Thursday, January 22, 2004
President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq put Donna Hinton in a strange position. A 43-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, a self-employed real estate broker and a practicing Buddhist from Long Beach, California, she found herself in April 2003 suddenly leading a battalion of Texans into war.
From a cavernous shop at the Baghdad International Airport—now a sprawling US military base—she heads the 490th Civil Affairs Battalion, a 139-member unit spread out across central and western Iraq, doing everything from fixing schools to pushing sewage out of the street to setting up city councils.
Her unit, which is preparing to return to the United States in the spring, has racked up an impressive record since it arrived almost a year ago. The 490th soldiers are reservists like Hinton—they are police detectives, college students, computer programmers, chemists, plumbers, fast-food clerks and teachers. In Iraq they do a little of everything.
The 490th—which falls under the Army’s Special Operations Command along with Special Forces and psychological warfare groups—is one of about 20 such civil affairs units in Iraq. Its 139 troops are part of a 1,600-member civil affairs contingent. (To shoulder the heavy post-invasion reconstruction campaign, regular Army tank and artillery units have also taken up a hefty part of the civil affairs/reconstruction effort.) The 490th alone has spent some millions of dollars on hundreds of infrastructure repair projects around the country.
“We’ve laid the foundation, that’s all we’ve done collectively,” she says one afternoon in late December, standing in her Spartan headquarters. She points out that coalition forces have captured some of the leaders of the local insurgency, “which gives the people some freedom from fear.
“Now it’s a matter of helping set up the government to help the people, instead of the government helping itself, which is how it used to be. It’s about breaking old ways of doing business, whether it’s the public sector or the private sector.
“Generally they [Iraqis] want to do that, but it’s a matter of de-programming and re-programming them. That’s going to take some time, but we’ve put in the foundation, and it’s a matter of who comes in and builds on that foundation.”
Picking up the pieces of a broken land takes close person-to-person work in this diverse nation of 25 million. Hinton has teams working on the poverty-stricken east side of Baghdad, in the troublesome town of Fallujah, and in a town called Al-Qa’im, near the Syrian border, where a small detachment is trying to get a phosphate plant operational. The 490th has a doctor who runs a public health clinic, a veterinarian who takes care of the creatures at the Baghdad Zoo, a group of electrical engineers who work in the city power plants, a DEA analyst from Austin who got the battle-torn airport back to some semblance of normalcy, and a lieutenant who’s an environmental biologist in civilian life and now runs a plant that supplies clean drinking water to Baghdad.
In the absence of international relief organizations, the civil affairs units take on the post-conflict work of aiding civilians, trying to see to it that people don’t starve, wounds are tended to and schools stay open. It’s also very much an effort to win the hearts and minds of a population leery of an occupation army.
The work generates some good will, but the good will only goes so far. Insurgents have attacked the various spread-out teams of the 490th more than 30 times. Nine Purple Hearts have been awarded. One of the wounded, Sgt. Ryan Kelly, lost a leg when several booby traps hidden in hay bales along the road exploded into his convoy.
A civil affairs unit attached to the 490th was set up at the UN on the poor east side of Baghdad, working with the UN and other NGOs doing post-conflict civilian assistance. The soldiers were 50 yards away when the building was bombed on Aug. 19. The explosion rained debris and body parts on the outpost. Three soldiers were wounded in the blast. The rest ran right into the scene.
One sergeant from the 411th stayed with UN Ambassador Sergio Vierra de Mello, taking down goodbye notes to his family as he lay trapped and dying in the wreckage.
In the aftermath, the unit hunkered down and stayed at the site until a second bomb attack sent the UN and other NGOs out of Iraq. Twice bombed in the same place, the civil affairs team moved into a cavalry fort down the road, protected by tanks and thick walls.
But even being under constant threat in the midst of a war zone, sometimes Hinton’s soldiers must do work they really, really dread.
