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Iraq War presented opportunity and danger for Largo doctor

AMMAN, Jordan — Before he left his Largo home that day, Said Hakki gave his wife a sealed envelope. She put it on top of the bookcase, next to his Florida medical license. "To be opened if captured or kidnapped," read the tidy handwriting. "Said Ismail Hakky, December 22, 2004."

Hakki, a urologist on leave from the Bay Pines VA Medical Center, had already spent 18 months in his native Iraq helping rebuild the country's ravaged health care system. After a brief visit home to Florida, he was returning to a far more dangerous assignment: heading the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization.

Like the Red Cross, the Red Crescent aids victims of disaster — in Iraq's case, the insurgency that has killed at least 110,000 Iraqis and forced millions from their homes. As he traveled the country in an armored SUV, directing food deliveries here, distributing tents and medical supplies there, Hakki himself was shot at and nearly blown up.

But as the violence increased, so did the stature of both the Red Crescent and Hakki, its president. By last year, the organization had ballooned into a $100-million-a-year operation with more than 100,000 workers in all 18 provinces. Iraqi politicians couldn't help but notice how big and rich the Red Crescent had grown or how warmly Hakki was praised by Gen. David Petraeus and other U.S. military leaders.

Hakki had become a big man in Iraq. Then came the phone call in July.

While in Jordan en route to Washington, D.C., Hakki was stunned to learned he was being fired, accused in an arrest warrant of theft and mismanagement. Among the allegations: that he used $1 million in Red Crescent funds to hire two U.S. lobbying firms instead of spending the money to help Iraqis.

The criminal charges have been dropped, but an Iraqi judge is still investigating whether his firing was legal. Hakki in turn has sued some of his accusers, claiming the charges are false and part of an attempt by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to purge him and other allies of a political rival.

"I was a good boy," Hakki says, "until someone wanted to take over the Red Crescent."

Unwilling to return to Florida until he clears his name, wanting to keep close to his Iraqi lawyer but afraid to stay in one place too long, Hakki now roams the Mideast — Beirut, Dubai, Irbil and Amman, where he met in February with the St. Petersburg Times at a luxury Hyatt hotel.

He was a rich man before heading the Red Crescent — he made millions from his patented medical devices, including a penile implant — and he can afford to fight on in a case that shows the extent to which Iraq, for all its progress, remains rife with violence, corruption and intrigue.

"In September, I went to Baghdad for about two days. Members of Parliament came to my home at night and said, 'You better pack up and get out of Iraq.' They said, 'This is politically motivated and you are in the way.' "

A doctor returns

Tall and lean at 65, Said Hakki has a big personality and a hearty laugh, accentuated by very large white teeth. At times, they give him a slightly predatory air.

But in the early '80s, while serving as one of Saddam Hussein's senior medical advisers, it was Hakki who feared becoming the prey. When his friend, the minister of health, ran afoul of the regime and was killed, Hakki decided to move on.

"It was July 29, 1983. I looked out of the plane while we were taxiing, took a deep sigh and said I'd never see Iraq again. No way."

Hakki and his family settled in the Tampa Bay area, where he became a naturalized citizen and joined the Bay Pines urology department. In 2003, 20 years after leaving Iraq, he got the call that would take him back.

It was from the Pentagon, saying other Iraqi exiles had recommended him as a man who could help build a democratic Iraq once Hussein was gone.

"How long would I be there?" Hakki asked.

"Six months," the caller said.

"You can't build a nation in six months," Hakki replied. "Try to find someone else."

But the Pentagon persisted, and in April 2003 — shortly after Baghdad fell — Hakki found himself in a hot, tiny room at night with swarms of mosquitoes and eight other Iraqi-Americans, all pressed into service as the foundation of a new Iraqi government.

By day, Hakki served as senior adviser to the Ministry of Health. He happily reconnected with doctors he had known long ago and made big plans to restore a medical system that was one of the Mideast's finest before wars and sanctions took their toll.

But less than a year later, to Hakki's dismay, the U.S.-led coalition gave Iraqis full control of the health ministry.

"That was a mistake, and I made it very clear. I said, 'You're handing it over to people who don't know how to manage it.' In Germany we handed it over after 10 years."

Questionable spending

Hakki was preparing to go home in 2004 when Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim al-Jafari asked him to temporarily run the Red Crescent, then in a war of its own. While the organization's president was on a pilgrimage to Mecca, a rival faction had seized the Baghdad headquarters at gunpoint, touching off a nasty feud marked by a bombing and accusations of theft and embezzlement.

Hakki calmed things down enough to be elected Red Crescent president in 2005. From an annual budget of less than $1 million, the organization grew rapidly, plumped by $60 million a year from the Iraqi government — whose new prime minister was Hakki's friend, al-Jafari — and contributions from other countries. The fundraising pitches were tailored to the type of Islam practiced in each country.

"When we went to Saudi Arabia, the major part of the team was Sunni," says Hakki, himself a Shiite Muslim. "When someone went to Iran, it was Shiite. We got lots of support from all over the region — Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey."

Some of Hakki's decisions, though, raised eyebrows.

He thought about hiring an international accounting firm to audit the Red Crescent, but balked at the $1 million a year fee. Yet he spent $1 million on lobbyists, with little tangible result except $15,000 worth of wheelchairs. And at a time when so many Iraqis were suffering, the Red Crescent gave $1 million to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"I have no regret on that," Hakki says. "The blood of Americans and Iraqis is mixed in Iraqi soil. I wanted to show that we care for American people when in need."

Hakki, though, acknowledges that the Red Crescent was not "the purest of the pure.''

