The Spark of Rebellion: Exercising their Options

April 9, 2014

Editor’s Note: War on the Rocks is proud to publish this series on the tenth anniversary of the events they describe in 2004. This is part one of five.


The morning of Sunday, April 4, 2004 began like any other in occupation-era Iraq. The forecast called for clear skies and rising temperatures, with none of the dust storms that could choke the sun and cover everything in a faint orange talc, and none of the blast furnace heat that made the summers unbearable. But then, predicting the weather in Iraq took very little talent. Every new day resembled the one just passed, and with nothing distinguishing them except the steady rise in temperature, the forecast for every day was sunny and hot. A real talent, however was needed for predicting the political weather, for while everyone could feel the rhetoric heating up, none felt the storm coming. If they had, they would have seen that April the Fourth would become more than just another date on the calendar. It would be the date that Iraq began its precipitous descent into eventual civil war, the date when the Bush administration’s benevolent protestations of freeing Iraqis from dictatorship started to unravel and the date when America’s model of international development assistance was irreparably changed.

On that date, while the Marines prepared to fight Saddam loyalists and jihadists in Fallujah, in the Sunni Triangle to the north of Baghdad, a parallel insurrection broke out in the predominantly Shia provinces south of the capital. By midnight on Sunday, April 4, the expats living and working within communities in Kut, Najaf, Diwaniyah and Kerbala provinces to establish institutions of local government and restore basic services had abandoned their offices and residences and fled to their nearest military base. America’s foreign policy apparatus, in the main, consists of three complementary parts: defense – the  Armed Forces, led by the Department of Defense; diplomacy – the embassies run by the Department of State; and development – the assistance projects led by the United States Agency for International Development. Each of these has its own importance and each receives resources from Congress in that order of priority. The relationship between them during America’s direct administration of Iraq was unusual, however, with career diplomats who ran Iraq’s occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (or ‘CPA’) reporting ultimately to the Secretary of Defense, and USAID, albeit an independent agency created by the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, reporting to the CPA. Also unusual was the extent to which the occupation depended on ‘unofficial Americans’ and even non-Americans — from troop contingents from lesser powers cobbled together into a ‘coalition of the willing,’ to private security companies escorting nominal diplomats, food, supplies and quite literally crates of cash, to the seemingly limitless number of international contractors presumed to have expertise in all the many systems Iraq lacked.

At the time, the largest development contract that USAID had was the Local Governance Program (or ‘LGP’). The project had been designed and competed before hostilities even began and awarded on March 24, 2003, a full 3 weeks before Baghdad fell. Just like the subsequent administration of Iraq, LGP was easier to imagine than it was to implement. Under the general ‘strategic objective’ that ‘Iraqi Citizens Benefit from Improved Local Governance,’ USAID imposed on LGP a standard list of expected results, including ‘increased access to basic services,’ ‘more transparent and participatory local government processes,’ ‘more effective and efficient local service delivery,’ and ‘more effective advocacy and participation of civil society.’ It also assumed that the project would be able to accomplish these expected results in an environment of cooperation with ‘liberated’ (and presumably grateful) Iraqis. That assumption, however, turned out to be more complicated than imagined.

By the terms of the award between USAID and LGP’s implementer, RTI International of Raleigh, North Carolina, the civilian employees of the project were only to be deployed to an undefined ‘permissive environment.’ But the project struggled to fill expat positions, as intermittent violence following the military’s cakewalk into Baghdad in April of 2003 made it harder and harder to recruit the usual development types. With a contract calling for a specific ‘Level of Effort’ however and CPA head and self-described ‘proconsul’ Paul Bremer calling for more international civilian expertise, the priority of the project’s first year seemed to be hiring, deploying and assigning expats to field offices, whether ‘permissive’ or not. As the project neared its one year anniversary, it employed 221 expatriates, 145 of them Americans, with the balance hailing from such dissimilar places as the UK, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Haiti, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Poland, Norway, Estonia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Tajikistan, Canada, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Kenya, Tanzania, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Those 221 expats were resident in 17 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, in addition to an outsized headquarters in the Green Zone in Baghdad, the fortified area formed by a bend in the Tigris River that had served as the administrative center of successive government regimes. Combined with and the support of Iraqi employees who numbered almost 3,000, this made LGP the single largest instance of U.S. foreign development assistance since the Marshall Plan.

With the nominally independent USAID subordinated to the CPA and all its new funding in country at the mercy of a slow moving Project Management Office (or PMO) run by the Department of Defense, LGP was practically the development agency’s only show in town. Until it could let additional contracts, it loaded LGP with everything that it normally divided between multiple contractors, giving the project a ‘soup to nuts’ quality and making it unwieldy to manage. By exercising their option for a second implementation year, USAID imagined LGP fitting into a normal portfolio of specialist projects, each with a narrow remit and a manageable budget.

