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Ex-Patriot Acts: Hasan Alkhatib, a former professor at Santa Clara University and founder of ipdynamics, is one of several Bay Area Iraqis the U.S. Government is asking for help.

Meet the New Boss

As the U.S. government prepares to build a new regime in war-smashed Iraq, three Bay Area residents tapped to be a part of it express their wishes and their doubts

By Najeeb Hasan

THIS APRIL, in right-of-center Commentary magazine, visiting Harvard scholar from London Efraim Karsh theorized about the challenges of establishing a democracy in postwar Iraq. After detailing the brutal inadequacies of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime (Hussein's repeated betrayal of the Kurds, his iron-fisted political suppression and the rest), he boldly argues that imposing a democracy from the outside of Iraq is not only the right course of action but also the noblest.

"As we are constantly being told, there is no grassroots demand for democracy among Arabs and Muslims," he writes, but "holding these societies to a lower political standard can be not only a recipe for inaction but a subtle form of racism."

Yes, racism. In other words, because of the United States' experience with and knowledge of superior liberal democracies, we have an obligation to save the Iraqis from themselves. And so, what some might view as a meddlesome West overinvolving itself in Iraqi politics is seemingly, for Karsh, akin to Harriet Tubman guiding slaves toward the freedoms of the north.

But don't try running this line of reasoning by the U.S.-based Iraqis who have been summoned by the federal government to help.

Last summer, in anticipation of forcibly driving Hussein and his loyalists from Baghdad, the State Department quietly gathered in Washington a group of Iraqi exiles--most of whom had not been in Iraq for decades--for the purpose of addressing post-Hussein problems the nation would face. The effort was named, bluntly, the Future of Iraq Project.

The future, after Hussein's statue was toppled last month, is now, and many of those same Iraqi-Americans, some of whom live in Silicon Valley, are being tapped by the U.S. government to give advice or to go back to Iraq to serve in its fledging transitional government under the authority of retired U.S. Gen. Jay Garner.

And while all three Bay Area people Metro interviewed said they felt honored to be chosen by the United States to aid in this postwar effort, some expressed conflicting feelings about what a government, organized from the outside, could mean for Iraq.

Baath and Forth

Hasan Alkhatib, like so many immigrants before him, never intended to stay in the United States. Born in Baghdad in 1951 to a Shia Muslim family that traces its lineage to the prophet Mohammed, he obtained a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Baghdad in 1975 and traveled to the United States to pursue graduate studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and then at UC-Santa Barbara.

But when it came time to go back to Iraq after graduation, things had changed.

Even though Alkhatib was never involved in student politics while in Iraq, he had succeeded in getting on the wrong side of the Baath Party, a group known for its long-term memory. He had organized a university science society, which ended up attracting a large number of students. The Baath Party, Alkhatib says, had looked at the size of his science society, viewed it as a political threat and forced Alkhatib to dismantle the project.

After completing his graduate work here, Alkhatib flew to Baghdad to visit his parents in 1979. He was back in the United States within two weeks, he recalls. His experience in Iraq had convinced him that he would have to find a new home. (His mother, fearing he would be mistaken for a sympathizer to the Iranian religious revolution, commanded him to shave his beard when she first saw him.) Alkhatib has not been back since. He landed a professorship at Santa Clara University, which he held for 17 years until 1998, and then started his own Silicon Valley computer security company, ipdynamics.

When the State Department invited him to participate in the Future of Iraq Project last year, Alkhatib looked at it as a place where his interests--democracy, pluralism and a free-market economy in Iraq--and the interests of the United States could meet. This time, unlike in the first Gulf War in 1991, Alkhatib believed the United States would indeed liberate his native country.

"I think what was done in 1991 was evil," Alkhatib says of the Gulf War, referring to reports of Iraqi soldiers being buried alive. "I consider some of those involved as war criminals."

When Alkhatib was summoned to the Future of Iraq Project, he was one of about 150 Iraqis, and he noticed that more than half were from the United States and that most others were from Western European countries. Only a handful, he says, were opposition leaders from inside modern-day Iraq.

The State Department footed the expenses for the groups to travel to Washington, divided them into focus groups and facilitated their meetings. Alkhatib, assigned to the Economy and Infrastructure group, headed up the telecommunications subcommittee, whose task has been to identify Iraq's current status in the telecommunications sector and develop immediate (three to six months), short-term (two years) and long-term (five to eight years) plans to improve it.

Alkhatib says Iraq's land telephone lines have fallen to three in every 100 households. The world average is 10 in every 100. "Even the poorest country in Africa has better services than Iraq," he says.

In the wake of last month's overthrow of Hussein, Alkhatib was invited to take part in the "transitional authority" in Iraq, an offer he declined because of his life and business concerns in the United States. He does intend to travel to Iraq within the next three months and to attend Iraqi planning meetings.

Alkhatib describes himself as someone who ordinarily does not support violent interventions to solve political problems, but he supported U.S. plans to use military force to unseat Hussein even though it put him, uncomfortably, on the side of Israel, a position many Muslims would not be willing to take.

