An Iraqi Optimist's Tale
From horror under Saddam to uncertainty today.

Sunday, May 28, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

Nasreen Siddeek-Barwari was just 13 when she entered the Fedhelia women's prison in east Baghdad. It was October 1981, and Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Kurds would soon kick into high gear. Her father, a former Iraqi military officer, was arrested after years of harassment by the secret police; one of his sons was known to be active in the Kurdish resistance up north. She, a younger brother and her mother were placed that same day in a cell with about 40 other women and children.

"It was a mix of Arabs, communists, Christians, Islamists, mainly Kurds," she recalls. "The cell was so packed we didn't have room to sleep. We were from different places politically but we were all suffering for the same reason: We were different from the regime."

"I became old then," adds the still-young Ms. Siddeek-Barwari, who earlier this month resigned as Iraq's minister for municipalities and public works after serving nearly three years under three governments. She has survived two assassination attempts (not everyone in her retinue was so lucky) and struggled, with mixed results, to reform her hidebound ministry. As she tells her story in fluent English, one begins to understand how this woman--whose personal elegance belies a hard-bitten life--can describe herself as a "realistic optimist" about her country.

Six months into their indefinite prison term, the family was ordered into a sealed bus, driven through the night and deposited in the desert. "We were so afraid they would just dump us into an open grave," she says. Instead, they found themselves reunited with her father, albeit in a prison camp. Six months later they were released.

By the time the Gulf War came, Ms. Siddeek-Barwari was enrolled in Baghdad University, working toward a degree in architectural engineering. Though the U.S. bombardment was terrifying, it was, she says, also cause for joy: "That was the moment for regime change. Saddam was so weak. The international community was united. The Iraqi people were not so damaged." Besides, "I had faith the U.S. wouldn't target people."

Her confidence in America proved well-founded in the second matter, but not in the first. She went north as the Kurdish peshmerga launched a revolt against Saddam, and then walked three days straight to Turkey after the revolt was defeated. After two frigid months in a tent camp for refugees, she decided--courageously, given her political profile--to return to Baghdad to complete the degree. Three months later she was back in Kurdistan.

The next 12 years were spent working for regional and international agencies, with two years off to get a master's from Harvard. She organized the return of a half million refugees from Turkey and Iran and the reconstruction of 3,000 of the 4,000 villages destroyed by Saddam. It was excellent training. "We faced the same challenges in Kurdistan that Iraq faces today: a broken infrastructure, an administrative vacuum, security threats from Saddam, neighboring countries and the PKK [a Kurdish terrorist group]."

In April 2003, she watched from Irbil as Iraqis pulled down Saddam's statue in Baghdad's Firdos square. "That was a very happy moment." But the looting that followed did more than just property damage: "It showed the Americans were not in control," she says. The perception was both lasting and fatal.

Joining the Governing Council that September, Ms. Siddeek-Barwari witnessed American mistakes at first hand. She describes Paul Bremer as an outstanding details man who "knew everything about water, electricity and oil." But he was remarkably ignorant about Iraq, had zero communications skills, and was peremptory in his personal dealings. Still worse was the staff of the Coalition Provisional Authority. "The CPA did not invest in empowering Iraqi politicians, in training them," she says. "They took over everything. Culturally, that was unacceptable to Iraqis."

Overbearing Americans weren't Ms. Siddeek-Barwari's only problem. At her ministry, which she largely inherited from the old regime, the use of computers was "unheard of," employees were "lazy," and there was little institutional capacity to think, plan and act. But the main challenge, she says, "was to reorient the ministry from one that served the regime to one that served the people."

She also complains that of the $4.2 billion promised in 2003 by the U.S. for the sanitation sector, only $1.2 billion has been delivered, a third of which must go to overhead. The result: 75% of Iraq's garbage goes uncollected, and while water coverage is improving, 33% of Iraqis still don't have access to a water line. Her pleas for more funding are usually met with polite rebuffs from her U.S. counterparts: " 'Well, it's our decision,' they say."

Then there is security. "I believe in getting closer to a problem," she says of her management style. But that's hard to do when it means risking her life and the lives of her entourage. The Iraqi army is now better able to deal with the insurgency, which she also sees weakening since elections earlier this year installed a fully representative government. But ordinary crime and sectarian violence have exploded, and Baghdad today is less safe than it was a year ago.

Will the new government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki do better than its predecessor? "We have to stop thinking that one person will solve Iraq's problems," she says. The country will soon embark on a review process to settle remaining differences over the constitution approved last year. "The Sunnis need to understand that federalism is not a threat to them," adding that if the review process fails, "I cannot see where the country will go."

Yet the disappointments following Iraq's liberation have not overwhelmed Ms. Siddeek-Barwari. "We still have an opportunity," she says, observing that she has survived prison, the false dawn of the Gulf War, a refugee camp, Kurdistan's travails, Saddam's terror and the concentrated attention of the insurgency. And as she tells her tale--hardly the most shocking to emerge from Iraq in recent years--it becomes clear how she can face each day. She was born to a country of survivors. And they have already survived worse.

Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays.