Selling Iraq No Easy Task Amid the Calm of Finland

One young man in Helsinki, Finland, is trying to convince the world that his native city is safe and a good place to invest. The city he represents is Najaf, in Iraq. It's not an easy sell.

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A young man in Finland is dreaming of becoming a political leader in Iraq. His father is a former refugee who is now a Finnish citizen, and his father is also governor of the Shiite holy city of Najaf. The son stayed behind in Helsinki, but wants to convince the world his native city is safe and a good place to invest.

NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS: During a lecture on the ethics of closing a car factory at a business school in Helsinki, Hussein Al-Taee speaks up more than anyone else in class.

Mr. HUSSEIN AL-TAEE (Helsinki, Finland): About the customers - we're thinking that they're not getting the cars they might like because of the closure of the plant. So maybe it's too - what do you think?

HARRIS: Later in the school's airy central atrium, he tells how his family fled Iraq after Saddam Hussein cracked down on the Shia uprising following the first Gulf War. They spent three years camped with other refugees in the desert of Saudi Arabia before getting asylum in Finland.

Hussein went back to Najaf for the first time last summer. Now he dreams big about his hometown becoming like Dubai, the Persian Gulf's financial powerhouse. And he makes sweeping claims about interesting Finnish businesses to take part.

Mr. AL-TAEE: And now my next visit that is going to happen soon, I'm going to take, I would say, 20 companies - huge Finnish companies - to go and make a business center, to make a base in Najaf. Being like Dubai is one objective, but we want to be more than Dubai, this is what we're thinking.

(Soundbite of door opening)

HARRIS: For now, Hussein lives with two brothers and one sister in a neat apartment in Helsinki's northern suburbs. His father - Najaf's governor - his mother and two younger sisters live in Iraq. Hussein, the eldest, is in charge here.

Mr. AL-TAEE: I do this because I'm a perfectionist. It should be no light in the...

HARRIS: He inches the curtain back into place, a habit he picked up from a Finnish girlfriend.

Mr. AL-TAEE: She was taught from the beginning to be very, very neat and organized. And I lived with her for one year, so she taught me to be neat and organized.

HARRIS: Hussein says when he went back to Iraq last summer, he cried when he saw a sign showing Najaf less than 200 miles away. But a lot surprised him.

Mr. AL-TAEE: I couldn't understand why people threw trash. I was saying, I'm not a born Finn, but I would never trash Finland. They say because the garbage man has nothing to do if we start to put them in the garbage cans.

HARRIS: Garbage was a little thing.

Mr. AL-TAEE: The big things were, of course, the whole - I'd never seen an army base around a governor's building, or that many guns and arms and military personnel and helicopters.

HARRIS: In his quest to show Najaf as a safe place, Hussein hosted a veteran Finnish TV journalist on a two-week visit in January. Rauli Virtanen says he hadn't been to Iraq since this most recent war because of the danger. But he felt that being a guest of the Najaf governor would be safe. Outside a shrine in neighboring Karbala, he says, a crowd saw him, shouted American, and started beating up him and Hussein.

Mr. RAULI VIRTANEN (TV Journalist, Finland): So it was a nasty incident. But it was an incident, and it was an exception. Otherwise, everything went more or less peacefully, although I was all the time, and Hussein, protected by the bodyguards of the governor.

HARRIS: His reports on Finnish television showed a wide range of life in Iraq. Hussein points to these reports when he tries to interest Finnish companies in Najaf. It's not an easy sell, anyway. Finland was shocked when two businessmen were killed in Baghdad in 2003. The government's export agency still advises businesses to stay out of Iraq.

But business in Najaf is flourishing, according to NPR's Iraqi reporter there. A new, $300 million airport is expected to increase tourism and investment. That's the first step to bigger changes, says Hussein.

Mr. AL-TAEE: My father is not aiming on changing the minds of the people that live in Najaf right now. He's aiming on changing the grandsons of these who live here. And he's always said that the next governor is going to make my plans work, maybe, or the one that is next to him.

HARRIS: Ask Hussein if he might be that next governor and he laughs and thinks bigger, echoing the aim of many Shia in Iraq. We don't know what's in the future, he says. There might be a job as leader of the whole south of Iraq.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Helsinki.

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