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Iraq's Mother Courage turns great loss into profit

BAGHDAD — With a friendly wave at two security guards, Najat Saleem steers her 2010 Toyota Land Cruiser down a rutted street that dead-ends in a 15-foot concrete wall and coils of barbed wire.

The vacant house Saleem enters doesn't look much better. The kitchen has been trashed, reddish dirt cakes the floor and the garden is an unkempt mess.

Saleem loves the place.

"In this area the price will go up,'' she says. "Did you see, the government is paving the street and putting in curbstones?''

Less than two months ago, Saleem paid $600,000 cash for what she generously calls a "villa.'' She's had one offer for $740,000 and is holding out for $800,000.

But she's not happy with her real estate broker.

"He says this price too much. I kick his a--.''

In every war, there are those who suffer great tragedy. By the time U.S. combat troops pulled out of Iraq in August after nearly eight years of fighting, 4,425 Americans and as many as 100,000 Iraqis had died.

And in every war, there are survivors shrewd enough and daring enough to grab the opportunities that come their way. Najat Saleem is one of them.

A tall, striking woman who lost her husband in the early days of the war, Saleem was left with four young daughters and no obvious way to support them. Then she became a contractor for the money machine that was the U.S. military, subject to gossip, threats, shootings and a rocket attack that nearly killed her.

Today, she is a rich woman. She owns two apartments in Jordan, where her girls are in private school, and several properties in a relatively safe but still unstable Baghdad.

Were Gone With the Wind remade in Iraq, the 47-year-old Saleem could be Scarlett O'Hara, a belle-turned-businesswoman, triumphing amid the horrors of war and tumult of reconstruction.

"I fight for everything in this world,'' she says, "and I want to build a future for my daughters.''

Loss and profit

The St. Petersburg Times first came across Saleem in April 2003 as she sat outside the Green Zone, the area along the Tigris River where Americans turned one of Hussein's lavish palaces into their headquarters.

Clad in a black abaya, cradling a baby, Saleem was awaiting permission to enter the Green Zone and look for her husband. An employee of Iraq's foreign ministry, he had left for work the day the Americans began bombing.

He was never seen again.

Saleem also lost her home to squatters. But the U.S. Army officer in charge of Iraqis in the Green Zone, Capt. Richard Graves, took pity on her and moved the family into a vacant house.

In late 2003, Saleem went to work as a $10-a-day secretary for the Washington Group, a U.S. company that had landed a huge reconstruction contract. With her organizational skills and passable English, honed by years as an Iraqi Airways flight attendant, Saleem quickly moved up. She got a company car and high-level security clearance.

She resigned less than two years later, having recognized war-time reality: She could make far more money being a contractor than working for one. So she started her own company — Al-Jasmine, after the hardy but fragrant flower — and printed up business cards.

"Everyday I give cards to everybody in the Green Zone. I meet a guy at a checkpoint and he said, 'My captain is looking for office supplies.' They give me a list of what they needed,'' including printer cartridges.

Each U.S. military unit had a kitty to spend on supplies, but soldiers weren't allowed to go into local markets to shop. Saleem found HP printer cartridges for $22 each and sold them to the Americans for $35. The price was far below that of other contractors, some of whom wanted $70 per cartridge.

"So I get interest from other units,'' she says. "I started with $5,000 (profit). After three or five months, make it $50,000. In the second year, $350,000.''

Death all around

As Saleem's bank account grew, so did the risks. By 2006, when the insurgency threatened to erupt into civil war, burned, beheaded and bullet-riddled bodies were turning up daily.

Saleem, a Shiite Muslim, went into places no other contractors dared.

She was hired to clean up Adhamiya, a Sunni area in southwest Baghdad where insurgents were hiding bombs in mountains of trash. Two of her employees were killed there. In Dura, an al-Qaida stronghold once called the "most dangerous place in Iraq,'' three employees were dragged from their houses and murdered.

"In Dura, a lot of time they shoot at me — car come quick and shoot and we run away.''

One summer day in 2006, Saleem was driving near her home in the Green Zone when two rockets struck within feet of her truck.

Behind her, she could see blood dripping down the windshield of a taxi: The two men inside were dead. The pressure of the second blast destroyed the hearing in her left ear for a week. Had the truck windows been closed, flying glass could have killed her and one of her Iraqi employees.

He announced his immediate retirement. Saleem was so grateful they had escaped serious injury that, in the Iraqi custom, she had a sheep slaughtered and gave the meat to poor people.

Was she ever afraid?

"Of course, but I decide to work this way. If God want to take my spirit, what can I do?''

Less deadly, but more insidious, were the rumors. That Saleem's husband was still alive and working for U.S. special operations. That Saleem was getting contracts because she had sold one of her daughters to the Americans.

And always the threats, in phone calls and text messages.

" 'We'll cut you, we'll kill you. You are bitch of America.' I never pay attention.''

