Women-Run Iraqi Firms Worry About U.S. Departure Most Iraqis are anticipating the withdrawal of U.S. troops, scheduled by the end of 2011. But many Iraqi businesswomen fear it will be a setback for the gains they have made during wartime. Since 2005, women-owned firms have earned millions of dollars from Pentagon-financed projects.
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Women-Run Iraqi Firms Worry About U.S. Departure

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Women-Run Iraqi Firms Worry About U.S. Departure

Women-Run Iraqi Firms Worry About U.S. Departure

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And to Iraq now, where women make up more than half the population at 55 percent, but less than a quarter having paying jobs. Women who run and own their own businesses are even more rare. But since 2005, some women have won work on Pentagon-funded projects. That's why with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq now on a fixed timetable, Iraqi businesswomen are worried. When DOD contracts dry up, they're afraid that they will lose out.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Baghdad.

DEBORAH AMOS: These Iraqi businesswomen meet once a month to talk about success strategies and close calls. When Khalida Abid Sharhan, a 33-year-old mother of two, was supervising a contract to build a car park on a U.S. base, she got kidnapped at gunpoint before the job was done.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. KHALIDA ABID SHARHAN: I managed to finish, of course.

AMOS: You went back to Mosul, even though you had been beaten almost to death?

Ms. SHARHAN: (Through translator) I had already finished 80 percent of the project. So how can I leave it like this?

AMOS: Over the past four years, women-owned businesses in Iraq earned about a half a billion dollars. Only about 100 companies are successful at the top end. So these women are the cream of the crop. Thirty-five-year-old Nadia al-Izzi bids for the big projects to build embassies, police stations and primary schools.

Ms. NADIA AL-IZZI: It's a jungle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AL-IZZI: Seriously, it's a jungle. I mean, being a woman and giving orders to men, it's not easy.

AMOS: The only woman in her company called D-Jerusalem, for construction and design, Nadia Izzi employs more than 60 men. Her problem is with male competitors who use scare tactics to discourage her work.

Ms. AL-IZZI: Just only two weeks ago, I got like three, four messages and ask for $40,000. If I don't pay it, I will be kidnapped. I just delete it. We get used to seeing such a thing.

AMOS: Thirty-two-year-old Intisar Salman takes risks too. She bid to build a water treatment plant in a hostile town. Salman is a Shiite Muslim in a head scarf and a long black robe. The job was in a militant Sunni town. Now her biggest concern, what happens when the U.S. military pulls out of Iraq? The Department of Defense reserves about four percent of all contracts for businesses owned by Iraqi women. But the work must be done by 2011, when the U.S. withdrawal is complete.

Ms. INTISAR SALMAN: (Through translator) We would rather deal with the Americans because they treat us better. The Iraqi side believes if there's a male contractor, the results will be better.

AMOS: The Iraqi government does have a cabinet minister in charge of women's affairs. So, this delegation of businesswomen have come to make their case.

Unidentified Woman: We always hope the best.

AMOS: They want their government to adopt the Pentagon's formula: quotas for women and Iraqi government contracts. Aza Hamudi(ph) a project manager for the Defense Department program comes with them to the minister's office to present the plan.

Ms. AZA HAMUDI (Project Manager, Defense Department Program): I do have some worries, but I cross my fingers. Inshallah, who knows what will happen?

AMOS: Hamudi is passionate about the DOD program that has created a small core of successful women. But without a dedicated number of contracts from the Iraqi government, she's sure they won't be able to compete in Iraq's old boy network. The minister shares their concerns, but tells the group that despite her cabinet post, she has no budget and little clout over government policies. They leave the meeting disappointed, says Hamudi.

Ms. HAMUDI: I know - I can understand their worries because they have been working for the past five years with the Americans. Their money has been secured. The way they were treated was excellent in terms of my program.

(Soundbite of construction)

AMOS: Still, there is plenty of other work to be done. Nadia Izzi won a contract to build an embassy for the government of Jordan. She's supervising her construction crew on a scorching afternoon, reminding them to wear their safety helmets despite the heat.

(Soundbite of construction)

AMOS: She got the job because she meets the deadlines, says Khalid Hamid, a Jordanian official on site and because so many other Iraqi companies are corrupt.

Mr. KHALID HAMID: In Iraq, especially in Iraq, they were not honest to me.

AMOS: So you're saying the men are more corrupt - that the women aren't corrupt?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMID: It's this company, Nadia and her team, all of them (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

Mr. HAMID: Us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMID: Not only the woman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: The mood is light, but even the men in her team know it will be hard for women-owned companies to survive. Iraq is already slipping back into old patterns, as American influence wanes.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.

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