A Life in Exile

By Iraqi standards, the young businessman is almost an optimist. He says the Americans were right to topple Saddam Hussein and that things are getting better in his country. He's reassured by seeing the Iraqi Army and police in the streets. He feels safer. But he's not ready to stake his fortune on the new Iraq. In fact, he's not even ready to return here from his refugee existence in Syria. That's unfortunate for Iraq, because Massad Jabbar is just the kind of person--wealthy, educated, entrepreneurial--the country needs.

The dapper, organized 33-year-old lives in Syria  with his wife and parents. Back in Baghdad recently to check out the prospects for a return, he reflected on what the last five years had meant for the country's depleted merchant class. "In the beginning, I was happy the Saddam regime was finished. He was a dictator," says Jabbar, a Shiite Muslim. "He made war with Kuwait and Iran." Jabbar recalls spending 17 days in his house in downtown Baghdad during the U.S. invasion, waiting for the shooting to stop before emerging to see the chaos that followed. Even then, he was hopeful. "I expected the looting would end," he says. But the ransacking continued for months and one of his first shocks about the new reality of Iraq was hearing that a bank was looted while American troops looked on. "It was painful," he says, noting that people's well-placed savings were suddenly gone.

But by early 2004 he was willing to gamble on peace. He formed a construction company with three partners, winning a contract from U.S. troops for improvements to a large mosque. It was a venture that proved too risky. As the work neared completion, someone dropped off a threat at Jabbar's house in a paper rolled around a bullet. It told him to stop the project, which he did. He now believes it may have been an inside job from someone involved with the contract, but at the time he felt he couldn't take any chances and that he had nowhere to go for help. "There is no state. There is nothing I could do," he says.

Meanwhile, the overall climate in Baghdad was deteriorating, especially for those with money. "We couldn't move around Baghdad because we were afraid of getting kidnapped." Indeed, a friend of the family, a man in his 60s, was yanked from the front of his car on the way to work. Thugs stuffed him in his own trunk and drove him away. The first call from the kidnappers demanded $100,000 for the man's life. After a week, in the usual fashion of these agonizing negotiations, the price dropped to $30,000, which was paid to secure his release. Badly beaten, the man fled the country three days later.

Jabbar's father took the family's first step out, going to Damascus to take a look and returning to take Jabbar's mother to join him. But Jabbar had reason to stay behind--he was engaged and wanted a local wedding. In June 2005, he was married in a small party at his house, the dangerous streets outside forcing the celebration to end early. His family and friends were there, but his parents were not. "What could I do? My feelings were mixed," he says. Within days, he and his bride arranged the drive to Damascus and made the long, dangerous trip, praying for God's protection. "Syria was beautiful. There was security. There was work, jobs. I felt like I was reborn at the time when I went to Syria," he recalls with a sigh. While working-class Iraqis languish in Syria or fight to maintain their visa status, Jabbar and his father had the capital to start buying and selling apartments.

Meanwhile, the chaos back home only increased. He heard of lost friends in Baghdad. One was killed by an IED that blew up as he was washing the windows of his storefront. Another was blown up by a car bomb while he walked to work. Jabbar can quickly tick off America's mistakes in Iraq. "They didn't protect the borders, they allowed people to loot, like the Iraq Museum," he says, recounting the conventional wisdom here. "They didn't protect the Iraqi military bases to secure the weapons."

Nonetheless, he still believes the U.S. invasion could provide new opportunities for Iraq. "It was good. I'm not just talking about myself. There are a lot of people who like the Americans," he says. And unlike many Iraqis, he is in no hurry for the U.S. troops to leave. Success, in his view, will take what amounts to decades more commitment from Washington. "We hope the Americans do here what they did in Germany and Japan," he says. "I hope they make [long-term] bases here."

As for him, he is not yet ready to move his base back to Iraq. The streets might be safer, but bombings and kidnappings continue and the public services are still miserable. "There is no power, there is no life. There are no jobs," he shrugs. And he can still make more money in Syria. "[In Iraq] you have to have relatives in the government to get contracts." A year ago, he came back for a visit and saw the city in mayhem. This time, he has seen improvement and says maybe in a year he'll return for good. In the meantime, he's gone back to Damascus.