenagers, too young to be any closer to war than a video game. They ride high atop armored vehicles as if they were sitting on motorized thrones, pivoting their machine guns this way and that. No one is throwing flowers to them.

The first rule of driving in traffic is: Stay away from the Army. They are a target. Rule No. 2: Be patient. There are few traffic police and no rules. It can take an hour to go three blocks. The only working traffic light I saw was stuck on red.

Traffic is a little lighter right around the company compound. The hotel is warm and comfortable, at least by prevailing standards. A generator provides power when the electricity goes off. The hotel staff know everyone's name, and they are eager to please. They have just installed a freezer and filled it with ice cream bars.

The food in the restaurant is Iraqi, tasty, and the same every day. Some Western guests have had their fill of hummus. The bread is delicious. Everyone says don't eat fresh vegetables because they are washed in tap water, but some eat hearty salads with no fear and live to work another day.

When your world is confined to about 200 square yards, when you walk across the street to go to work and rarely venture outside the compound, you tend to work a lot. The day starts at 8 in the morning and can run to 8 at night or later. It's not that everyone's a workaholic; that's life in a "postconflict environment." On "movie nights," everyone gathers to watch DVDs, and there is much laughter. But mostly people deal with stress by working. Between hotel and office there are two or three Iraqi guards with guns, watching. You wave and say hi. Don't take their picture, though, or you'll have to answer to Johnnie, Loffie, or Stry.

These three run the firm's security team. They used to be members of an elite South African antiterrorism unit. They protected Nelson Mandela. Johnnie loves to jump off bridges and tall buildings with a parachute. He recently spent three weeks in the Central African Republic hiding under a roof while rebels looked for him. A boy brought him food and water. They are not crazy, though. Crazy gets you into trouble. They claim they could make us perfectly secure - but then no one could move. Everyone knows they are living and working with a certain level of risk.

The risk rises when the consulting firm's employees - Egyptian, Australian, Indian, American, and Iraqi - leave the compound, as some must do every day to work at places like the Ministry of Health. Work stops at times, as on the day a popular young Iraqi translator at the Ministry didn't show up for work. She had been shot dead in front of her home. Some said it wasn't political, just a revenge killing, but it's hard to tell the difference. People cried, and the building was locked down until everyone could be escorted out.

Some consultants go to the "Green Zone," where the US military and government operations are headquartered. The name implies that this is a safe area where one can move freely. It does feel a little more relaxed; Saddam Hussein's resortlike swimming pool in the middle of the zone doesn't seem out of place. You can find American food, hear American accents, and visit the company's US government client. But every third person either is military or carries a sidearm, and signs everywhere point to the nearest bomb shelter. No one stays out after dark.

On the way back to your compound, you may stop at a market to get some yogurt or cheese - a little variety for the diet. It's easier to travel in traffic and stop in a "normal" car - one that's dented and dirty. No one wants to ride in the "white rhinos" - armored vehicles with antennas on the hood that reach 15 feet into the air. You're more protected, but you attract attention.

Those who have volunteered to work here are brave, no doubt about it. The Iraqis who come to the compound every day certainly are. So are the foreigners who come to Baghdad for humanitarian reasons, for the challenge of solving a complex problem, or just to make money. In the end, to everyone it's a job. That seems the best way to cope. When you are awakened at midnight by the sound of gunfire that seems to come from everywhere, you learn not to panic. You mentally check that your "grab bag" has a change of clothes and a toothbrush. You are grateful the South Africans told you to keep the curtains shut. You wait for the storm to pass, then go back to sleep.

And yet, for all that, you feel fortunate to be here. From the tension of work, strong bonds form. Your colleagues feel like family. You are making a difference, so you're willing to sacrifice a little peace of mind. The work is exciting and the times are extraordinary. That's how everyone manages to sleep at night. They just do it with the curtains pulled and their grab-bags ready.

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