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