Just Add Water!

How can there be a connection between safe drinking water and insurgency? Is it possible?

On 24th of August of 2004, I survived a suicide bomb attack in which four of my bodyguards were killed. Mousab Al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq at that time, claimed full responsibility and called me “the leader of the infidels.” Perhaps he was overestimating my capacity, I thought. After all, I was not working on security issues at all! In fact, I thought I was as far away from dealing with security issues as would be possible for a government minister. At least, that was what I thought.
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Months before, I was working as a professor at Baghdad University School of Law, teaching human rights in international law. But in June of 2004, I was appointed the first Minister of Environment in Iraq. My first project was a benevolent one, to provide drinking water to poor communities.
I was excited, partly because many of my students came from these communities, and I felt I owed them this basic human right. It would have been hypocritical of me to preach to them that safe drinking water is a universal right, while not providing it as a government official.

So this project, in my mind, was free from controversy or risk. The people surrounding me—my friends and colleagues—agreed and reassured me. A trusted friend told me “you do not need to be concerned about your security. They will go after the big fish, like the Minister of Interior or the Minister of Defense, and it will take them a long time till they get to the Minister of Environment.” I suppose nobody close to me understood the strong connection between basic environmental needs and security. Unfortunately for me, the insurgency did!

Why did Zarqawi target me, even going as far to call me a “leader” of infidels? I wasn’t leading anybody! And I had carefully maintained a balance in my work and staff, including all social groups. My focus was poor communities, be them Shiite or Sunni, like Sadr City, Najaf, and Fallujah City. However, this man whose official title was "Emir of Al Qaeda in the Country of Two Rivers," decided to target me! He even said that he “has many arrows, and if he missed, this time, he will not miss again.”

What happened on that day changed my life.

I was driving to the Ministry of the Environment with two bodyguards in a car that resembled a taxi cab. My so-called “convoy” consisted of three cars: one small car with one bodyguard, my own taxi, and another car with four bodyguards. We had just left a compound in the Green Zone when I felt my driver swerve the car onto the sidewalk. I had no idea what was happening, but seconds later I felt a huge explosion. My car was completely damaged; the window glass was all over me! I stumbled outside the car, and someone in the distance started shooting at the remains of the car. I looked back at my bodyguards’ car and all I saw was destruction.

I started running towards the first car, which had evaded the explosion, most likely because they knew I was in the middle car. My bodyguards urged me to hurry away but then a thought popped into my head, which I couldn’t ignore: “My phone and documents!” My phone had the numbers of all my fellow Ministers, the Prime Minister, and other important contacts. My briefcase was full of important classified documents. In the wrong hands, it could have been a disaster. “We have to get my things!” I said. I ran back to the damaged car with one bodyguard and got my stuff. Oftentimes, I think I was crazy to do such a thing, to risk my life for a phone and documents, regardless of their importance.

We got the documents and the phone. I eventually made my way to the ministry, not home, because I wanted to show my employees that my life was no more important than theirs. Later on that night, I had some time to think further about why I was targeted as I couldn’t sleep one wink. I immediately realized it wasn’t the documents. Instead, I had a vague feeling that it had something to do with my campaign. My first instincts told me that Zarqawi didn’t like that I was doing something which could unite Shiite and Sunni at the community level. But again, this was a vague feeling, and I wasn’t sure of the connection.

It wasn’t until a year later after I had come to the United States to study public administration at Harvard that I made the connection between my efforts in the cities and the potential threat that they created for the insurgents. I became sure, as I am now, that Zarqawi was after me specifically because of the grass-roots campaigns I was leading to provide safe water to poor communities. I was attacking the very basis of his recruiting power: the persistence of a weak, frustrated, isolated community that was, above all, thirsty! These people could be easily recruited if they remained in this desperate frame of mind, which comes with this slum lifestyle.
I don’t want to give the impression that I was some kind of Robin Hood, bringing water to the thirsty populace. In fact, what I was doing was setting up a basic structure, which involved NGOs, city councilmen, activists, tribal leaders, and even religious leaders. It was the beginning of some form of order where before there was only scarcity and neglect. So besides attempting to meet the basic needs of the people, I was also building their capacity that would enable them to fulfill their own needs. These were my real crimes!

This incident changed my life in so many ways. I learned the hard way that security is about who we include, not who we exclude from our plans.

Security is about what we do every day, not what we refrain from doing. Security is about meeting basic needs: when you fail to meet them, you fail to provide security.


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