Hana Nidam stands in the lobby of the former Republican Palace, the headquarters of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). She is crying softly. At first she was stoic but when an American officer offered to do whatever he could to help her, she began to well up, then weep quietly. Nidam, 30 years old and mother of two boys, is a war widow. She dresses in black from head to toe. Her husband, Sa’ad, was mistakenly shot and killed on Sept. 18 by an American soldier at a checkpoint in northern Iraq.
Sa’ad was a translator working for Hinton’s civil affairs unit stationed at the UN. He had been with them from just days after the invasion until he was killed. When he died, the soldiers were devastated. They had worked with him every day and they’d become friends.
Specialist Marie Phelen-Vedder, who studied Russian at Monterey’s Defense Language Institute, had her parents send medicine from home for Sa’ad’s mother. Specialist Jessica Leslie became an “aunt” to his two boys. Of all the bad things that happened to them since they got to Iraq, Sa’ad’s death had to be the worst. And now, all they could do was help Hana any way they could.
Already a fund had been set up for Hana and her two sons. Today, an officer from a unit in northern Iraq, the 101st Airborne, is here to meet her and offer a collection from his unit because Sa’ad died in their area.
Hana stands with the officer, Maj. David Ward, and Maj. Ralph Roper from the 411th, the civil affairs unit Sa’ad used to work with. Ward has $1,000 for Hana.
“I can’t express to you how sorry I am for the loss of your husband. Sa’ad helped us very much,” Ward says. “I offer you this not as compensation for your loss but to express our appreciation to you for the work your husband did. I hope you will accept this. I hope that as your sons grow up you can explain to them it was a terrible mistake, something we would never want to happen. If there is anything you need, you can contact me.”
Roper hands her his handkerchief and she wipes away her tears. Then she responds to Ward.
“After my husband’s death, there is nothing left to live for,” she tells him through a translator. “I lost a lot, something very great. Nothing can compensate for my husband.”
Later, Specialist Jessica Leslie, 21, remembered Sa’ad. The best shot with an M-16 in the unit, with a perfect target hanging over her bunk, Leslie, like the others, is bitter that Sa’ad is dead. She has stacks of photos she’s already sent home because she couldn’t bear to have them around, knowing he’s gone with a wife and two sons left behind.
“I don’t want to look at any of them,” she says. “Maybe in a couple years, but I can’t look at that crap.”
Like many women in Iraq, Hana Nidam has suffered the cruelty of war brought not by Saddam Hussein but because of the US invasion. Although the soldiers bend over backward to avoid killing or injuring civilians, so-called “collateral damage” happens. And, as in the Jan. 18 truck bombing that killed 25 people at the gate to the American-controlled Green Zone, insurgents are targeting Iraqis to turn them against the American effort. The US doesn’t keep track of civilian deaths, but according to an online database that tracks Iraqi civilian casualties, 8,000 to 9,800 have been killed.
Under the old regime, the population endured institutionalized terror—everyone seems to have a story about a relative who was tortured or killed, and coalition troops have unearthed meticulous, chilling records of torture and execution. But the chaos of the post-invasion era swirls with an equally terrifying confusion and violence.
Saddam’s removal put the end to his repressive Baathist regime, but with it went its one benign by-product: law and order. When the police and the army vanished, so too did the expectation of public safety in Iraq.
Last spring and early summer, reports of kidnapping and rape of women and children began to surface. The police show little interest in investigating the crimes so very little hard information is available. But an estimated 400 women have been kidnapped in Baghdad since the invasion, according to recent reports.
Although women do appear in public today—both in the concealing gowns as well as in western dress—many fear for their lives in today’s Iraq. And it is in this atmosphere of fragile security and menace of rape and death that women must also act swiftly to gain a foothold in the new government.
Lt. Col. Donna Hinton is trying to help. As a senior officer, she’s in a good position to lend authority and aid. When she shows up at meetings of Iraqis, they immediately put her at the head table. And being a woman helps. There are issues like setting up a women’s education center in a poor part of town that may suit her better than a traditional army officer with more interest in defeating the enemy than putting a village back together.
