Applying Diplomacy to Conflict

Kiki Munshi, standing in front of a
Kiki Munshi, standing in front of a "garden" consisting of dirt-filled boxes, went to Iraq out of a "moral obligation." (By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2006

BAQUBAH, Iraq -- Wearing an ethnic print jacket over a black shirt and slacks, veteran U.S. diplomat Kiki Munshi walks breezily across the gravel of the American military compound here, giving a tour of Forward Operating Base War Horse with the same finesse one would expect at a well-appointed embassy.

"This is our beloved generator," Munshi, 62, says with a graceful sweep of her arm and a deference appropriate for the hulking yellow piece of machinery that she regularly prays for.

Around the corner, Munshi stops beside some rectangular wooden boxes filled with parched dirt. "This is Armand's garden," she says with a wan smile, referring to her Iraqi bilingual-bicultural adviser. Glancing down at the lifeless display, her voice falls ever so slightly as she adds: "He hasn't gotten very far. . . ."

Munshi, the head of the State Department's 45-member provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Baqubah, had comfortably retired after a 22-year career in the Foreign Service that included tours in Asia, Africa and Europe when her conscience nudged her into coming to Iraq. So she left her husband, two horses, a dog and a cat in Vandemere, N.C., and headed for the first time into a war zone.

"I felt a sense of moral obligation to try to help rebuild Iraq," she explained last month over a meal at the base chow hall, admitting that after a few months in Baqubah, she sees the prospects as "difficult at best."

The most urgent mission of Munshi's team is to promote "conflict resolution" in Diyala province, a demographically mixed region of strong sectarian and ethnic tensions that stretches from Baghdad to the Iranian border. The team works with local leaders on listening techniques and mediation -- "how to take a positive nucleus and expand it," Munshi explained.

In midsummer, the team's hopes soared when local leaders signed an 18-point peace manifesto in the troubled town of Muqdadiyah. The leaders agreed to stop kidnappings and killings, halt attacks on Iraqi security forces (if they "behaved") and -- in an important concession -- limit the weaponry of mosques to 10 AK-47 automatic rifles each (no heavy machine guns).

"People were cheering them and throwing flowers. It was very emotional," Munshi recalled.

The peace held for 10 days. Then it was shattered by a mass kidnapping, followed by the slaughter of dozens of minibus and taxi drivers. "It was so horrific," Munshi said.

Munshi has not given up on the peace process in Muqdadiyah and other towns. Even Iraqi leaders who rely on militias "realize the violence has gotten out of hand," she said. But progress, she says, is hard to discern.

Sectarian and insurgent violence in Diyala also severely hamper Munshi's team in getting places and meeting Iraqis.

Until recently, the team's bodyguards consisted of 18 Blackwater security contractors who restricted "outings" to three times a week for a maximum of three hours each. All excursions were planned, she said. "If they hadn't checked it out, we couldn't go," Munshi said.

With so many security guards, convoys had only three seats left for team members. "They didn't want anyone to go anywhere," she said of the State Department regional security office, which hired Blackwater.

Despite the frustrations, Munshi said, being surrounded by Blackwater guards -- with such radio call signs as Elvis, Josh and Dave -- did boost her spirits.

"Here in Baqubah, the ultimate status symbol is your personal security detail," she explained with a knowing look. "So I'm weaving down the halls of the government center with these big hunks with guns -- they're very mean-looking -- and they're around me in a diamond formation, and I'm in the middle with my sandals and scarf."

The U.S. military took over security for the team over the summer because Blackwater was too expensive, Munshi said, and now the team can travel more freely. "Life is much easier," she said, "although my ego is not as well served."

When not busy with her primary job of conflict resolution, Munshi pursues other PRT initiatives, including an effort to provide Iraqi girls and women with a place to exercise in Baqubah. A building bought with U.S. funds for a women's organization had been taken over by the local telecommunications director, Munshi said.

"We were plotting . . . on how to get enough back to have a gym," she said, noting that Iraqi girls past age 10 "can't go out in shorts or pants and run around a field."

She hopes, too, to create a theater where girls can act onstage, something else that is "almost forbidden" for women in Iraq's Muslim society.

Munshi is also seeking funding for her latest idea: to provide riding therapy for Iraqi children injured in the violence.

Munshi signed up for a year on the U.S. military base, and said conditions are tolerable. She is one of the few with a shower and toilet in her trailerlike quarters, but she greatly misses her husband and pets. "There's no one to cuddle," she said. "I can't hug my team members."

Still, she perseveres. Munshi said one of her strongest impressions about Iraq is "how depressed people are."

Once she got into an argument with a young man who attributed his country's problems to Iraqis being "all bad people." Ultimately, the man joined Munshi's team. "We gave him a glimmer of hope," she said. "People are looking for some kind of evidence the future might be better."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company