LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
In Iraq, a reconciliation meeting with an international flavor is taking place today. A group of Sunni and Shiite leaders will be gathering with Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and former IRA leader, and Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African negotiator who helped end apartheid. The talks are the brainchild of a Boston professor and were funded exclusively by his former student, a furniture salesman, who has become an unlikely patron of reconciliation in Iraq. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bobby Bendetson is no Bill Gates.
Mr. ROBERT BENDETSON (President, Cabot House): Correct.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He sits in the lobby of Baghdad's Al-Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone, tired after a transatlantic flight. Getting to Baghdad, he's discovered, isn't easy.
Mr. BENDETSON: Yeah, I've been traveling for a day and a half.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Portly and puffing a cigar, he looks the part of a wealthy American businessman. He acknowledges he has money, but he's by no means a magnate.
Mr. BENDETSON: I happen to be fourth generation in the furniture business, over a hundred years in Massachusetts. It's a chain. We have a collection of 15 different stores.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He isn't famous either, and doesn't want to be. In fact, he seems very uncomfortable talking about his extraordinary role in funding a series of reconciliation meetings among Iraq's rival parties. It all began, he says, two years ago when a group of black and white South Africans came to Tufts University, where he is chairman of the external advisory board.
Mr. BENDETSON: After four days of breaking bread and seeing how people from divided societies could be civil, discuss many issues together - once being former archenemies - it made a dramatic impression.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then, a while later, a small Iraqi delegation came to the university.
Mr. BENDETSON: We had all the Iraqis to our house, to make people feel human and to get to know people. So they become part of our family.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: An idea was born. It was the brainchild of University of Massachusetts Professor Padraig O'Malley, a Dublin-born expert on the question of reconciliation, and Mac Maharaj, a veteran South African political activist who was once imprisoned with Nelson Mandela. What if they could bring together the Northern Irish, the South Africans, and the Iraqis? The Iraqis could talk to and learn from people who'd been through similar experiences.
But what about the money? That's when Bendetson decided he would bankroll the enterprise himself. The result, after the meetings in Finland, is a set of principles drafted by leading Iraqi figures. It's called the Helsinki Agreement. The 17 principles range from a renunciation of terrorism to a respect for an independent judiciary. O'Malley says it couldn't have happened without Bendetson's help.
Professor PADRAIG O'MALLEY (John Joseph Moakley Professor of International Peace and Reconciliation, University Of Massachusetts): Bobby had a vision of a possibility in Iraq. And to make that vision realizable, he was prepared to put whatever amount of money it cost to make it possible. The living embodiment of what a moral life is.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bendetson has a less grand explanation.
Mr. BENDETSON: America has been very good to my family in many ways, and you just need to give back to society. How can one turn away?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All told, Bendetson has spent at least 600,000 dollars of his own money. His wife and his three children have been supportive up to a point, but they're not happy about his trip to Baghdad.
Mr. BENDETSON: It was worse coming here than the money.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BENDETSON: If you want to know the truth.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.
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