On March 16, 2004 USAID had formally notified the project implementer, RTI, that it was exercising its option to extend the LGP contract for a second year. It would, however, also be reducing the dollar amount of the contract by 40%, as it imagined the need for the project’s assistance would diminish after the CPA returned sovereignty to Iraqis at the end of June. The good and the bad of that notice – that USAID would be continuing the project but not continuing its first year level of funding – forced the LGP management team to consider changes to the project’s concept of operations and staffing pattern. On March 17, RTI’s Senior Vice President and lead author of the proposal that had won the contract for the firm sent out a message to all staff informing them that:

The exercise of the option is not without pain of course. All of you are aware that there is a significant budget reduction accompanying the option year. Early this month as you know we had to implement a painful reduction in force for just over 30 of our staff. Looking at the schedule of remaining employees and the date that each of you will reach the end of a year in Iraq, it appears now that we are at a staffing level at which natural attrition will keep us within budget. Nothing is static out here, so we cannot assure that no further staffing changes will be required, but at this point in time the prospect is good that we will not have to go through that process again.

He could not have known how wrong he was.

The project’s senior managers (its ‘Chief of Party’ and ‘Deputy Chief of Party’ in USAID speak) worried about the consequences of unmanaged ‘attrition’ on staff morale and their ability to deliver on the ambitious plan of work USAID was expecting in their second year. They distributed a template that USAID had suggested they use to re-scope the project, and on March 19 they invited all of LGP’s Team Leaders to a meeting at the Baghdad ‘Ishtar’ Sheraton to discuss the changes and the new expectations being placed on them. In place of the ‘ski slope’ model of steadily declining staff numbers assumed by the RTI Senior Vice President, they wanted a managed ‘stair step’ model that took an immediate big step down, followed by a second after the CPA quit Iraq that June, while still leaving the project with a stable number of experts for the remaining 9 months of its term. In the end, neither model would be realized.

March 2004 had seen an uptick in violence, with the number of incidents in the first three weeks of the month exceeding the number in the past three months combined. It began with car bomb attacks across Baghdad and Karbala during the annual Ashura pilgrimage, which commemorates the death in 680 of Hussein, the grandson of the founder of Islam, at the 7th Century Battle of Karbala that permanently divided the Muslim world between Sunni and Shia (and is the annual excuse for Sunni zealots to murder Shia whom they consider to be apostates). In the attacks that year, over 100 pilgrims had died in Karbala alone.

Then on the evening of March 9, American lawyer and women’s rights advocate Fern Holland, her Iraqi assistant, Salwa Oumashi, and former U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Bob Zangas (who returned to Iraq as a civilian) were killed at a false checkpoint on the Karbala to Baghdad Road. Also, while it did not happen in Iraq, the three bombs that ripped through the Madrid Metro at 7:30 a.m. on March 11 likely caused the fall of the Conservative government and the election of the Socialist one on the 16th which promptly resolved to withdraw Spanish forces from the Multinational Force that had accompanied American troops into Iraq. And on March 20, during the day, rockets fell on the Green Zone, which at the time housed the offices of the CPA, USAID and the headquarters of LGP. One of those rockets landed outside the USAID Director’s office in the Convention Center, and another hit the 6th floor of the Sheraton ‘Ishtar’ Hotel, where the project had resident staff and planned for its Team Leaders’ meeting.

These incidents were rehearsed by the LGP National Director of Operations in a briefing to its Executive Team on March 24, once the Chief of Party had returned from a periodic rest break. The ‘Ops Officers’ in each of the project’s four Regional Service Centers – Baghdad, Erbil, Basrah and Hillah – called into a secure number and reported on the security conditions in each of their locations. All retired military, they followed a ‘traffic signal’ model of threat analysis, reporting that the predominantly Kurdish provinces of the North were ‘green,’ while Mosul in Ninewa province was ‘red’ and the rest of the country was between ‘green’ and ‘amber.’ They concluded that the project’s physical locations were generally ‘in good shape’ before shifting their attention from ‘site security’ to ‘movement security,’ their concern being the project’s vulnerability on the roads.

