Iraq: An American in Baghdad

The first time Brenda Oppermann arrived in Baghdad, she was armed with little more than a satellite phone, laptop and $10,000 in cash. It was the summer of 2003, and those were the days when a lone blond American development worker could make her way through Iraq using local drivers and no security. "It was so different," she says. "You would see young people airdropped into Baghdad, living downtown in the Palestine Hotel or something, moving and shaking and cutting business deals." A Washington-based nonprofit had hired her to do research on refugees in central and northern Iraq, and after spending five weeks on the ground touring camps of displaced people, she returned to the U.S. feeling optimistic about the country's future. "People were hopeful," she says. "They were looking for change."

Oppermann is no naïf about the impact of war and instability. Her 15 years working on development issues have taken her to the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Though she did not agree with the U.S. decision to come into Iraq, she felt that once here, Americans had an obligation to provide Iraqis with whatever tools, assistance, knowledge and skills possible to help them to improve things. "It was what it was. We were already here, and I wanted to be part of that." When she first got the call asking her to go to Baghdad, she jumped at the opportunity.

But after her second trip to Iraq in December 2003, she felt less confident about how things were going on the ground. This time, she had spent a month working for a U.S. government agency to evaluate its women's centers across the country. Though there was funding to provide buildings and equipment for the centers, little effort was put into training staff on how to use computers or write grant proposals. "Bricks and mortar do not a women's center make," warns Oppermann. And it wasn't just these centers; across the country, she was disturbed by the emphasis development projects were putting on providing things--physical structures for schools and clinics--rather than investing time in mentoring people. "You know, when you're working with Iraqis, they're not there to be your assistant all the time," she says. "For me, my goal is to work myself out of a job. I'm not there to stay."

Her next job, also for a government agency, proved even more frustrating. Stationed in Washington, where she acted as the gender-policy adviser on Iraq for 15 months, she was allowed to spend only eight days in Baghdad. None of her suggestions were implemented, despite cooperation she had from representatives on the ground. "One of the worst things you can do is to come in and offer people a concept, ideas, something that could happen in the future, if you can't see it through to the best of your ability," she says. "Not only have you allowed them to fail, but you've ruined any expectation." When she left the job, the agency did not hire anyone to replace her.

Oppermann decided she needed to get back into the field. In January 2006, she joined a nonprofit that stationed her in Baghdad's Green Zone full time. But one month after she arrived, the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sights in Shia Islam, was bombed, sparking a new wave of violence that made it difficult for her seven Iraqi staff members to visit her safely. They impressed her by showing up to training sessions anyway, but Oppermann grew frustrated that her organization--which she asked NEWSWEEK not to name--wasn't doing enough to support them. "By November, I was reaching a point where I was saying you know what? Structurally, the desire [from Iraqis] was there, but I didn't think Washington or those who were administratively designing programs really understood what was necessary." Oppermann saw this same lack of investment in training Iraqis even when she switched jobs in February 2007 to work at a private construction-management company. "It feels like we don't always walk the talk, and that's bothersome to me. The primary reason [the United States is] here is capacity development, sharing skills and knowledge," says Oppermann. "We're also role models and mentors."

In need of a break, Oppermann left her job and flew out of Baghdad just nine days ahead of the war's five-year anniversary. She is not sure that she will ever return. Over coffee by the pool behind the U.S. Embassy, once Saddam's palace, NEWSWEEK asked her a few days earlier whether she believed the war had been worth it. She had to think about it for a few moments. "For me to look at the work that I do, promoting democracy and human rights, the Iraqis with whom I've worked are basically pleased that we came in. They wanted a different system. They wanted opportunity, and they weren't going to get opportunity. In that regard, looking through that lens, yeah, it was probably good to come in." She adds that human-rights specialists she knows from throughout the Middle East have also told her how incredibly brutal Saddam's dictatorship was and that this was the way for it to go.

Will we ever be able to call this a success? "It's a whole society we're dealing with," she answers. "I don't think people grasp that. We don't have one or three or five objectives. I don't know how many we have, but my guess is probably hundreds." Then she thought about the Iraqis she had worked with in 2006, who, with her guidance, had been able to hold proposal-writing classes outside of the Green Zone without her. "Would I consider that a victory, the fact that people have found a voice and have learned how to advocate on particular issues that will improve their lives and those of their community and country? Yes, that is a success. Most definitely."