BIAP terminal is scheduled to reopen June 15, but Nasser says it will be impossible unless security can be relaxed to allow freer movement of his staff.

Ali Mousa Kashmar responded to the checkpoint guard's challenge: "I want to see my house. It's inside the airport. I haven’t seen it since before the war. I want to see what’s happened to it."

The date was April 10. Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) had fallen into American hands five days before. Saddam Hussein had ordered everyone living at the airport to leave as the Americans approached.

The guard held him at the checkpoint. An hour later, a civil affairs officer came and escorted him to his house. Except for the effects to be expected of neglect in a combat zone, it had come through the war intact.


Ali told the officer he had been a maintenance supervisor for 22 years at the airport, and his wife, Layla Hussen Kariem, a civil engineer, had been director of public works for the facility. The 94th Engineer Battalion had put out the word that it was looking for Iraqi engineers to help restore utility services to BIAP, so the officer called Lt. Col. Paul Grosskruger, the battalion commander. He asked Ali and Layla to come to his office to talk.

They brought their college-age daughter and 16-year-old son. "You could tell it was for them a very tense and anxious time," Grosskruger says. "What has happened at the airport?" he asked them. "What can you tell us about it?" As they talked, he realized they possessed a wealth of the kind of information he had been needing -- blueprints, maintenance records, employees and where they were. And they were glad to share what they knew.


"After April 15, I started seeing there would be a need to transition the management of the airport to civilian control," says Grosskruger. The problem, as he saw it, was how to screen and hire the right people in this newly occupied country. He decided to start by interviewing Layla, who had been so helpful, and ask if she would like to work full-time for the 130th Engineer Brigade. Still wary, she accepted the offer. Her English was very rusty, so he hired Ali with her, mainly to be an interpreter.

Layla briefed him on the structure of the civilian organization of the airport, and told Grosskruger who was still around and who had disappeared. Over the next few weeks, she helped identify and hire back 32 others of BIAP’s prewar staff -- civil, mechanical and electrical engineers, firefighters, mechanics, electricians, plumbers and garbage truck drivers -- who had operated the electric system, the water and wastewater system, sewer lines and other fundamental services.

"Every employee that she brings on board brings a wealth of information," says Grosskruger. While Layla and Ali had shown him the plans and specifications for the airport, for example, there were no as-built drawings. But the former employees "are living, breathing as-built drawings," he says.

"We complement each other because we have the resources -- the money and equipment," explains Maj. Jim Davis, the battalion executive officer. "They know the area and how corners were cut and patched over the years. We use their institutional knowledge with our money."


For example, the Engineers might have needed a week to sort out what worked and what didn’t at BIAP’s five-unit powerplant, says Davis. But in just a few hours, the electrical supervisor hired with Layla’s advice ran down the powerplant’s history, telling them what worked, what didn’t and what would need repair or replacement. He also showed them a backup powerplant of which they had known nothing.

Another Iraqi rehire showed the Engineers a stormwater pump that had been improperly installed with the wrong tolerances. "We were able to fix the tolerances instead of burning it out," says Grosskruger. "It’s increased efficiency," adds Davis.

Layla’s English rapidly improved with practice, and Ali now manages procurement of services and materials for Layla’s operation. She and her Iraqi staff not only act autonomously to get the utilities up and running, "They assist in setting priorities of work," says Grosskruger. They go into Baghdad to meet with vendors and they know how to get good prices in the unstable market. "We’re very vulnerable right now. It’s very refreshing to see someone with our best interests at heart," he says.

Layla discusses sanitation services with Karl Krause (l) of Military and Civilian Sanitation Services and Ali.

Layla says, "My goal is to give help for the Army because they helped us to finish Saddam and his group. So I help in return for their help." She expresses concern that the Air Force is paying too much for materials. "The airport now has a lot of work inside," she explains, particularly a lot of damage to runways -- a principal prewar responsibility of hers -- to be repaired before the June 15 target date for reopening the airport. "Still now I go daily to see what they’re doing on the runway."

She says the Air Force paid $180 per tonne for ready-mix concrete. "I can get it for $120," she insists. The Air Force’s willingness to pay has driven up prices in the market already, she complains. "The prices inside the Army are controlled. Because I know my people and I know material, so I limited them."

Controlling prices is a struggle at this stage because prices and exchange rates have fluctuated greatly since the war. At its start, the exchange rate was 3,000 Iraqi dinars (ID) per dollar and a kilogram of meat cost ID 3,500, says Layla. Now the rate is ID 1,000 per dollar and meat costs ID 6,000 per kg. For that reason, the $20 one-time payment offered by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) to all prewar civil servants was not as helpful as was hoped.

"I’m now trying to help my people in the camp," says Layla, referring to her Iraqi staff, who used to live in airport housing and now are housed in a separate camp. The Engineers hired them at $3 per day and has since increased some to $4 and $5 -- "good, but not good enough," she says. "It’s just enough for food, not furniture, air conditioning, refrigerator and a house." But, she notes, people cleaning the numerous palaces built by Saddam and now occupied by ORHA, U.S. AID and various other U.S. government agencies, used to work at BIAP. She’s trying to get their jobs back.

Not everyone appreciates cq Layla and Ali’s leadership in restoring the airport’s services. A few weeks ago, someone tried to knife Ali on the street, and last week, on a trip to the doctor to get treatment for their daughter, they were assaulted by four men with guns. Layla is certain it was not a random crime because one assailant said, "Please, Aunt, don’t make me kill you," using an unusually familiar term for her. Fortunately, people on the street helped drive off the assailants with stones and bricks. But sermons in both Sunni and Shi’i mosques are calling for people to kill Iraqis who work with the Army, says Ali. "They call me and my husband spies," says Layla.


Layla and Ali don’t have to leave BIAP to feel threatened. Ali says Mohammed Sahib, the new airport civilian director general, has told them, "when the Army leaves, you do too." Davis has drawn up a civilian organization for the airport that shows Layla in charge of public works as she now is. But Ali and Layla say Mohammed has revised it to exclude her and her staff. She says Mohammed and Nasser Said Alwan, the coordinator of supervisors, are Baath Party cadres who have duped ORHA to get their jobs. "Only Saddam is gone. His leaders remain," says Layla, adding, "People now are saying, ‘America likes Saddam.’ " But Davis says, "The government allows Baath Party people to come in, realizing it’s the shortest way to get the country back on its feet."

Mohammed was out of the country and not available for comment, but Nasser tells a story similar to Ali’s. A month ago, he came to the airport, told the military about his experience and was hired back. He shows a day-old letter of commendation from his military supervisor that resulted in his regaining the position he held before.

Informed that Layla has expressed fear for her job, he tells Davis, "She shouldn't be afraid. We need her. She’s a good engineer. I’ll protect her. She keeps control of her section. She is responsible." In what he clearly considers the supreme compliment, he says, "She is a man!"

House typical of airport housing used by Layla and Ali before the war displaced them.

He admits that, as a professional Iraqi woman, she faces a struggle, and he recounts how one male supervisor confronted her with an aggressive posture, attempting to put her in her place. But he also recalls how the airport management often observed her out on the runways, even outside normal working hours, checking for problems. At Davis’s suggestion, he says he would be glad to meet with her to allay her fears.

Sorting out the many crosscurrents in Iraqi politics, culture and personal relations after 30 years of Stalinist-type repression may be an even bigger challenge than any technical problems the coalition partners face in rebuilding Iraq. Nasser says he was not a Baath Party member. Ismael Mehdi Romi, another senior BIAP staff member admits he was, but in name only. He notes that, as a Shi’i Muslim from An-Nasiriya, he had none of the advantages of being a Sunni or from Tikrit or Mosul or kin to Saddam. He joined the party as cover for his career. Asked whether it would be possible to run the airport without Baath cadres, he says, "You can do it, but not at the level you would like."

(Photos by Thomas F. Armistead for ENR)

ENR Associate Editor Thomas F. Armistead is in the Mideast region with elements of Army Corps of Engineers and private contractors.