Iraq's new challenge: civil society

Ban Saraf, an Iraqi-American entrepreneur, navigates Baghdad daily, helping 88 new councils find their democratic voice.

It has been sixth months since the US-led forces toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein - and it could be years before they leave Iraq. But some of the most difficult challenges ahead will be taken on not by the military, but by contractors tasked with rebuilding Iraq.

For Ban Saraf (Wednesday's paper), that means teaching Iraqis to make town-hall democracy work. For Mike Douglas (Thursday), it means giving people who have lived in a locked-down state the ability to fly in and out of the country through functioning airports. For Steve Palmer (Thursday), it means providing the most basic of necessities: clean water.

All three are taking part in what is likely to be the most costly and comprehensive postwar rebuilding project in history. Over the next three days, The Monitor will examine what Assignment Iraq looks like for men and women who have an unusual definition of a rough day at the office.

BAGHDAD - Ban Saraf could have kept on selling software solutions in Washington, D.C. Instead, she's selling democracy in Baghdad.

Here, she finds eager but not easy customers.

On this morning, she faces a roomful of disgruntled men, members of the Kalkh interim neighborhood advisory council. "We see promises that don't get delivered," says Jamal Salman, an engineer. "We are extremely exposed as neighborhood council members. We asked for permits to carry guns and they wouldn't allow it."

A chorus ensues. One man pleads for more food; another wants help for a family left homeless by the war. A local hospital must replace a looted sonogram machine.

Ms. Saraf, an Iraqi-American contractor with RTI, which gets its funds from the US Agency for International Development, lets the criticism wash over her before responding. "I cannot promise you anything on that," she says emphatically. "You must understand, I can't do everything."

It would be easy to think otherwise. A sinewy 5-foot, 4-inches, Saraf has the physique and energy of a marathon runner. But she and her colleagues at the Research Triangle Institute are tasked with some of the most amorphous goals of Iraq's reconstruction: spreading concepts about democratic decision- making while helping Iraqis to restore basic services.

The Kalkh council is just one of 88 in Baghdad that Saraf is helping to get off the ground. She and others with RTI, which will receive up to $167.9 million over the next year to foster self- government, have also set up nine interim district advisory councils and an interim city advisory council, recruiting members informally.

The core purpose - to get average Iraqis to make policy and assume civic duties - is seen as key for a country that has largely been run by foreign occupiers, monarchs, or dictators.

Freedom to argue

Saraf left Iraq as a child but returned briefly in her 20s, and remembers being terrified of making the slightest utterance against the regime, "even in your own garden." Today, it makes her happy to see people participating in local decisions - and, at the very least, feeling free to argue among themselves. The opportunity to help strengthen that dialogue was enough to spur her sabbatical from the US software company she cofounded in 1996.

In her new role, Saraf can help council members learn how to function, prioritize needs, and fulfill at least some of them by connecting with other contractors and international aid groups.

She also pushes the Kalkh council members, who are meeting inside the Iraq Museum, to communicate what they're doing to the 50,000 to 60,000 people they represent. Many of their constituents have no idea that the council is working on anything, or that it even exists.

Still, some council members proudly count up achievements: They've cleaned up their war-shattered neighborhood, assisted in returning art to the museum, and helped recruit local police.

Before the council was formed, says chairman Mustafa Zeidan Khalifa, most Iraqis were afraid to go near the US soldiers. Now, the soldiers sit in on the meetings, though regular rotations mean those who are there don't always know what's going on. "I wish they wouldn't keep changing them," Khalifa says.

The constant is Saraf. As she climbs into a Land Rover after the meeting, she allows that it is difficult to keep hundreds of budding politicians happy. Many worry about the accusation of "collaborating" - a fear intensified by the attack on Akila Al-Hashemi, a member of the 24-member Iraqi governing council who died of wounds last month. They also want more details of the long-term plans for Iraq. "Some of them want answers more than they want process," she says.

An early start

Saraf's days often start at 5:30 a.m., when she emerges from her small, air-conditioned trailer room. She goes to the gym or runs around the former Republican Palace complex, now the center of all key US civilian and military offices, with its neat rows of trailer camps like mini-cities.

Saraf then heads into the palace for breakfast - she and hundreds of other civilians and soldiers get three square meals in the massive cafeteria. Over bran cereal and orange juice, she talks about her Iraqi origins.