Service rewarded

By 2007, Iraq was so dangerous that Saleem applied for a Jordanian residency visa. She rented an apartment in Amman and moved the girls there, under the care of a nanny.

But she continued to work, one of only a few female Iraqi contractors. She got contracts to supply forklifts and gravel. To install lighting at checkpoints. To pick up trash and trim trees in the Green Zone. To build and maintain forward operating bases, or FOBs.

"The FOBs need service, they need people to clean the bathrooms,'' she says. "I become famous from this business.''

Not all jobs turned out well.

The military paid Saleem $750,000 for the first phase of a project to refurbish Baghdad's Jadriya Lake Park. She built a boat dock and guard house and hired dozens of workers to paint Disney characters on the walls.

In August 2008, more than 2,000 people turned out for the park's reopening, hailed as a milestone in Iraq's return to normalcy. But today the lake is dry and the park is almost deserted. The problem: The Iraqi government hasn't maintained the pumps that move water from the Tigris River.

"What is a lake without water?'' Saleem asks. "This was a project for Iraqi children. Now look at it."

Her work for the military earned her several medals, including one from Gen. David Petraeus. She had no trouble getting references for her application to move to the United States under a special immigration program for Iraqis who risked their lives working for the Americans.

"Najat provided American forces with reliable equipment and trustworthy host-nation workers for my projects,'' wrote Army Capt. Marc Minor, who served on a military transition team in Baghdad.

"As a result, missions involving American soldiers were more successful and progress to make neighborhoods in Iraq more secure was achieved."

Lonely at the top

Even before American combat troops left Iraq this summer, Saleem knew her days as a contractor were nearing an end. So she began investing in real estate.

She bought two apartments in an upscale area of Amman, which has boomed during the war as a safe haven for companies doing business in Iraq. When at home in Jordan, she often picks up the girls at school and treats them to Burger King.

Every month or so, Saleem flies to Baghdad to check on her holdings here. Although she stays in a trailer in the fortified International Zone, as the Green Zone is now called, the rest of her property is in other parts of the city.

"Normal persons don't like to live inside (the zone)," she says. "Too much security, too many rules. They like to feel free.''

Her recent acquisitions include a villa that once housed the Turkish Embassy and a half-finished commercial building that she bought for $1.5 million because it is across the river from the massive U.S. Embassy.

"This will become a very important street,'' Saleem predicts. She gives police cash and chicken dinners to watch the building, which she estimates is already worth $2.5 million.

Prices are astounding, given that much of Baghdad still feels like a city under siege. But as with real estate everywhere, the key is location.

The next stop is the $600,000 villa on a dead-end street that looks awful but "is in a safe area,'' Saleem says. And in an example of how money talks in Iraq, she made it even safer by paying the police $5,000 to move their checkpoint so the house is now blocked off from a nearby highway and potential car bombers.

Gregarious, Saleem banters easily with police and security guards, who often let her pass with the wave of a hand. She is well-known around Baghdad, where it is unusual to see a woman with hair uncovered (she wears hers in a long, glossy ponytail), or at the wheel of a $65,000 SUV.

Saleem considers a nice vehicle essential for anyone in real estate: "If I come in a cheap car, they won't respect me.'' Though kidnappings remain a risk, especially for someone so rich, she doesn't travel with security except for an employee who sometimes follows on a motorcycle.

That is in contrast to the traffic-snarling convoys that escort Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other government officials.

"Every VIP in Iraq has a lot of security,'' Saleem says as yet another convoy screams past. "Now we have 1,000 Saddam Husseins.''

Like many Iraqis, she has little faith in the country's leaders, who have deadlocked for months on forming a new government. Nor does she think much of Iraqi men, who, she complains, have little respect for women, especially those who show a streak of independence.

"I buy one hotel for $1.2 million and sold it after two months for $1.5 million. The guy who buy it called at 11 at night to organize payment. This not acceptable. He think that if he be nice with me at night, I be nice with him. If he like me, wait until we finish dealing and I get my money.''

All of Saleem's success and wealth cannot hide the loneliness. She doesn't want to remarry, for fear a husband would restrict her freedom or hurt her girls. She is estranged from most of her family: A sister that she let stay rent-free for months in one of her villas refused to move out unless Saleem paid her $200,000.

"Always they want money and more,'' she says. "They are empty. They waste my time.''

And now, a great sadness. Saleem, whose only son was run over and killed by a car years ago, has learned that her 12-year-old daughter, Misk, has cancer.

On this trip to Baghdad, Saleem is almost constantly on the phone. With Misk, who doesn't know how sick she is. With hospitals in America and Germany.

And she wants to tell the news to Graves, the American officer who eight years ago rescued her family. He is now a major, stationed in Germany. She cherishes something he once told her:

"He say, 'I will engage your daughter to my son.' "

As she remembers, her eyes fill with tears.

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

Iraq's Mother Courage turns great loss into profit 10/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 30, 2010 11:04pm]

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