Competitive bid requirements were sometimes ignored in the interest of getting emergency supplies quickly. Theft by low-level employees was relatively common. In 2007, Hakki and other board members fired Kareem Hamidi, president of a Red Crescent branch, for nepotism and financial misconduct, including payments to people that didn't exist.

It was a firing that would come back to haunt Hakki.

Success under fire

As violence hit a gruesome crescendo in 2006 and 2007, the Red Crescent was the only humanitarian organization that continued to work in all parts of Iraq.

When the International Red Cross pulled out, the Red Crescent took over the job of delivering messages between prisoners and their families. When the World Food Program donated 60 tons of wheat, oil and flour, Red Crescent workers were the ones who hauled it into Baghdad's notoriously poor and dangerous Sadr City, using donkeys and push carts so they'd draw less attention.

"No one else would dare to go in," Hakki says. "We did and I was shot at."

Hakki was also one of the few officials to raise alarms over the huge number of Iraqis fleeing their homes because of bombings, shootings and beheadings. "It's one of the world's greatest humanitarian crises," he said repeatedly, to little avail.

Hakki had poor relations with the U.S. State Department, which he claims spurned his request for money to help displaced Iraqis and refused to let the Red Crescent operate U.S-funded clinics. Instead, "they handed over 20 clinics to the Ministry of Health in 2007, and seven were destroyed in two or three weeks," he says. The rest closed. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

But Hakki had a good rapport with the U.S. military. In 2004 and 2005, he often met with Col. Douglas N. Barlow, then-commander of the American-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad.

"My take on him was that he genuinely wanted to help Iraq's medical system recover,'' says Barlow, now head of the engineering department at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. "I always found him to be very straightforward and honest in his dealings."

There was praise, too, from Gen. Petraeus, commander of all coalition forces in Iraq. "To Doctor Said'' he wrote on a photo of their 2007 meeting, "with great respect for your service to Iraq and the shabil Iraqi!"

And last year, a U.S. Civil Affairs Brigade honored Hakki for the "great care" he showed injured Iraqi children, many of whom he arranged to have flown overseas for treatment.

The certificate was dated May 18, 2008. In less than two months, Hakki would be out of a job.

Charges hit home

In its most recent report, Transparency International ranks Iraq as the world's second most corrupt country, surpassed only by Somalia. An Iraqi official told Congress last year that more than $13 billion in aid had been wasted or stolen.

Corruption is so rampant that there was little surprise or publicity when on July 21, 2008, an Iraqi judge issued arrest warrants accusing Hakki and his top deputies of improper expenditures on lobbying, armored cars and emergency aid packages.

One of Hakki's accusers was Kareem Hamidi — the same Red Crescent official fired a year earlier for financial shenanigans. After Hakki's departure, Hamidi was elected the Red Crescent's interim president.

In Iraq's judicial system, warrants can be issued on the sworn statements of just two people. Those familiar with Iraqi politics say it's not unusual for allegations to fly.

"Iraqis are really great at calling each other names," says Vance Jochim, who helped set up the country's anticorruption agency. "I was at one meeting where they were accusing each other of things right there in the meeting. Then they go have tea together. It's a different culture."

Hakki has vehemently denied the charges, saying that if he stole $50 million from the Red Crescent, a figure once reported, "INTERPOL would be looking for me." He thinks the government of Nouri al-Maliki — who replaced Hakki's friend al-Jafari as prime minister — simply wanted to take over a rich organization with thousands of workers nationwide.

"That's the way you play the game in these countries, just a kind of constant jockeying for power and control," says David Keene, an associate of the Carmen Group lobbying firm and onetime adviser to the Red Crescent.

"Because of what it does,'' Keene adds, "everybody wanted the Red Crescent. To try and keep an operation like that from being attacked from all sides is probably impossible, and Hakki was always frustrated.''

Keene, also chairman of the American Conservative Union, says he was surprised Hakki took the job in the first place.

"This guy had made a lot of money, and if I were him, I would have stayed in Florida."

Longing for reunion

With her translucent skin, pale eyes and light hair, Barbara Hakki looks as delicate as an English rose. She and Hakki met in London when both were students.

They have not seen each other in months. But she remains fiercely devoted to him.

"He's a man of honor, and when he comes home, I want him to be satisfied in his mind that his name and reputation have been cleared. I don't think they appreciate what he's actually done there. I know he helped a lot of people. He gave a lot of people hope."

The Hakkis have six children, all of whom went to St. Petersburg's exclusive Shorecrest Preparatory School and on to college. The only one their father has seen recently is 30-year-old Haider. He goes to medical school in Beirut, where Hakki occasionally stays with friends as he continues his odyssey through the Mideast.

The Iraqi judge investigating the Red Crescent controversy was supposed to issue an opinion on Hakki's firing last week but postponed it to May 10. Also pending are Hakki's defamation suits against some of his accusers.

Ever restless, he would like to return to the Red Crescent so he can push ahead with projects dear to his heart. A joint doctor-training program with U.S. medical schools. A neighborhood reconstruction program. But he doesn't want to turn his back on the country that embraced his family after they fled Iraq.

"If I win a judgment, I'll spend every penny of it on poor and needy people in America, especially families of those who lost loved ones in Iraq. I'll never repay those people I've seen on a slab."

And though she worries constantly about her husband's safety, Barbara Hakki tries not to think about the letter on the bookcase. She hopes to replace it with a family photo — it has been years since they all were together.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Iraq War presented opportunity and danger for Largo doctor 04/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2009 9:20pm]
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