Like me, they were here to attend a 2-day conference on “Rebuilding Iraq.” In the months since Congress allocated more than $18 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars for reconstruction projects in the newly-liberated country, the Baghdad-based Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has been taking bids on everything from mobile hydraulic cranes to amberlite resins to Iraqi army uniforms. The conference organizers, New Fields Exhibitions, Inc., had promised a “one-stop-shop for success in Iraq.” And if the scene in the lobby didn’t exactly conjure up images of instability and violence, the products being pitched certainly did.
One stack of brochures on the registration table advertised bomb-resistant trashcans, each available in colors ranging from windswept copper to lapis blue, and capable of containing the explosion of a pipe bomb. (I had already missed the demonstration, held one day earlier). Another company specialized in refitting sport utility vehicles with armor plate and bulletproof glass, making them invulnerable to small arms fire. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation had set out information packets about its political insurance policies, aimed at those firms worried about having their assets expropriated by the future Iraqi government. The delivery-services company DHL, a major sponsor of “Rebuilding Iraq,” didn’t have much traffic at their table. I asked their representative about the DHL plane that got shot down just a few weeks prior to the conference. “It was an old plane anyway,” he said.
The vicissitudes of federal government contracting, it turns out, apply beyond U.S. borders. One entrepreneur, a burly fellow named Richard, explained with a Southern twang that his business–which provides support staff for the CPA–gets preferential treatment because he’s part Cherokee. After some small talk, I got ready to leave. “You going back?” he asked.
Surveying my dark skin once again, he said. “No, I mean to Baghdad.” I’m not Iraqi, I explained. I’m Indian American. “Oh, I got a bunch of Indians working for me in Qatar. I’ll tell ya a funny story. I was over there and somebody called up the office over there asking if we were an Indian company. My guy over there said ‘what kind? Dot heads or feathers?'” I mustered a weak chuckle to match his guffaws.
Another panel I attended that day was titled “Cultural strategies for rebuilding Iraq.” The star attraction–and the guy I came to see–was Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine reservist. Bogdanos wasn’t there to sell something, but to tell a story. As a New York City assistant district attorney, he had taken on P. Diddy; on active duty, he had taken on Saddam Hussein. When the Iraqi National Museum was looted, Gen. Tommy Franks assigned Bogdanos, then deployed in southern Iraq, to head the antiquities recovery and investigation team. Bogdanos, a Greek American with a master’s degree in classical studies, was a perfect fit.
When he arrived in Baghdad, the graffiti scrawled on museum’s front door was not exactly welcoming: “Death to all Americans and Zionist pigs.” But by embracing local customs he and colleagues won the trust of locals. They worked without helmets, like civilians, and lived inside the Museum so informants could come by at any time. The team made remarkable progress, recovering hundreds of priceless pieces and discovering many artifacts were not looted, but stowed away elsewhere. About 8,500 pieces were still missing, “but don’t forget,” he reminded the audience, “a necklace with 16 beads counts as 17 pieces.” Dealing with informants in Iraq was a lot like being a cop in New York or DC, Bogdanos said. They can have ulterior motives for providing information and may have gang affiliations. “But chances are, you’re not going to be led into an ambush on 125th and Amsterdam.”