In search of a better Iraq

A Largo doctor talks about rebuilding his homeland, despite everything that has gone wrong.

Published October 5, 2006

Iraq is in worse shape than ever, according to Dr. Said Hakki. And he should know - the Largo urologist is in his fourth year of helping to rebuild the country's health care system. An Iraqi native who fled during Saddam Hussein's era, Hakki was working at the Bay Pines VA hospital in 2003 when the Defense Department asked him to assist the Ministry of Health. He has since become president of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, similar to the Red Cross.

The St. Petersburg Times caught up with Hakki at home in Largo on Monday, a day before he returned to Baghdad, where he lives in the heavily fortified, U.S.-controlled Green Zone.

Is the situation in Iraq as bad it appears?

There are certain areas that are very stable, like the Kurdish area and some southern (provinces). But Baghdad is not safe, the Western provinces are not safe, Kirkuk is not safe, Salahuddin is not safe.

The whole country is not as it is supposed to be. We have over a quarter of a million displaced persons, and I would say maybe 10 times that number who went to Jordan or Egypt or somewhere else. The security situation is worse, not better. The reconstruction of Iraq is not going at any pace that you can call reconstruction.

Q. How about your own security?

I used to stay in my parents' house, but I felt it was safer to stay in the Green Zone so I moved there about a year and a half ago.

I travel in an armored vehicle. I have 12 bodyguards and two cars, one in front of me, one behind. We started that a year ago. First it was six (guards), then eight, then 10, now 12. We change cars, we change routes, we never go the same route twice.

Have you ever been attacked?

No. Iraqis do not see me as an American at all. They see me as 100 percent Iraqi, because of the way I look, the way I talk, which is a blessing. I can travel anywhere, and I am fairly safe. Now that I'm not with the government, so to speak, but a humanitarian organization, they look at me more favorably.

You left the Ministry of Health after just 10 months. Why?

It was the first ministry to be handed over to the Iraqis, in March 2004. It was a mistake. I said we shouldn't hand it over because they weren't ready. They began putting in people who are not qualified to work there. It went back to ground zero, it was worse than before Saddam. Four hundred million dollars worth of medicine had legs and arms and disappeared.

What is state of health care in Iraq today?

Not good, but we are helping. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society, by virtue of the Ministry of Health's weakness, became very strong. We supplied 90 tons of medicines, 300 free wheelchairs. We're going to take over all ambulance service because the Red Crescent can enter anywhere without a hostile reaction. In Anbar, we employ people only from that area so if an ambulance wants to go from Baghdad to the border with Syria, it is escorted by those in the area.

We get the majority of donations from Europe, but now Iran is wooing us. They want to spend $50-million to $100-million to build two hospitals, one in Karbala, one in Najaf. Of course, Iran is doing it for political purposes.

The United States had big plans for new clinics and hospitals, including a children's cancer center in Basra that Laura Bush promoted. All the money has been spent but the hospital is just 35 percent finished. What's going on?

There were supposed to be 3,000 clinics built; not even 30 were built. The equipment is lying in the sun. There was $50-million assigned for this children's hospital in Basra. Up to 30 percent was for security. When I spoke to (a U.S. official), I said, "I can set you up with security by local people for under 10 percent." He said, 'Well, we wouldn't have any control of it.' "

Why does Iraq remain so volatile?

Because we have remnants of Saddam's people. We have people from Iran who want to settle their scores (from the Iran-Iraq War) and woo the Shiites, and we have people from Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan and the United Arab Emirates who are wooing the Sunnis. There is a power vacuum, and everybody in the region wants a say in what goes on in Iraq.

Then you have all the criminals Saddam let go and the thousands of al-Qaida who are as hardcore as those who flew the jets into the twin towers. For some reason or other, we allowed all this to happen. Iraq has become a fighting ground for terrorists. It's not one group, it's many groups.

But would any of this have happened if the United States had stayed out of Iraq? Even President Bush has acknowledged Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11.

I do not think it was a mistake to topple Saddam. I think it was a calculated move to take out an adversary who could have been a strong ally of al-Qaida. Saddam Hussein will align with anyone - Saddam is very smart and he would not attack the United States directly. Don't ever underestimate Saddam.

But there were no weapons of mass destruction, and many experts say any threat from Saddam was contained by sanctions and no-fly zones.

Saddam Hussein himself is a weapon of mass destruction. He had scientists that could build these things. Iraq is a very rich country in oil and brains.

Critics say the Bush administration has seriously botched the postinvasion period. What do you think?

Mistakes were made, no question. Handing over the health ministry was a mistake. Dissolving the (Iraqi) army was a mistake. Abu Ghraib was a mistake, absolutely. But it is naive and myopic to think that what's happening in Iraq is a total failure. I don't see it that way, not at all. I see it as a process, like a difficult delivery. You cannot build a nation in three years. How long did we stay in Germany? In Japan? Many Iraqis share with me the idea that Americans should take over the running of the country until a new generation comes up to govern themselves.

And it has to go to Americans in a very clear message not to abandon the Mideast because the Mideast is vital for our interests. If we pull out now, terrorism will prevail.

You've already spent far more time in Iraq than most of those recruited in 2003 to go over there. How much longer will you stay?

Maybe three, four years, maybe five. I promised that I would straighten out the health system in Iraq, and I feel as an American I must do that. I might fail and be brought back in a body bag, but it is important that I set a track and help train others. There are a lot of Iraqis who can pick up quickly once the Ministry of Health understands that building a hospital should not be the goal - the goal should be building a team that will build a hospital.