Lamenting their circumstances, the National Director of Ops informed the RTI Chief of Staff and its Senior Vice President in North Carolina that of 3 ‘factory armored’ Mercedes G-Class SUVs, only 1 was operational, and of 4 ‘up armored’ GMC Suburbans, likewise they could only drive 1, since the suspension systems were not designed to take the additional weight of the armoring. Complicating matters was the difficulty of getting a broken armored vehicle repaired: a crane had to be ordered that could hoist the vehicle onto a flatbed truck, which then had to be driven to a service center in Kuwait. Under the best of circumstances, that trip could take 10 hours for the truck to clear the Green Zone, drive down the Baghdad to Basrah highway and cross the border. The increasing violence in Iraq had increased the demands on the company in Texas that did the up armoring. So, of the 12 armored cars ordered in the project’s first year, only 7 had made it to Iraq, and of that 7, only 2 could then be driven. An additional three new ones sat in Kuwait, in anticipation of an overland tour of project sites by the then president of RTI, her husband and their Chief of Staff, scheduled for April 16-19. Until then, project staff had no recourse other than to travel in ‘soft skinned’ vehicles, with the Home Office in North Carolina insisting that at least they be obligated to wear recently acquired ‘ballistic vests’ before traveling.

Following that meeting, Phil Hudicourt, the Regional Security Officer in Hillah sent a notice to all expats in the South Central Region:

Effective today the use of vest with plates is mandatory for all movements when traveling in a non-armored car. PSDs will be instructed not to move the cars until all pers have their vest on.

Do not compromise safety for comfort.

So it was in Kevlar helmets and mostly new vests with metal plate inserts that the Team Leaders traveled to Baghdad in their soft skinned SUVs for their meeting at the Baghdad Sheraton on March 31 and April 1.

Just as each of the project’s 4 regions had an Ops Officer, each had a Regional Team Leader, and the structure was repeated within the Provincial Governance Teams. The South Central Regional Team Leader at the time was University of Utah professor emeritus Dr. James Mayfield. A noted scholar on the Middle East, he had written a book on local government in Egypt, and knew the project’s Chief of Party from when they had worked in Cairo, nearly 30 years before. Through his church, Dr. Mayfield had recruited a handful of city managers into the project, the most prominent of whom was Albert E. Haines. Because his most recent assignment had been the nation’s 4th largest city – Houston, Texas – Al had been made Team Leader of the Local Governance Team for Baghdad.

Dr. Mayfield himself, though, bore responsibility for 5 provincial offices in the Shia heartland. From his office in the South Central Regional Service Center or RSC in Hillah (the provincial seat of Babil province), Dr. Mayfield oversaw project activities in the South Central provinces of Hillah, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Karbala and Kut, and he assigned and managed the Team Leaders there. A lawyer and experienced international development consultant with an especially relevant background in personnel issues, Don Seufert served as Team Leader for Babil Province, and his team was co-located with the RSC in Hillah. His longtime friend and business associate, former city manager Howard Edwards, served as the Team Leader in Kut, Wasit Province which sat on Iraq’s eastern border with Iran. Gabriel Abraham, an Ethiopian American and urban planner who had worked with the Egyptian government to increase the efficiency of tourist traffic in the Valley of the Kings, served as the Team Leader in Najaf. A Sri Lankan-born, Oxford-educated human rights lawyer and legislative specialist, Vijaya “VJ” Samaraweera served as the project’s Team Leader in Karbala. And only 2 weeks before, Dr. Mayfield had elevated to the position of Team Leader in Diwaniyah a Haitian American who had recently retired from the Marines.  Arnoux Abraham had spent the previous winter in a tent in Iraq’s northern desert. At the moment of his promotion within LGP, Arnoux could not have imagined that his most important task as Team Leader would be to lead his men out of Iraq.

At the end of March, Gabriel Abraham had to take an emergency leave of absence to tend to his ailing father, and Don Seufert sent a public finance specialist named Bruce Hutchins from the RSC in Hillah to assume temporary leadership of the team in Najaf. And to assist Bruce, Don dispatched a Palestinian Arab named Nabil Razouk to be the provincial Ops Officer in Najaf. Nabil had only arrived in Iraq a few days before. In making the assignment, Don counseled Nabil that the additional responsibility of the Ops position would be good for his career.

In addition to an expat Provincial Team Leader and Ops Officer, each of the provincial teams in South Central had other expatriate experts on staff, though their numbers varied, and each provincial Local Governance Team employed about 100 Iraqis in technical, support and security roles. They were capable of keeping project activities going while their Team Leaders discussed work plans and staffing patterns for their second implementation year at the Ishtar Sheraton in Baghdad.

Had they been able to predict the future as easily as they could predict the weather, they would have seen that a coming storm would frustrate their plans.


An attorney specializing in development in the Muslim world, Lamar Cravens has spent the majority of the last 20 years in countries in transition. He spent six and a half years in Iraq, holding several positions on the Local Governance Program, and has also worked in Yemen and Egypt (after the Arab Spring revolutions in each), South Asia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.


Photo credit: Radio Nederland Wereldomroep