Iraq’s New Leaders Own Homes in US

June 24th, 2004 - by admin

Farah Stockman and Thanassis Cambanis / Boston Globe – 2004-06-24 14:52:37

WASHINGTON (June 10, 2004) — Iraq’s newly appointed minister of communications owns a home in Cambridge, where the former mobile network designer is still a registered voter.

The minister of electricity has also kept his home in the outskirts of Chicago. The voice of the avid Bulls fan still directs callers to leave him a message on the answering machine of the engineering firm where he has taken ”an indefinite leave of absence.”

Iraq’s new minister of industry and minerals, educated at the University of Connecticut, lived in the United States from 1979 until he returned in 2003 to Iraq, where he still talks animatedly about the Huskies.

Links to the United States run deep among many in the interim Iraqi government, even as the diverse, 33-member body gears up to assert its independence from the US government.

In a country where political success hangs on the ability to bridge deep differences between Sunni and Shi’ite, Arab and Kurd, technocrat and politician, the new government must also manage one of the most daunting divides: that between exiles who have made their lives in the West and home-grown leaders who never left Iraq.

Five of Top Six Posts Held by Expatriats
Although about a third of the new government’s leaders spent most of their lives under Saddam Hussein’s regime, five of the six leading posts in the government are held by people who lived a significant part of their lives abroad, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. At least two Cabinet members are US citizens. In addition to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who was involved in a CIA-backed coup attempt against Hussein, at least seven others were members of exile groups funded by the United States.

The high-profile role of exiles, both in the previous US-appointed government and the one that UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi announced Tuesday, irks many Iraqis and could present a lingering challenge for the political transition in Iraq.

‘Most Ministers Hold US, UK or French Passports’
”Honestly, most of the ministers I think are British, American, or French passport holders,” said Dr. Raja al-Khuzai, a Shi’ite gynecologist who during Hussein’s regime ran a clinic in the southern Iraqi town of Diwaniyah. ”Very few of them are Iraqis. That was not the idea when Brahimi first came here and sat next to me and said, ‘We want people like you who stayed in Iraq.’ ”

Resentment may be exacerbated by the fact that many members of the disbanded US-appointed Governing Council who did not receive posts in the new government are preparing to return to homes in Europe and elsewhere. The halls are deserted in the building where the former Governing Council members still have offices. Many never brought their families with them to Iraq, nor did they quit their jobs at banks and consulting companies. Instead, they took yearlong leaves of absence.

Fuad Hussein, former minister of social affairs, prepared to return to Holland, where his family awaits him. He will stay there for a couple of months before deciding whether to return to Iraq or resume consulting for international corporations that do business in the Middle East.

”I wanted to bring my family here, until the fall,” when violence surged, Hussein said. Now, he said, he might not come back.

Samir Shakir Mahmoud al-Sumaiday, a London businessman who was minister of the interior from April until the new government was announced Tuesday, said two days later that he was planning to head back to Britain, where his family had remained. ”I’m a man of leisure now,” he said.

He said that after about two months he would probably come back to seek a role for himself in a future government. He was not sure whether he would run for elective office.

Even Adnan Pachachi, who narrowly missed becoming president of Iraq after his colleagues on the council threw last-minute support behind another candidate, immediately withdrew to his exile base in the United Arab Emirates, where he’s deciding whether to run in next year’s elections.

”It’s an issue,” said Joseph Siegle, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ”How do you reconcile these dynamics in these countries where you have had a long civil war or a period of tyranny that has driven a majority of educated or middle-class leaders out of the country?”

Years in exile have added to lingering questions of legitimacy for Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s leader, Siegle said.

Iraq’s Communications Minister: a US Citizen from Boston
Fifteen months ago, Mohamed Alhakim was just another employee at a start-up company in Lexington, Mass., working long hours as a network architect designing software for mobile phones. He now heads the ministry of communications, in charge of more than 15,000 employees and a budget that exceeds $250 million.

”Surreal is probably the word that comes to my mind,” said Viktors Muiznieks, referring to the Alhakim’s new life. Muiznieks is Alhakim’s former boss at Lexington-based InfoClarus. When Alhakim went back to Iraq, ”He didn’t know what the future would bring,” Muiznieks said. ”But he just felt drawn into participating.”

Alhakim had been in the United States for so many years that he had celebrated getting his US citizenship at an office party. His son attends the University of Massachusetts, and Alhakim bought an apartment on Ellery Street. He frequented Cambridge cafes and ate falafel at the Middle East, in Central Square.

”He was very Bostonian,” said George Cooney, a co-worker.

But in the fall of 2002, in the run-up to the war, Alhakim began to speak passionately about Iraq to co-workers on his coffee breaks.

”It was a very stressful thing to him, what was going to happen,” Cooney said. ”He’d tell you 12 shades of gray why something was not black and white in Iraq. He understood the complications.”

Then in the fall of 2002, a woman from the FBI who was interviewing Iraqi citizens visited Alhakim, according to Faith Holway, another co-worker. Shortly afterward, Alhakim began to attend planning meetings in Washington and eventually gave his company a confidential letter from the US government requesting that he be given a leave of absence from his job.

He returned to Baghdad around January 2003, eventually reuniting with his mother and siblings, Holway said. His friends kept in touch with him, but not too often.”We didn’t want to be attracting too much attention to him, that he was a US person helping the Americans,” she recalled.

In the past year, the telecommunications specialist did everything from working in food distribution to taking a Governing Council class, preparing himself to become an ambassador. Becoming a Cabinet minister was a surprise, to Alhakim and to his co-workers in Lexington, Muiznieks said.

The question of how long Alhakim will stay in Iraq is still open, Muiznieks said.

”I don’t know that anyone knows what’s going to happen in seven months,” he said. ”As far as coming back here or staying there, I don’t know that he knows what the future holds right now. I don’t think he would have told you that he expected to be doing what he’s doing now.”

Iraq’s Electricity Minister Hails from Illinois
Aiham Alsammarae, Iraq’s minister of electricity, has also left a life on hold in Illinois. Before he departed for Iraq in 2003, he was a manager at KCI Engineering who knew both Illinois senators personally, according to his boss at the firm in Downers Grove, near Chicago.

Like Alhakim, Alsammarae was also recruited by the US government to help plan for postwar Iraq. In the fall of 2002, he was one of dozens of exiles involved in a $5 million State Department project called the ”Future of Iraq.” Alsammarae helped draft a document he thought would become an Iraqi bill of rights.

Connecticut also staked its claim this week on Iraq’s new government with the appointment of Hachim al-Hassani as minister of industry and minerals. For eight years, Hassani struggled to get his doctorate at the University of Connecticut’s department of agriculture and resource economics, where he was known as a B student active in the Muslim students association who loved to take shopping excursions to Hartford.

Farah Stockman can be reached at Stockman reported from Washington; Cambanis from Baghdad. Anne Barnard contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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