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Exile Seeks Role in Postwar Iraq

Ali Salhi says expatriates combine the best traits of their native land and America. But some locals believe they have lived abroad too long.

June 16, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

KIRKUK, Iraq — Having spent half his life in U.S. exile, Ali Salhi contends he is the ideal hybrid of Iraqi national consciousness and American know-how needed to foster his shattered homeland's recovery after decades of darkness.

Iraqi at heart but American in outlook, the former school principal and onetime mayor of the northern Iraqi town of Altunkopi fled his country 28 years ago. But mere days before war broke out in March, Salhi returned from South Dakota to help his native country build the kind of democracy and market economy he discovered far from home.

"I forcefully believe I can help create a new Iraq based on this experience of U.S. democracy. That's why I came back here," says the leader of the Iraqi Free Officers and Civilians Movement, one of seven Iraqi opposition parties that the U.S. government consulted in planning the war and reconstruction.

Like other Iraqi expatriates who fled Saddam Hussein's Baath Party dictatorship, Salhi, 58, believes it is people like himself who have the most to offer in the daunting task of imparting the values of pluralism and human rights in a country with little experience of either.

"Besides having this democratic understanding, I also have the experience of having started successful businesses," says the proprietor of a construction firm, a mortgage company and a real estate office in Sioux Falls, S.D. "What we need here is business opportunity as well as freedom." He calls unemployment "the biggest disease" plaguing his homeland and aspires to create a chamber of commerce to see that the next phase of economic development alleviates wide-scale poverty.

But some locals say exiles like Salhi, who were absent for much of the Baathist abuses, lack the perspective to oversee the country's recovery.

"We don't trust these men who have lived abroad for so long. What do they know about Iraq after 25 years away?" says Basit Hama Gharib, a Kurdish journalist from Sulaymaniyah."Those who have just returned do not deserve to be leaders of this community," says Saed Agar Nazal Mussauri, an Arab elected along with Salhi to Kirkuk's interim city council last month. "Mr. Salhi left for business reasons as much as for political ones."

Salhi, a Kurd, crossed back into Iraq from Iran on March 14 and believes he was the only "foreigner" to have entered Kirkuk in the tense days before the U.S.-led war that freed this city from Baathist rule a month later.

As soon as the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade entered Kirkuk in mid-April, Salhi went to work as an advisor to Col. William Mayville, commander of the brigade, who directed the restoration of power, water, schools, banks and gas supplies in the city. How Salhi came to link up with U.S. forces so quickly can be surmised even though he declines to confirm that his return was encouraged and bankrolled by the Bush administration.

"I can't answer that," he replies when asked what government agency sent him. "But I can tell you I certainly chose to be here." His son Dlear, who goes by Del after spending most of his 29 years in Sioux Falls, has recently joined him as a Defense Department private contractor. Del Salhi has made a six-month commitment to work here as a translator and assistant, after which he will decide whether his future lies in his homeland or his adopted country.

"It's going to be very different here," says the younger Salhi, surveying the fortified city government building where he and his father are working. "I was 8 when I went to the United States. I have a girlfriend back home. I think she'd love to come here, but I'm not sure yet whether it's time to ask that of her."

The elder Salhi likewise is waiting for a little more stability and comfort before asking his wife, Marsha, if she wants to join him. "She's running our businesses right now, and she's needed there for the moment," he says. Their two children and three others Salhi had with Del's mother (she died while Salhi was in exile) are in college or involved in busy lives of their own. "I will let them decide, but I hope all of my children will come here. I want them to experience this country because it's their country, too," says Salhi, who holds both U.S. and Iraqi passports.

Salhi says he was involved in U.S. politics for nearly three decades and was a member of the Democratic Party. But he voted for President Bush in 2000, he says, "because I supported this kind of foreign policy." He adds that he is firmly committed to the administration's attempt to fashion a fair and prosperous state here that would stand as an example to neighboring countries.

"I am hoping that is the direction we are taking. I will be very disappointed if we don't execute this policy of leading by example," he says, hinting at fears voiced in many quarters that the U.S. government often fails to follow through on its promises of postwar support once its attention is drawn elsewhere.

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