I was supposed to meet with democracy activist Fern Holland on the March day that terrorists ran her car off the road south of Baghdad and shot her many times with AK-47s. All the networks and dozens of newspapers covered her death, and Paul Wolfowitz noted it in congressional testimony. Ferns dedication to democracy was a catalyst that has helped make Iraqs south central region a leader in the countrys painful move to self-government.
Less recognized but equally deserving was Ferns deputy Salwa, a 38-year-old Iraqi killed in the same attack. She was just one of the thousands of Iraqis working with the Coalition to bring democracy and stability to their countryIraqis who have lived under the constant threat of death from insurgents. I first met Salwa at a talk I gave to an Iraqi human rights group. She shared Ferns vision of an Iraq where women had the same say in government that men did. Salwa and her sister Noor sat with me after the event, listening to Bob Marley on my laptops tiny speakers. I later hired Noor as a translator.
The morning after the attack, one of Ferns colleagues e-mailed me the crushing news. Noor sat in the next room. In the U.S., highway patrol officers, doctors, and clergy have the grim duty of notifying families of the death of loved ones. Even in Iraq, I assumed, the Iraqi equivalent of the highway patrol must have notified Salwas family, and Noor had missed it in coming to work. It fell to me to tell her.
Theres no good way to do it. We used pretense to bring Noor downstairs to a car, told her in the car, and then drove her home. Once we got there, it was clear that the family didnt yet know. Noors mother greeted me as she would a son. By hiring Salwa, she felt, I was helping both her family and her country. I stammered the dreadful news, while Noors mother, brothers, sisters, cousinsmore than a dozen family members hanging around the houselistened to her translate.
Noor stopped working for me to take care of her mother, already shattered from the loss of another daughter, earlier, to cancer. Noor asked if the Coalition gave death benefits to those killed while helping the Americans. To find out, I began visiting the dozens of palaces, formerly home to Saddams cousins or tribesmen, that now serve as bureaucrats offices.
Eventually, I learned that her likely employer was KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary working for the Coalition on construction and other tasks. It proved easier to meet with Ambassador Bremer than with KBRs Iraq head of operations, who failed to show for two scheduled meetings. Finally, I just hung around his office until he made an appearance.
I learned from him that one of KBRs Iraqi subcontractors had hired Salwa and that death benefits, if any, would have to come from it. KBR did its Iraqi hiring through subcontractors so as to avoid liability in situations like these. As for the head of the subcontracting firm, the latest that KBR knew was that Coalition forces had arrested and released him (for what was unclear) and that he had probably skipped town. A Bremer aide worked on this problem after I left Iraq, and met with similar success.
I understand the economic rationale for firms to mitigate risk when employing foreign workers. Yet while KBRs strategy might be justifiable when it hires laborers to build, say, a gas pipeline in Nigeria, where winning over the Nigerian people isnt the key aim, its truly counterproductive in Iraq.
The terrorists have the business end of things in Iraq figured out much better than we do: they reward suicide bombers families handsomely. Salwas family had just found out that if an Iraqi gets killed working for the Coalition, he or she gets nothing.
Seven of Salwas extended family worked for the Coalition as translators, drivers, and security guards. Families are closer in Iraq than in the U.S., and its not unusual for even third cousins to talk often. To save a few thousand bucks, then, KBR likely sent the message to hundreds of Iraqis inclined to support U.S. efforts in Iraq that we wont stand by them when things go wrong.
Thats no way to win Iraqi hearts and minds.