The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tech graduate helps engineer revival of Iraq By LARRY KAPLOW 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 away. "When I hear that Southern drawl," Qanbar said, "my heart starts to beat."