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Rebuilding Iraq One Step At a Time

Local soldier aids U.S. efforts to revitalize Iraq's economy, but some say real change will come from the people, not the Americans.

The struggle to rebuild Iraq following the U.S. invasion continues with an Arlington woman at the forefront of efforts on the ground. Yet, along with restoring infrastructure like sewer pipes and electrical lines, Army Capt. Lynn Snyder is also working with Iraqis to address a key obstacle to Iraq's future: its economy.

"The Iraqis want to get on with their lives," said Snyder via phone from a military installation in the Al-Rasheed district of Baghdad. "We're trying to get them back to work. Because everything was centrally controlled under Saddam Hussien and the Baathist regime there was a lot of state regulation on business. We're trying to set up more of a capitalist viewpoint with them."

Snyder has served in Iraq since December of 2004. Since then, she has survived grenade attacks, tough desert conditions and the trials that, she said, come with being an American woman in a combat zone. Unsanitary water, a lack of adequate medical care and the ongoing dangers posed by resistance fighters, she said, are constant challenges for the Iraqi people. To help make lasting changes, Snyder and her unit are engaged in efforts to revitalize the nation's economy on a local level. Working with a chamber of commerce in the Al Rasheed district, Snyder is helping to organize new businesses with aspiring entrepreneurs. The latest ventures include the creation of a new meat-packing plant and new construction firms. Yet, to Snyder, the high number of Iraqi women taking part in new business is among the most significant factors. A women's committee, she said, has formed in Al-Rasheed focusing on improved career training and broadening access to technology. One female business leader, she said, has just partnered with a U.S. construction company for a joint project in Baghdad. Others are launching smaller operations. One group approached her last week, she said, asking for assistance in starting a new Internet cafe.

The U.S.-lead effort to improve economic conditions after the war, said Snyder, is part of "winning the hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people.

YET, BACK IN Arlington, experts and local residents with close connections to the Middle East questioned the ability of the American military to bring about permanent economic stability. Many like Sumaiya Hamdani, an associate professor at George Mason University, said if real economic revitalization is to happen in Baghdad, it will come from within the Iraqi community and without U.S. support. With a literacy rate of almost 98 percent, she said the Iraqi people have a high degree of education and are more than capable of helping themselves when it comes to doing business.

In Baghdad, Snyder said the Iraqis are eager to get new economic ventures underway, but U.S. guidance is necessary because of the latent fears brought on by the memory of Hussein's leadership.

"Most of it is due to the security situation," Snyder said. "Saddam Hussein's regime was able to take things from people without explanation," said Snyder. "A lot of it is about instilling pride in ownership too."

In other parts of the Middle East, female business leaders are nothing new according to Aline Orfali, a Jordanian-born woman and part of Marymount University's department of International Student Services. She said the role of women in that sector of the world depends less on the government and more on social pressures. Orfali's sister is the treasurer and stock exchange monitor for a major bank based in both Egypt and Jordan. She is also a partner in three restaurants. The real challenges facing Iraq's future female business leaders, she said, will come from the many strict traditional groups in the local community.

"Because the Iraqi government under Hussein was not like that in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, because it was not based on religion, I don't think you'll see a lot of differences for women," she said. "There was pressure on women in Iraq before the war but it was pressure like you can find almost in anywhere in the Middle East. If you go into a Shia neighborhood there, no matter what country you're in, you feel that same pressure."

ALONG WITH HELPING to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit of Iraqis, Snyder is working with local residents in Baghdad to gather intelligence on the movements of resistance fighters and setting up much needed free health clinics. She cannot reveal when she will return to Arlington but said she is looking forward to sitting down with her friends. Her family lives in North Dakota.

No matter how the political situation in Iraq turns out, Snyder said the memory of Iraqis turning out to vote on election day will remain with her always.

"On election day, it was phenomenal to see the lines and lines of people who came out to vote," said Snyder. "They braved threats and small-arms fire. There was a large number of women. We even had situations where guys were carrying their elderly mothers to the polling sites. It was wonderful to watch."