Baghdad Diaries

One womans two-year adventure in Iraqs Green Zone

Some would have viewed the Erbil affair as a failure, perhaps evidence of the futility of Americans trying to help Iraq while dealing with a growing insurgency inspired by our occupation of their country. But not Padberg, who says the fact that the women drove so far just to attend a seminar proves that Iraqi women appreciated what she was trying to do.

"It must have been a horrible drive," she says. "But they were so excited about the seminar that they did it.

"Some 26,000 contracts have been given to Iraqis for reconstruction, and less than 1,000 of those were for women," she adds. "But we believe we were responsible for 250 of those. There were days I wondered what the hell we were doing there, but I think we gave them confidence in themselves—to go out and bid on a job, to take a management course and advance. At every seminar, women told us that our efforts were giving them the confidence to compete with men."

Illustration by Matt Bors
Illustration by Matt Bors
Padberg with 41 pounds of flak jacket
Padberg with 41 pounds of flak jacket

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More optimism: Padberg extendedherinitial six-month stay in six-month increments until March. She admits that her time in Iraq took "a heavy emotional toll," especially in the past few months. She acknowledges that the position of Iraqi women is more precarious than it had been. And four years into the war, the country is engulfed by what most observers—including the Iraqi president—believe is the beginning of an all-out civil war between Shias and Sunnis. On average, 50 people per day die from car bombs or are found handcuffed and shot in the head—the apparent work of rival militias and death squads.

The death toll includes an Iraqi woman who helped Padberg organize training seminars. A few months ago, the 42-year-old mother of three was dragged from her house, shot in the head and left dead in a parking lot—executed, Padberg says, for working with Americans. Then there's the Iraqi engineer she calls a "great guy" who was dragged from his house in November and never seen again. And the father of an Iraqi friend. A Shia who fled Iraq for California in the early 1990s, he had returned shortly after the March 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. Last September, he vanished, one of the countless kidnapping victims since the U.S. invasion. Padberg doesn't know if he was abducted by mere criminals or Sunni insurgents. There have been no ransom demands, and the man hasn't been heard from since.

Padberg is reluctant to provide details about such disappearances or even mention their names, afraid that doing so will somehow worsen the odds either man will turn up alive. And the week Padberg left Iraq, the son of another friend was kidnapped.

Despite all this, Padberg says she's upbeat about Iraq's future. She says that while every Iraqi she spoke to wants the Americans to leave, they also believe the country's security situation will get worse if that day arrives too soon.

"I still don't think the country is going to have a civil war," Padberg says. "There are days when I think it will happen, but the insurgency is being fueled by outsiders from Syria and Iran, and the Iraqis are participating to earn money to feed their families. But I think the majority of Iraqis value our efforts. There isn't an Iraqi I know who hasn't lost someone close to them. I think they are tired of sending their kids to school in the morning and not knowing if they'll come home alive."

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