Iraq's New Environment Minister Struggles Over Dramatic Obstacles
WASHINGTON As Iraq's new environment minister, Mishkat Al Moumin has dodged a suicide bomber that killed four of her bodyguards, run an 800-employee agency on a shoestring budget, and tackled rebuilding vast marshes that some scholars believe were the biblical Garden of Eden.
That's just since June, when the 30-something former law professor and human rights advocate became head of Iraq's Ministry of Environment. She's had to work from the ground up, crafting environmental laws and assessing decades of damage in a nation ravaged by wars.
"Each of them has done its harm," Moumin said of what she calls four wars: against Iran, the first Gulf War, U.S. economic sanctions, and the U.S.-led invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Moumin contends with contaminated industrial sites, spilled refinery chemicals, uncontrolled landfills, and loss of wildlife and species.
"For example, the damage done to soil due to the bombs and due to the rockets," she said. "I hate violence ... as a lawyer and as a person. And I believe any problem, whatever it is, it can be solved through peaceful settlement."
Moumin, recently visiting the United States for her first time, projected optimism and tenacity.
"We are trying our best to improve ourselves," she summed up, smiling. Interior Secretary Gale Norton lent her office and grand sixth-floor view of Washington's downtown monuments.
After a half-hour swapping opinions, Norton called Moumin "a realist" and a brave and tireless advocate. "I am very impressed by the way in which she is tackling the challenges that she faces," Norton said.
Moumin sought support, guidance, and goodwill from Norton and officials such as Mike Leavitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, himself visiting from Kenya.
Toepfer said, "To clean up the environment is not for the sake of the environment; it is for the sake of the people."
Moumin took over an agency that sometimes lacks electricity. She has a computer but has used an Internet cafe in Baghdad to send email. In August, she escaped uninjured when a suicide bomber drove into her convoy and killed four of her bodyguards.
"Thank God I was not injured, but I felt very sorry for the four young men," she said.
A half-hour later that day, one of the education minister's bodyguards was killed when a vehicle struck a roadside bomb.
The Lebanese-born Moumin, also an adviser on women's issues, now avoids having her photograph taken in Iraq and prefers not to discuss her family, for their safety.
She said she would step aside if need be: "If they don't want me, they don't need to kill me."
Moumin is only the second to head an agency created in September 2003, with 650 employees and a US$17 million budget. The U.N. has estimated her agency actually needs $38.5 million to operate, not including money for actual projects.
Moumin is getting help from the U.N., using about $15 million from Japan to train Iraqi scientists in Jordan and Switzerland and money from countries such as Italy and Canada.
Among the chief challenges is trying to restore marshlands some scholars consider to have been the biblical Garden of Eden. Saddam turned them into an arid salt bed in his purge of Shiite Muslims. President Bush requested $100 million to resurrect the Mesopotamian marshes between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but House Republicans rejected that.
Keith Eastin, a lawyer whom the White House assigned to be Moumin's senior consultant, said it was not easy "trying to get a small ministry, unknown to Iraq, on its feet and helping clean the environment."
Moumin said she focuses on opportunity, not disappointment.
"Let me put it this way," she said. "I will be there for my people, without help or with it. So if I get the money, it is great. If I don't get it, I will think in another direction."
Source: Associated Press