If you believe the White House, Iraq’s future government is being designed in Iraq. If you believe the Iraqi people, it is being designed at the White House. Technically, neither is true: Iraq’s future government is being engineered in an anonymous research park in suburban North Carolina.
On March 4, 2003, with the invasion just fifteen days away, the United States Agency for International Development asked three US firms to bid for a unique job: After Iraq was invaded and occupied, one company would be charged with setting up 180 local and provincial town councils in the rubble. This was newly imperial territory for firms accustomed to the friendly NGO-speak of “public-private partnerships,” and two of the three decided not to apply. The “local governance” contract, worth $167.9 million in the first year and up to $466 million total, went to the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), a private nonprofit best known for its drug research. None of its employees had been to Iraq in years.
At first, RTI’s Iraq mission attracted little public attention. Next to Bechtel’s inability to turn the lights on, and Halliburton’s wild overcharging, RTI’s “civil society” workshops seemed rather benign. No more. It now turns out that the town councils RTI has been quietly setting up are the centerpiece of Washington’s plan to hand over power to appointed regional caucuses–a plan so widely rejected in Iraq it could bring the occupation to its knees.
In late January I visited RTI senior vice president Ronald Johnson at his offices near Durham (down the block from IBM, around the corner from GlaxoSmithKline). Johnson insists that his team is focused on the “nuts and bolts” and has nothing to do with the epic battles over who will rule Iraq. “There really is not a Sunni way to pick up the garbage versus a Shiite way,” he tells me. (Perhaps, but there is a public way and a private way, and according to a July Coalition Provisional Authority report, RTI is pushing the latter, establishing “new neighborhood waste collection systems” that “will be arranged through privatized curbside collection.”)
Neither are the councils RTI has been setting up uncontroversial. On January 28, the same day Johnson and I were calmly discussing the finer points of local democracy, the US-appointed regional council in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, was surrounded by gunmen and angry protesters. As many as 10,000 residents marched on the council offices demanding direct elections and the immediate resignation of all the councilors. The provincial governor called in bodyguards with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and fled the building.
Poor RTI: The appetite for democracy among Iraqis keeps racing ahead of the plodding plans for “capacity building” it drew up before the invasion. In November the Washington Post reported that when RTI arrived in the province of Taji, armed with flowcharts and ready to set up local councils, it discovered that “the Iraqi people formed their own representative councils in this region months ago, and many of those were elected, not selected, as the occupation is proposing.” The Post quoted one man telling a RTI contractor, “We feel we are going backwards.”