The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Tech graduate helps engineer revival of Iraq
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
December 10, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- At least once, his class ring from Georgia Tech helped
Entifadh Qanbar through the layers of tight security surrounding the
American compound in Iraq's capital. When a soldier on duty noticed the ring
of this Georgia Tech alumnus, he didn't even ask Qanbar for a photo ID.

Not that he would need it anyway. As the spokesman for the Iraqi National
Congress, Qanbar is one of the more recognizable faces among Iraq's emerging
political class.

Qanbar, 45, gave up a career as an engineer in Atlanta for the crucible of
his native Iraq as it struggles to overcome war and decades of tyrannical
rule by Saddam Hussein. He has gone from bar-hopping in downtown Atlanta and
antiques shopping in the Georgia countryside to an Iraqi political scene
that keeps him watched over by a coterie of rifle-toting guards who speed
him through chaotic Baghdad streets in his Toyota Land Cruiser.

The energetic, dapper Qanbar is a good fit for a place where Iraqis and
Americans keep close, if sometimes tense quarters.

"I consider myself a bridge between Iraqi culture and American culture. The
gap is not as big as people think," said Qanbar, a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Born in Baghdad, Qanbar lived in Atlanta from 1994 to 2000, receiving a
master's degree in environmental engineering from Georgia Tech in 1999
before launching a consulting career.

He had a parallel life as a political exile, working for the Iraqi National
Congress and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi. He made headlines when he helped an
Iraqi weightlifter defect to the United States at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
He went on to head the Congress' Washington office and help form a militia
that accompanied U.S. troops into Iraq this spring.

These are triumphant days for Qanbar, having returned to Baghdad for the
first time since 1990. Chalabi is on the 25-member governing council chosen
by the United States.

Qanbar conducts a steady stream of interviews and news conferences and sits
in at council meetings when his boss travels. Iraqis come to him seeking
help with the Americans or the Iraqi National Congress' clout in removing
former Baath Party members from government posts.

A fashion maven, Qanbar dons wide pinstriped suits, pink or purple dress
shirts and satin handkerchiefs, and wears his hair slicked back. He also
keeps a silver revolver tucked in the back of his pants.

His cordiality belies a toughness. In 1987, Qanbar and his brother were
arrested by the Saddam regime on suspicions they opposed the government.  He
said they were informed on by a friend, also arrested, who told of
denunciations of the regime they had made in gatherings with friends.

Seeing 'the real America'
Qanbar spent 47 days in jail, facing repeated interrogations and beatings
and being forced to watch his brother beaten in front of him.

Released from jail, he took the first chance at newly opened borders to flee
the country in 1990. Already a successful engineer, he flew to London and,
eventually, the United States.

He spent 14 years in America, moving from Detroit to Rhode Island and then
to Atlanta to attend Georgia Tech. The South took Qanbar out of what could
have been an insular existence in Arab-American communities.

"I wanted to go see the real America," he said in an interview between calls
on his mobile phone in the bar of the hunting club the Iraqi National
Congress uses as an informal headquarters and hangout. "Getting out of the
Arab-American community gave me a chance to re-create myself."

Qanbar said he was an avid partygoer. He also found his political footing
after meeting Chalabi in 1992.

"I developed myself in the political arena in Atlanta," he said.

A major coup came during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, when mutual
friends put an Iraqi weightlifter, Raed Ahmed, in touch with Qanbar. Qanbar
used credentials for gaining access to his summer studies at the university
to sneak into the athletes' village.

The secret operation included eluding intelligence agents who kept watch
over the athlete. Qanbar slipped him a piece of paper with an inside joke
from a friend to prove his trustworthiness. Later, Ahmed was sneaked away to
an Atlanta hotel for his defection and -- showing the Iraqi National
Congress' knack for publicity -- dozens of reporters were waiting with
Qanbar to receive him.

Ferreting out 'sweet talkers'
Qanbar then put his Atlanta experience to use in Washington, heading up the
Iraqi National Congress' interaction with Congress, including former House
Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

In Baghdad, his adopted Atlanta roots still come in handy. He caught on, for
example, to the way many Americans are taken in by Western-styled,
English-speaking Iraqi "sweet talkers." They often turn out to have been
Baath Party supporters under Saddam. He's noticed how sincere Iraqis, less
aware of Western ways, sometimes alienate Americans by their characteristic
loud voices and energetic gesturing.

He finds similarities between the cultures. He said Iraqis and Americans are
open and hospitable and like to have fun and spend money. Americans love
liberty, he tells Iraqis.

Qanbar and the Iraqi National Congress face an uphill battle. Many Iraqis
are suspicious of the legislative group. Reports describe an on-again,
off-again relationship between Chalabi and his U.S. contacts, though Qanbar
said relations are good.

He lives in a rented villa where he keeps a box full of his photos from
America and the pass he used to get on the Olympic Village grounds. And with
so many U.S. soldiers and coalition employees around, the South is never far

"When I hear that Southern drawl," Qanbar said, "my heart starts to beat."

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