“My own personal focus has been women’s issues, education, business and media,” Hinton says. “Out of all the civil affairs units in Iraq, I’m the only woman commander. I’m not touting it as a gender thing, I’m just doing my job. But if there’s an area I can influence because of my rank, I’ll do that,” she says. “There are not many senior female officers in the military. Period. But we’re not making it a gender issue either. We are using the capabilities of any officer to do the right thing. Maybe we have to work a little harder because we’re women, but that’s a fact of life no matter what position you hold.”
Hinton has done civil affairs work around the world: in Bosnia, Haiti, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and for the last year, in Iraq. Although her work now requires her to lead a battalion, women’s issues have been a focus in her career.
Nearing the end of her unit’s deployment in Iraq, she spends part of her days in meetings with representatives of the CPA and with what few international NGOs are left after the UN headquarters bombing.
She works with Women for Women International, which has an office in Baghdad and has been there since July trying to protect Iraqi women and give them a voice in the new government. The organization, which was founded in 1993 by Zainab Salbi, a native Iraqi, works for women in post-war nations from Kosovo to Rwanda to Afghanistan.
“In many ways women are starting from scratch in Iraq,” Salbi says in a telephone interview, back in Washington DC after a recent trip to her native land. “We need to go forward, not back, in Iraq.”
Salbi, 34, grew up comfortably in Baghdad. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a commercial pilot. She traveled all over the world, took dance lessons, she did whatever she wanted. In those days, in the 1980s, Iraq was prosperous, but years of war and abuse have reduced it to Third World conditions in many areas. Today, her childhood friends tell her that because of sanctions, they haven’t eaten meat in three years.
“I grew up there and I left in 1990, but every time I go back it feels different,” she says. “It’s torn down, contaminated. The religious establishment is stronger than ever. The mentality is different. There is anger, frustration and poverty.”
There is no doubt that women have been hurt by the invasion, Salbi says. Many households headed by women are now falling apart because they were dependent on in-home businesses that are starved of revenue.
“Since the war, many of them have not been able to earn a living because of the power outages and the security situation,” she says, noting that women have lost a lot of their freedom of movement.
Under the old regime, women were represented in parliament. Today there are two women on the 24-member Iraqi Governing Council, the US-appointed interim legislature. A third woman on the council, Dr. Akila Al Hashimi, was assassinated.
Salbi says women are generally getting passed over because they don’t have political clout.
“We are forming a new structure of government and women are not part of that discussion,” she says. “The new structure has no representation for women. This is a very dangerous thing to do. It cannot happen without leadership commitment and that needs to come from the American authority at CPA.”
That authority, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, has taken steps that Salbi and her organization applaud. Bremer decreed that the various ministers in the new government are required to assign female deputy ministers, acknowledged the problem of violence against women and provided funding for women’s education centers around Iraq.
“I do think the intentions are there. What we want are the applications of the intentions. Whether it’s Bremer or the Iraqi Governing Council, we need to ensure women have a place in the new government,” Salbi says.
A major guarantee to equal rights for women in tomorrow’s Iraq can be forged when the constitution is written. A debate now rages over whether to base the constitution in secular or religious law, with clerics holding sway over millions of followers. If the clerics win, the women may lose. Women in Saddam’s Iraq had significant rights. This was a rare situation in the Arab world. Everything is up for grabs now. Salbi has serious concerns about legal rights of divorce, inheritance, citizenship for children, and economic rights.
“You need to have all those details spelled out in the constitution. It’s a historic moment for Iraq and we need to make sure we protect everybody’s rights,” she says. “We are looking at the Kurds and the Sh’ia and the Sunnis and the others, but women are not considered a category.”
As Manal Omar, the Iraq country director for Women for Women put it at a meeting with Hinton, “If women aren’t able to have a voice in this next six months to a year period, it will have consequences for the next 20 to 30 years.”