St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Helpers in need have own crisis

Amid allegations of force and fraud, the Red Crescent Society is torn between two factions, and a bay area man is dealing with it.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published April 12, 2004

BAGHDAD - Like its Red Cross counterparts, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society is dedicated to providing help in times of crisis.

But now the organization is in a war of its own - a nasty, sometimes violent feud between two factions vying for control of the society and its millions of dollars in assets. There have been one bombing and allegations of embezzlement, forgery and massive theft of humanitarian aid.

Smack in the middle is Dr. Said Hakki, a Largo urologist who was senior adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Health until it was transferred to Iraqi control in March. Now he is interim president of the Red Crescent Society, assigned the difficult task of sorting out the mess.

"There are goodies and baddies," Hakki says, and like so many things in postwar Iraq, it can be hard to tell which is which.

The "baddies," accused of seizing society headquarters at gunpoint, continue to carry out normal functions, including trucking tons of food and medical equipment last week to the beleaguered city of Fallujah.

Meanwhile, the "goodies" are confined to a small building a few miles away. They complain they are being denied the resources to do their jobs, including delivering messages to Iraqi prisoners held by the U.S.-led coalition.

"We feel we are paralyzed - we cannot do anything," says Sumaya Husseine, a volunteer.

The debacle started this winter. Hakki, who also serves as adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Religious Affairs, was in Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the pilgrimage all Muslims hope to make at least once in their lives.

Among other Iraqis in Mecca was Jamal Karbouli, the Red Crescent's president. Hakki and Karbouli, both doctors, became good friends, and were appalled to learn what was happening back in Iraq.

With Karbouli out of the country, a group of former and current Red Crescent officials went to the headquarters in Baghdad. They allegedly were accompanied by armed guards, in violation of the humanitarian credo against the use of weapons.

"They came out of nowhere and took advantage of the fact nobody was there," Hakki says.

The group chose a new president, Dr. Adnan Haboobi, director of the Red Crescent branch in Najaf. That meant there were two presidents for one organization.

In an attempt to resolve the dispute, both sides turned to Ibrahim Jaaferi, himself a doctor and the incoming president of the Iraqi Governing Council.

"The goodies and baddies met," Hakki relates, "and they all said, "We agree on an investigation into what happened ... and we agree to let Dr. Jaaferi appoint an interim president of the Red Crescent until elections are held at the end of September.' "

On March 20, Hakki got the nod, but the controversy remains far from settled.

Those in the takeover group deny they seized the headquarters by force. But they continue to regard Haboobi as head of the Iraqi Red Crescent, and allege that on the former president's watch, it misappropriated food and other aid donated after the war last April.

"This organization was presided (over) by a group of figures of bad reputations who stole ... funds and sold most of the humanitarian aid donated to the Iraqi people," Haboobi wrote to Red Cross societies in Spain, Italy, Denmark and South Korea.

The letter asked them to document the aid they sent after the war so the Iraqi organization could "unveil corruption cases" and "condemn the thieves and traitors who sold their consciences."

Haboobi's supporters are also proceeding on their own election schedule, and expect to choose a permanent president within the next month or so. They hint darkly that the rival faction was behind a recent bombing at headquarters.

No one was hurt, but the blast blew out windows and caused other damage near the assembly hall where the vote will be held.

"We have no proof, but you know very well that if you want to prevent an election, you have to do something to get people to stay away," says Ali Ismail, who works at headquarters.

Karbouli, the previous president, denies he had anything to do with the bombing. He also denies that he embezzled money from the society and that he served in Hussein's intelligence services, as a document from the Supreme National Committee of De-Baathification charges.

There is such a committee, aimed at keeping top officials of Hussein's Baath Party out of key posts in the new Iraq. But Karbouli says the document is a forgery to discredit him.

This being a country thick with intrigue, Karbouli makes serious allegations of his own. He claims the takeover faction includes members of a radical Shiite group with ties to Iran. They have stolen as many as 40 Red Crescent vehicles, some of which were later used in attacks against coalition forces and Iraqi civilians, he alleges.

Nonsense, say those at headquarters. Only two vehicles were stolen: one hijacked during a humanitarian mission outside Baghdad, the other taken from the parking lot.

The faction at headquarters continues to operate almost normally. It still has ties to Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in other countries, and is furnishing aid to Fallujah and other places beset by clashes with coalition troops. Employees have been paid with money from two Red Crescent-owned hospitals in Baghdad.

Those connected with the rival faction are operating out of the smaller offices of the society's Baghdad chapter. But there is little to do.

Headquarters has given them no money to continue an AIDS awareness program, volunteers say. Nor has it given them the forms to transmit messages between coalition prisoners and their families. As a result, not a single message has been delivered since January.

And salaried employees at the Baghdad chapter had not been paid for weeks until Hakki took control of the society's bank account, containing hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Since I have the money, eventually they're going to yield," he says of the faction at headquarters.

Both groups say they respect Hakki. Some wonder, though, if he can be impartial, given his friendship with the Red Crescent's former president.

Hakki says he is keeping an open mind and continuing to meet with both sides. But, he acknowledges, "it's a hell pit."

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.