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. Fern’s dedication to democracy was a catalyst that has helped make Iraq’s south central region a leader in the country’s painful move to self-government.
Less recognized but equally deserving was Fern’s 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 country—Iraqis 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 Fern’s 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 laptop’s tiny speakers. I later hired Noor as a translator.
The morning after the attack, one of Fern’s 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 Salwa’s family, and Noor had missed it in coming to work. It fell to me to tell her.
There’s 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 didn’t yet know. Noor’s 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 Noor’s mother, brothers, sisters, cousins—more than a dozen family members hanging around the house—listened 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 Saddam’s 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 KBR’s 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 KBR’s 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 KBR’s strategy might be justifiable when it hires laborers to build, say, a gas pipeline in Nigeria, where winning over the Nigerian people isn’t the key aim, it’s 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. Salwa’s family had just found out that if an Iraqi gets killed working for the Coalition, he or she gets nothing.
Seven of Salwa’s extended family worked for the Coalition as translators, drivers, and security guards. Families are closer in Iraq than in the U.S., and it’s 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 won’t stand by them when things go wrong.
That’s no way to win Iraqi hearts and minds.