For Nasreen Mustafa Sadiq, it has been a long journey from her year in a Baghdad jail at age 14 to becoming, 22 years later, one of the key officials whose job is to help rebuild Iraq. At a recent U.N. meeting seeking support for the country’s reconstruction, she sat alongside ministers from the same regime she had opposed for most of her life and said with quiet pride, “Iraq is back.”
Her new colleagues in the U.S. occupation administration, formally known as the Coalition Provisional Authority, are mostly Baghdad technocrats and ministers from former President Saddam Hussein’s regime, respected and retained for their expertise in making the water run, the foreign wheat arrive, the diplomacy continue. They are all learning to get along, to elide past differences, to look past the different political choices they made so that now they can work together to get Iraq back on its feet.
“It’s not going to be easy to reconstruct Iraq as a society,” Sadiq said after the meeting. “There have been a lot of divisions, a lot of issues that we as a society have to deal with. At some point, we have to leave the past and focus on the future, and this is the beginning.” And then she smiled. “That doesn’t mean I was feeling comfortable, though.”
With so much else demanding authorities’ attention, sometimes there is simply not time to be distracted by those divisions.
Most of the government ministries were bombed by the U.S.-led coalition, and the new officials have to make do in other, ill-equipped buildings. Rampant looting and crime mean that new generators obtained for hospitals are gone within a day, aid vehicles are carjacked and women are afraid to shop for their families. “In some places, we are going backwards instead of forwards,” she said.
Sadiq, 36, is in charge of reconstruction and development in the temporary administration, a post she knows something about. She held the same position in Iraqi Kurdistan, a part of the country that had to rebuild almost from scratch after the devastation during Hussein’s rule.
“There are a lot of parallels,” she said. “Today, in the north, we have a democratically elected parliament, 40 political parties, 120 civil society institutions and more than 160 newspapers and magazines. This is an example of what Iraq as a whole could become once it is free and supported by the international community.”
In some ways, she says, she has been constructing and rebuilding all her life. As the only girl in a family with eight boys, she said, the struggle for equal recognition began at home.
At 14, she was imprisoned along with her family because their relatives were Kurdish peshmerga, or resistance fighters. They fled the country after a failed Kurdish uprising in 1991, living as refugees briefly in Turkey, and then returned to a safe zone created by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in northern Iraq.
She got a job with the U.N. resettling refugees, obtained her driver’s license at 25 and soon was directing engineering teams.
A decade ago, she was the only woman in Dohuk who dared to drive a car, and children would sometimes throw stones as she passed. So she made a point of driving all around the northern Iraq city just to show people what was possible. “I wanted to push the idea,” she said, laughing.
With the support of international aid workers she had met, she went to America and earned a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1999.
She returned to northern Iraq to take the reconstruction post and was already well known in U.S. academic and women’s rights circles when she came to the attention of the U.S. government. Sadiq has met President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on separate occasions to talk about how to rebuild Iraq.
But because she has the very qualities that make her a model minister of the new Iraq -- Sadiq is articulate, charismatic, an advocate of human rights and democracy and a woman -- she can also be a thorn in the coalition’s side. She is vocal and critical about how the lack of security has hampered reconstruction, how there are too many bodies trying to take charge with too little coordination and how women have been largely excluded from the rebuilding process.
As an expert in rebuilding, she wants to be sure that a solid foundation is in place and that it is one that includes women.
“Iraq has no cultural obstacles for women’s participation. The dictatorship is gone, and so there shouldn’t be any political obstacles either,” she said.
“But so far I’m not optimistic. I’ve been concerned to see how limited the role of women has been in political discussions so far.”
At U.N. headquarters last week, having someone such as Sadiq request help from international donors helped smooth over the question of why other countries should help pay for the mess that the U.S.-led coalition had made. Reconstruction is estimated to cost up to $100 billion, Andrew S. Natsios, chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said at the conference. But Sadiq was heartened by the support for Iraq that she found at the U.N.
“The key outcome of the conference here is that Iraq is not any longer a coalition force issue, it is now an international issue,” she said. “Donors aren’t talking any more about how the whole thing happened unilaterally. They are talking about the future and how they can help Iraq. But they do have issues.”
At the meeting, some ambassadors asked that their donations be channeled through a separate fund managed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, so they wouldn’t have to give money directly to the Coalition Provisional Authority. That creates even more pressure to move the U.S. occupation authority out and an Iraqi government in.
But Sadiq said the Iraqis were still studying the blueprints.
“For Iraq to move from a dictatorship to a democracy won’t happen overnight, and to force it is also dangerous,” she said. “We don’t want to import another structure. We want to build a structure that will suit Iraqi needs.”
In the meantime, she said, she will continue to drive around, this time in Baghdad, pushing her ideas. The day Iraq has free elections, Sadiq would like to be on the ballot. “Why not?” she asked. “But for now, I like what I am doing.”