Rebuilding of ministries is key hurdle
By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 4/29/03
BAGHDAD -- At 8:30 every morning for the past week, staff from the Ministry of Irrigation have arrived for work at their new office -- the parking lot of their charred government complex.
Little remains of the ministry, save massive metal desks too heavy for looters to carry and a toilet or two. The former minister has vanished. Years of records and plans literally went up in smoke when US missiles slammed into the 10-story building.
These Iraqis, gripping their briefcases and agenda books, insist that they are ready to rebuild by themselves. But even their staunch national pride is daunted by the task ahead.
"Will this be our ministry?" said Amjad al-Douri, 56, the director general of administration. "Who will be our minister? Where are our salaries? What happens next?"
Rebuilding this nation's war-ravaged ministries is a top priority for the Bush administration, which has called for Iraq's government employees to return to work and begin the task of running their nation. This week Jay Garner, the American postwar administrator of Iraq, will hold his first round of talks at ministries to assess what they need.
But a tour of Baghdad's 22 ministries demonstrates just how complex the task of rebuilding the government will be. In some cases, the obstacles are physical: The Ministry of Trade, for example, is a blackened edifice still smoldering from fires set by looters.
In other cases, the civil servants who have returned to work are opposed to an American occupation. When civil affairs doctors with the US Army visited the Ministry of Health last week, some key staff members refused to attend the meeting.
Only a few agencies, such as the Ministry of Oil, are intact and insistent that they don't want any American help. "In 1991 the same thing happened, and we fixed everything; we can depend on ourselves," said Nadum al-Zubaidi, 40, a technical supervisor at the Ministry of Oil. "We are not babies."
Iraq was renowned in the Arab world for its well-trained civil service, with a large number of professionals who have a command of English and advanced degrees.
But 12 years of UN sanctions that prevented the delivery of economic and scientific literature from abroad have left professional Iraqis behind the times.
"I'm looking forward to learning what's happened in the last 12 years in my field," Samir al-Mudhafar, 45, a chief engineer at the Ministry of Oil, said dryly.
The regime also drove thousands of professionals into exile abroad. The highly trained doctors, lawyers, engineers, and civil servants who remained often found themselves shut out of the top echelons of government service, with the top spots given to Saddam Hussein's family or the Ba'ath Party faithful.
Given subsidized housing and special treatment, top government employees led a life of privilege, while the more qualified toiled in lesser jobs.
"The old regime put people with no real background into the most important jobs," groaned Hasan al-Khalidy, 27, the liaison for international organizations at the Ministry of Trade's economic division. "They had no education. They did not deserve their titles."
There is little nostalgia for the days of the Ba'ath Party. But there is also little enthusiasm at the thought that US advisers will be arriving at the ministries to "complement" the Iraqi efforts, as US officials recently put it.
At the Health Ministry, where portraits of Hussein hang on the 11th floor, Dr. Hasim al-Nassiny, director general of preventive medicine, is glum. "Under the Americans, the future is gloomy, dark, mysterious," he said, searching for the right word in English.
He and his staff are working hard to halt what they fear will be the negative consequences of the US-led war. They fear an outbreak of preventable diseases, such as the measles, because the vaccines spoiled when the electricity failed. Cholera is another concern, with hot weather fast approaching and fresh water still in short supply.
At the Ministry of Oil, staff members point out with some irony that theirs is the one ministry in town without a scratch. Inevitably, suspicions are raised that the ministry was deliberately spared, so that the United States can profit from Iraq's oil.
The phalanx of US soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division guarding the ministry and frisking all those coming in and out only heightens resentment. "I am not happy because we are occupied by the Americans, in my country, in my city, and in my ministry, " said Lawahith al-Qaissi, the chief of engineers. "And if it is not for our oil, then why are they here?"
Indeed, of all the ministries, it is the sprawling Oil Ministry that has the most hustle and bustle inside, as cleaners mop up dust from recent sandstorms and as newly returning employees hug and kiss one another for the first time since the war began.
Plans are apace to get oil, Iraq's lifeblood, flowing fully again. The Al Dora refinery is working, pumping more than 45,000 barrels per day, according to Thamir Abbas Ghadhban, the ministry's director general of planning. The war affected some pipelines, but serious damage was rare.
Now there are dreams to do far more at the Ministry of Oil, like woo foreign investment and technology to more than double the barrels of oil that Iraq could pump per day, to 7 million.
Among some, but not all, of Iraq's civil service there is a palpable sense that change is in the air, that the rubble of their government buildings might also represent a chance for renewal.
Mohammad al-Sheikhy, 57, a technican with Iraq Petroleum Co., wheeled around when a spokesman for the Ministry of Oil sidled up to him in the lobby one recent day and told him to stop talking to a foreign reporter.
"No!" Sheikhy exclaimed. "We are done with Saddam, and we can say what we think. Nobody can restrict our ideas anymore."