She was born in Baghdad as the last of 12 children, and her parents came from the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Her father, a prominent banker, started a secular school there. Two years after Mr. Hussein's Baath cadre came to power in 1968, her parents moved the family to Lebanon: Life in Iraq had become unbearable.

But Beirut's civil war so disrupted her life as a teenager that she went to high school in England. A little lost, at 21 she came back to Iraq, staying for three difficult years until she managed to get an exit permit.

Despite the harsh memories, she did not have to think long about coming back.

"It took me all of three minutes to decide if it was the right thing to do," says Saraf, who went on to get a master's degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown University. "This was perfect for me. This is my hajj, without the scarf."

Where are the women?

Mid-morning, a US Army officer is looking for Saraf. She turns over the RTI funds for soldiers to purchase and deliver what they've dubbed "an office in a box" - computers, chairs, desks, and other office basics - to interim councils around the city. Soon after, she's in a conference with two staffers assisting the interim councils.

"I want to know if they can add women to each council," she tells them. "If they bring two potential candidates, next time, tell them to bring six."

One of her biggest disappointments, she says, has been the lack of women involved - not just in community affairs, but in public life. At the Kalkh meeting, she asks the men why no women have come forward to join the council.

One starts, "We are Muslims and it's our Islamic culture...."

"Oh, don't give me that," Saraf interrupts. "Twenty years ago that was not the case."

"The situation is not safe now for women," says Salman. "We're not a well-off neighborhood where people can walk around."

"Hey," snaps Said Naji Hashem Ali, "don't put down our neighborhood."

In the early afternoon, she visits the site that RTI is renovating for the Kalkh council. Nearly half of the neighborhood councils, says Saraf, will have their own building by the end of this month. The goal is to give people a sense of ownership of civic life, thereby building institutions that, ideally, will grow long after the US leaves.

Saraf is also helping to set up a training program, in which 12 to 15 Iraqis will learn techniques in fostering democratic decision-making, and will then be sent out to assist the councils and help develop a corps of Iraqi experts. Topics will include the responsibilities of public office, setting agendas, public speaking, budgeting, and conflicts of interest - roles average citizens never held in Hussein's regime.

By early October, Saraf says, all the district councils will be linked by computer. Soon, RTI expects to give council members small monthly stipends to help their work, until now largely voluntary.

At least some council members seem resentful. "Iraqis have been cultured people for 5,000 years, and Islam gives us order," says Sheil. "I knew how to do these things even before these councils."

Some view bringing American-style local governance as arrogant. But Saraf believes some values - respect for democracy and human rights - are universal. "There are no superior nations," she says, "just superior systems."

Another day, and it's on to the Rusafa district council, where there is one woman in a room of 35 men, and perhaps 10 soldiers.

The members are engrossed in discussion about the new school year: changing textbooks as well as school names that glorified the old regime, like elementary schools named "The Mother of All Battles."

Also on today's agenda, passed around in English and Arabic: "The US Army is dominating [the district council and neighborhood council] activities" and not giving them a chance to "practice the election process."

In other words: We want more say.

"It's like a demanding client," Saraf says. "That's good."

Saraf takes the floor and tells the members that they have to take responsibility for Iraq's reconstruction by keeping on top of which of the myriad aid agencies and groups is offering what.

"If anyone comes here, you need to know which organization they're from and what they want to do for you." When in doubt, she says, "Call me."

Later in the afternoon, in the trailer that will be home until next summer, she might dip into her copy of "Desert Queen," about Gertrude Bell, a British foreign service officer who was instrumental in drawing the borders of the new Iraq in 1921.

But opportunities to blow off a little steam here are limited. Sometimes there are gatherings in the evenings, and sometimes people sit in the courtyard between the boxy prefabs, enjoying the slightly more comfortable evening temperatures after the sizzling summer and looking out at the crushed palace of Uday Hussein.

"When they say it's an occupation, I say, and why wasn't Saddam? I get frustrated with that," Saraf says. "Every day without Saddam is a blessing. I think I can speak for Iraqis on that. Impatience is going to do us injustice."

Research Triangle Institute (RTI)

• Located in North Carolina, RTI is a nonprofit whose work includes education and training for economic and social development.

• The firm received an initial award of $7.9 million from the US Agency for International Development, and will get up to $167 million over the next 12 months for local governance support in Iraq.

• RTI has a staff of 2,200 worldwide. Source: USAID, RTI

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