"It is odd," he admits. "It's not an easy feeling. One has to realize the world is not binary, not black and white. Your enemy is your enemy only for certain issues. You may differ with them for the top five issues but not differ with them for the next 95 issues. Should I abandon my issue because Sharon has my issue? No, that's foolish. ... So how could Iraqis who lived through the destruction of the Gulf War take a leap of faith with the United States? The reason why I personally took that leap of faith was that I believe establishing a democracy is in the strategic and economic interest of the United States. The United States won't establish a democracy in Iraq in lip service or in interest of the Iraqi people, but in their own interest."

Alienating Agenda

The concept of the State Department seeking assistance from Iraqi expatriates, many of them absent from their country for decades, to rebuild Iraq is less easy for others to accept. Abbas Khadhim sees the United States as an occupying and not a liberating force and view the Future of Iraq Project as a way to legitimize the invasion.

Khadhim, a doctoral candidate at UC-Berkeley who participated in the failed 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War, was also contacted by the State Department for his input. After a few lengthy conversations, Khadhim says he sensed that accepting the invitation would be fruitless, that an agenda had already been set by the State Department, and they were only seeking legitimacy for the war.

"The whole approach is dubious," he says. "It ... alienates the Iraqis inside Iraq and instead comes with the Big Brother approach. I think it's unfair to have people who haven't set foot in Iraq for 30 and 40 years decide the future of Iraq."

Khadhim thinks that the Iraqis within the country are better suited for the task. "Iraq rebuilt itself beautifully with its own local expertise [after the first Gulf War]," he points out. "[Right now], the United States hasn't been doing anything but destruction. Anything that's positive is being done by mosques and local leaders. The United States hasn't fixed anything; all they protected was the Ministry of Oil."

Khadhim, who points out that many U.S. attempts to build viable democracies since World War II have fallen painfully short, especially in Latin America and the Far East, continues, "This nation has a lot of resources, advanced technology and very educated society. Iraq needs every Iraqi with an education, but not in a way that they prostitute themselves to an occupying force. If they go back to Iraq, they would be a valuable asset, but to go under [the U.S.] banners would be the wrong thing to do. I think these terms [democracy, pluralism, free market, privatization] have a bright and shiny aspect to them. Iraq needs these, but not as they are practiced in the West. It needs its own local version. It needs democracy, but not in the American way."

He also worries that outsiders will divvy up Iraq to the disadvantage of the people, who will feel--and be--less invested in the success of their own country than outsiders.

Khadhim says, "Privatization is nice, but who's getting the contracts? When you privatize Iraqi oil, we're not talking about Iraqi companies but about Shell and Chevron getting 40 percent of Iraqi oil. The higher-paying jobs will go to Americans and Westerners while the Iraqis will do the menial jobs. Probably, they will be the janitors and the guards. So when you talk about these terms, you have to put it in context."

Diplomatic Diversity

But for people like Francis Dinha, an Iraqi Assyrian Christian who left Iraq in 1977 and was recommended to the State Department by Jacob Yusuf, one of the key leaders of the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Iraq, being tapped for the Future of Iraq Project was, because of his status as an ethnic minority, especially meaningful.

Because the region that Iraq straddles is one of the most ethnically diverse in the Arab world (the nation has a majority population of Shia Muslim Arabs, most in the south, while large minorities of Sunni Muslim Arabs dominate the center; the north is the traditional homeland of the Kurds and surviving pockets of Assyrians, Armenians, Jews and Turkomans are still scattered throughout), he believes any new Iraqi government must be able to accommodate different ethnicities and worldviews.

"The question was asked [by the State Department] how Iraqis would feel if the United States would stay there for a very long time," recalls Dinha, a Bay Area entrepreneur. "One person [at the meeting] said 100 percent of the Iraqis would oppose that. He used the word '100 percent,' and that means he's including us [Assyrian Christians]. It came to me, and I said I cannot lie to you, and I can't be here trying to be diplomatic, but I can tell you the perception of Christians and Assyrians. [We] would like to see Americans stay there for a very long time, because we would feel much safer. Look at south Iraq right now; [what] if there's an explosion of these Shia going out and wanting to create an Islamic state? That's what we are scared of. I don't want that to happen. I'm not against Islam, but I know there's a dangerous part of Islam. I know it. So I hope democracy will prevail in Iraq, but when I see these Shia, I'm scared."

Still, Dinha, like Alkhatib, believes it's necessary for long-absent Iraqis to have involvement with Iraq's new government.

"Iraqis are Iraqis," he says. "I think we still have a sense of connection with Iraqi people. I think bringing Iraqis in exile that lived in [Western countries]--I think it's a value for Iraqis to bring those type of people into Iraq. It's a blend of Western thinking and democracy. If we're going to be applying democracy and freedom, I've lived in a very free country, so I know what's the meaning of freedom. And if you're going give this to Iraq's people, the Shia are the majority, and they're going to take over. I am not sure if all the Iraqi people there understand the meaning of democracy. I know a lot of Iraqis don't want to hear it from me, and I told it at the meeting [in Washington]. I said, 'Look, Saddam Hussein is a product of the Iraqi people, and if we think we can just give this in the hands of the Iraqi people and they can democratize Iraq, that's wrong. Because we were capable of creating Saddam Hussein, we are going to be capable of creating another one like Saddam Hussein.'


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From the May 8-14, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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