Czechs in Iraq


Over the weekend, the first reinforcements left the Czech Republic to replace their colleagues from the 311-strong contingent serving in the Iraqi city of Basra. On a rotating principle, the personnel of the Czech military field hospital in the city will also be gradually replaced during the coming month. The Czech Republic recently opened a diplomatic office, headed by a charge d'affaires, in Baghdad, but the country also sent a team of experts to Iraq two months ago to participate in the reconstruction of the country as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US-led body administering Iraq since the regime of Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Photo: CTK
"It's thirteen people in Baghdad and two people in Basra and within two weeks we are going to have tree of four more."

Janina Hrebickova is the coordinator for the Czech Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid in Iraq. A former journalist and United Nations media specialist, she had worked in areas of conflict before being appointed to Iraq. Security is a very important issue for foreign diplomats working in Iraq, especially after the August bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Twelve military police have been guarding the fifteen-member Czech team of experts in Iraq. Currently, they are being replaced by members of a rapid deployment unit of Czech police, an elite troop trained for anti-terrorist operations, as Janina Hrebickova told me during her brief visit to Prague.

"The Ministry of the Interior now takes over from the Ministry of Defence. People who were taking care of the security until now, within the past eight weeks, were really professional soldiers. They were doing a very good job and I felt very safe when I was with them. Now we are going to have new colleagues and new experts on security issues. They are going to be from the Ministry of the Interior and I hope and expect that with our destinies and our lives in their hands we are going to be safe."

The Czech team working in Baghdad and Basra will also be given an armoured vehicle in order to be able to move around the country more safely.

The Czech military field hospital started working in Basra in April this year. Parliament gave the hospital a mandate until the end of this year but Defence Minister Miroslav Kostelka has said he will suggest a two-month prolongation. The coordinator of the Czech team participating in the rebuilding of Iraq, Janina Hrebickova, says she would be very sorry to see the hospital go.

"I'm in touch with the field hospital very often. Either I visit them or we meet on different occasions. I speak to the head of the hospital or I speak to Iraqi people who went to the hospital for treatment. The hospital has a very high reputation and is highly valued and it is impossible to imagine - not only for myself but in the eyes of the Iraqis and all coalition colleagues - that the hospital will be gone."

During her stay in the Czech Republic, Janina Hrebickova met with the United States Ambassador to Prague, Craig Stapleton, who praised the work of the Czech mission in post-war Iraq.

"I think the Czech Republic has made a significant contribution in terms of organising the post-war effort there, as I understand thirteen experts are working in Baghdad and several other experts are working in Basra, in important areas of the economy. We understand this is going to be a difficult process. The United States is committed to making it work and certainly appreciates the help that the ambassador and her group is providing. We hope that overtime the Czech contribution to Iraq will be institutionalised in terms of advisors and we also hope that as the red-development process unfolds that there will be Czech companies that will be able to participate in the re-development of Iraq. So I think the cooperation between the United States and the Czechs and other coalition partners is off to a good start."

Craig Stapleton and Janina Hrebickova, photo: CTK
Before 1990 Czechoslovakia had strong commercial ties with Iraq, with Czech and Slovak experts working mainly in the oil industry. The Czechs could now take advantage of that tradition during the reconstruction of Iraq, as the US Ambassador to Prague Craig Stapleton points out.

"I think there is a lot of potential for Czech experts and Czech firms to work with Iraqi firms and form joint-ventures and joint-efforts to deal with the specific problems. The Czechs have a history in Iraq, there are many good Arabic speakers among the Czech experts who are there. So the experience that Czechs have had historically in Iraq should be put to the advantage of the coalition."

Thanks to those long-standing commercial ties and also student exchanges between Czechoslovakia and Iraq in the past, it could be assumed that the Iraqis still have some knowledge about this country. Janina Hrebickova agrees.

"Yes, I would say so. I haven't spoken that much to many of them on the knowledge of the Czech Republic but what I do know is that they like Czechs, they think that Czechs are communicative enough and they can listen. And that is a feature that they don't find in the Americans or other coalition partners. At least, this what they told me. And also they have good experience with making business in previous years and during the socialist regimes. As we know all the socialist leaders where exchanging all kinds of people. But there is always something good coming out of something bad - that means that even though the socialist leaders were doing senseless things, when they were exchanging university students, for example, they did a very good thing because they were creating some kind of cultural exchange even without knowing it."

Ms Hrebickova recently complained about Czech businessmen taking their time in setting up businesses in Iraq. She explained that the mission of her team was not to sign contracts but rather provide expertise, organise logistics and make contacts with both the Iraqis and the US-led coalition. Ms Hrebickova says her delegation has achieved a lot in promoting the Czech Republic on all fronts.

"I managed to place these people in the positions that are crucial for the democratisation process. I managed to explain to the coalition partners, especially to Americans why to take Czech experts and myself and why to talk to me and not to another twenty-five candidates from other countries. We placed them in the crucial positions in the crucial locations, like water, oil, energy, higher education, human rights and transitional justice, now we are talking very deeply about putting people in the privatisation pillar which is going to play an immensely important role. So I think we managed to sort of occupy, in a good sense, all the good locations, organisations and institutions in which our people are going to be only more and more known once the Iraqi government is in place and once we stop dealing that much with the coalition partners, meaning the Brits, Americans, Australians etc., and we start dealing much more with the Iraqis themselves."

Before Janina Hrebickova first left for Baghdad eight weeks ago, in an interview she gave to Radio Prague, she said she was not sure what working in Iraq while being a woman, would entail. After two months in her office, has she had to face any difficulties in that respect?

"I don't know, I think that the whole society is educated enough and quite open, compared to countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia, for example. And it's not such a big deal to see a woman working there. Of course, you have to follow certain rules, you can't go out in short or without sleeves to meetings. It is not even appropriate when you walk down the street. However, in general I think they are used to women working and doing certain functions."