WASHINGTON — On the morning after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the hard work would begin.
Ali Al-Attar is ready to lend a hand. The 39-year-old family practice physician has joined with more than 200 other Iraqi exiles to prepare for potential postwar crises, from cholera outbreaks to chemical weapons exposure. If given the opportunity, he will go back to help put those plans into action.
"I have everything here, but I miss something important," he said. "I believe some part of me is still there. I'd like to go and fetch it." These exiled Iraqi academics, professionals and technocrats, mostly Americans, have embarked on a novel experiment in nation-building. Organized and financed by the State Department, participants in the Future of Iraq project are attempting to address the myriad challenges of rebuilding a country many of them have not visited in decades.
"The idea was to develop cadres of experts that would be available for a post-Saddam world, as advisors to a new government," said Middle East Institute Vice President David Mack, a former State Department official who helped launch the $5-million project. "It's never been done before."
For the most part, these are not the noisy opposition leaders whose public feuds have rattled U.S. officials and alienated many Iraqis. In fact, some officials hope that these experts will coalesce into a network capable of providing more effective guidance than the opposition leaders who seem more concerned with acquiring power than with empowering other Iraqis.
"These are the best of the best of the Iraqi exiles in their specialties and their expertise," said Al-Attar, who was expelled from Iraq at the age of 17.
In 1980, Al-Attar arrived home from high school in Baghdad to find three of President Hussein's secret police officers waiting for him. He was bused across the desert and dumped at the Iranian border, along with members of 400 other prominent Shiite Muslim families whose loyalty was questioned by Hussein's regime.
They walked for hours to reach the nearest town. Al-Attar helped set up tents in a refugee camp where the temperature breached 110 by day and fell below freezing at night. Some of the outcasts fell ill. Some died. Some never left. "I know people who were as affluent as we were, but they lost everything," he said. "They are still living in a tent in Iran. It ruined their lives."
Some Have Doubts
Interviews with more than a dozen Future of Iraq participants reveal that some harbor doubts about the depth of the Bush administration's commitment to their plans, particularly their insistence on a representative democracy. But most say they remain enthusiastic about the project. They note that all but a few of the 16 working groups are tackling problems that would confront Iraq no matter what form a new government might take.
"I have spent hundreds of hours on this," said Feisal Istrabadi, a Chicago attorney. "I've done so not because of some notion that if I keep putting one foot in front of the other, there's going to be democracy in Iraq. I've done it because this is Iraq's best hope. There's no other game in town."
Foreign policy experts generally agree that the legacy of any U.S. military action would depend in part on the involvement of Iraqis in the postwar decision-making process. "If we've learned anything from the Balkans, it's that top-down solutions -- just add water and George Washington will spring up on his horse -- are probably not the way to go," said policy analyst John Hulsman at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "In the long run, a bottom-up approach is really the only way you can make this work."
In Iraq, the view from the bottom is not pretty.
Nijyar H. Shemdin, a native of northern Iraq who left the region in 1975 after a failed Kurdish uprising, realized how bad things had become when he returned in 1994 to bury his mother next to his father's grave in the city of Zakhu.
Garbage trucks could not collect trash because their tires were worn out. Fire engines were idled because of a lack of spare parts. Ambulances could not make their runs, streets were riddled with potholes, water mains were broken and the electrical system had been disconnected from the national grid.
"It was the Iraqi government's way of saying, 'We don't want you,' " said Shemdin, the Kurdistan regional government's representative in Washington. "It was pathetic."
Hatem Mukhlis, an emergency room surgeon in Binghamton, N.Y., knows what the initial priorities would be: blood supplies and intravenous fluids. Antiseptics and antibiotics. Clean food and purified water. Sewage and water treatment repairs.
Mukhlis is participating with Al-Attar on the public health working group. The surgeon too is willing to go to Iraq to take part in the reconstruction and help unite the population.