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In the Shadow of a Scandal

Shaha Riza has been described as impressive, articulate and a passionate advocate for women's rights.
Shaha Riza has been described as impressive, articulate and a passionate advocate for women's rights. (2003 World Bank Photo)

"I was not given a choice to stay," Riza said, according to a transcript of her statement. She pointed out the "irony of my working to ensure women's participation and rights through the work of the World Bank and to be then stripped of my own rights by this same institution."

She told the committee in her memo that she felt discriminated against by the World Bank "not only because I am a woman, but because I am a Moslem Arab woman who dares to question the status quo both in the work of the institution and within the institution itself."

Despite their different cultural and religious backgrounds -- Wolfowitz is Jewish -- the two share a formidable self-assurance. Friends also often point to the couple's intellectual common ground. Both are true believers when it comes to spreading democratic ideals in Arab lands where dictators repress free elections and free expression.

Few details about Riza's youth or family are publicly known, but acquaintances say she grew up in Libya. She attended Catholic boarding schools in England and on the island of Malta, received a bachelor's degree from the London School of Economics and a master's in social studies from St. Antony's College in Oxford. There she met Turkish Cypriot Bulent Aliriza. They married and had a son.

They moved to the United States. Today Bulent Aliriza is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of its Turkey Project. He declined to comment for this story.

In the early 1990s, Riza joined the National Endowment for Democracy and is credited there with development of the organization's Middle East program. Wolfowitz was on the endowment's board -- which is how Riza first met him, according to Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar, a friend of the couple. "Shaha was married at the time and Paul was married," Candar recalled, and it wasn't until late 1999 -- after Riza divorced and Wolfowitz had separated from his wife of 30 years, Clare Selgin Wolfowitz -- that the couple began dating.

Riza also worked at one point at the Iraq Foundation, a group that supported Iraqi exiles agitating for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Her views were said to be admired by Ahmed Chalabi, the patrician Iraqi expatriate whom then-deputy defense secretary Wolfowitz and others in the Pentagon backed to succeed Hussein while they were drawing up war plans. (In April 2003, after the U.S. invasion, Riza took a month's leave from the World Bank to work with Iraqi women in Baghdad on forming a new government. Defense Department documents show that Wolfowitz, then still at the Pentagon, played a role in sending her.)

"Shaha was a very early promoter of the idea that we should not exclude the Middle East from the process of democratic change," says Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, an international peace organization, who has known Riza for years.

Riza started at the World Bank as a consultant in July 1997 and became a full-time employee in 1999. According to her résumé, she speaks five languages, including Arabic and Turkish. When she and Wolfowitz began quietly dating, Wolfowitz was dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University but headed for the No. 2 job at the Pentagon with the incoming Bush administration.

Though Wolfowitz told friends he was divorcing, it remains unclear whether he and Clare ever did so.

Clare Wolfowitz would only say in an e-mail: "Shaha Riza is a dedicated and serious reform advocate who has my respect. I hope she will be able to continue her work in spite of everything."

In 2004, Riza organized in Beirut a major conference of North African and Middle Eastern groups pushing freedom and reform after the fall of Hussein -- attempting to capitalize on a central neo-conservative theme: that planting democracy in Iraq would ignite change in autocratic, male-dominated regimes of the region. "She was quite formidable because she almost single-handedly brought everyone together," recalls Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese law professor who also helped organize the initiative. "I would have never participated myself had it not been for my sense of her probity and professionalism, and indeed her vision."


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