It was after nightfall when they finally found their offices at Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace -- 11 jet-lagged, sweaty, idealistic volunteers who had come to help Iraq along the road to democracy.

When the U.S. government went looking for people to help rebuild Iraq, they had responded to the call. They supported the war effort and President Bush. Many had strong Republican credentials. They were in their twenties or early thirties and had no foreign service experience. On that first day, Oct. 1, they knew so little about how things worked that they waited hours at the airport for a ride that was never coming. They finally discovered the shuttle bus out of the airport but got off at the wrong stop.

Occupied Iraq was just as Simone Ledeen had imagined -- ornate mosques, soldiers in formation, sand blowing everywhere, "just like on TV." The 28-year-old daughter of neoconservative pundit Michael Ledeen and a recently minted MBA, she had arrived on a military transport plane with the others and was eager to get to work.

They had been hired to perform a low-level task: collecting and organizing statistics, surveys and wish lists from the Iraqi ministries for a report that would be presented to potential donors at the end of the month. But as suicide bombs and rocket attacks became almost daily occurrences, more and more senior staffers defected. In short order, six of the new young hires found themselves managing the country's $13 billion budget, making decisions affecting millions of Iraqis.

Viewed from the outside, their experience illustrates many of the problems that have beset the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), a paucity of experienced applicants, a high turnover rate, bureaucracy, partisanship and turf wars. But within their group, inside the "Green Zone," the four-mile strip surrounded by cement blast walls where Iraq's temporary rulers are based, their seven months at the CPA was the experience of a lifetime. It was defined by long hours, patriotism, friendship, sacrifice and loss.

The CPA was designed to be a grand experiment in nation-building, a body of experts who would be Iraq's guide for transforming itself into a model for democracy in the Middle East. Unlike previous reconstruction efforts, it was to be manned by civilians -- advisers on politics, law, medicine, transportation, agronomy and other key areas. They were supposed to be experts, but many of the younger hires who filled the CPA's hallways were longer on enthusiasm than on expertise.

L. Paul Bremer, Iraq's top civil administrator, may have been the public face of the CPA, but it is these rank-and-file workers who defined the occupation at the ground level. This account of the budget team's time in Baghdad is drawn from direct observation and interviews with more than three dozen civilian and military members of the occupation government.

War on Terror

Ledeen's journey to Baghdad began two weeks earlier when she received an e-mail out of the blue from the Pentagon's White House liaison office. The Sept. 16 message informed her that the occupation government in Iraq needed employees to prepare for an international conference. "This is an amazing opportunity to move forward on the global war on terror," the e-mail read.

For Ledeen, the offer seemed like fate. One of her family friends had been killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and it had affected her family deeply. Without hesitation, she responded "Sure" to the e-mail and waited -- for an interview, a background check or some other follow-up. Apparently none was necessary. A week later, she got a second e-mail telling her to look for a packet in the mail regarding her move to Baghdad.

Others from across the District responded affirmatively to the same e-mail, for different reasons. Andrew Burns, 23, a Red Cross volunteer who had taught English in rural China, felt going to Iraq would help him pursue a career in humanitarian aid. Todd Baldwin, 28, a legislative aide for Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), thought the opportunity was too good to pass up. John Hanley, 24, a Web site editor, wanted to break into the world of international relations. Anita Greco, 25, a former teacher, and Casey Wasson, 23, a recent college graduate in government, just needed jobs.

For months they wondered what they had in common, how their names had come to the attention of the Pentagon, until one day they figured it out: They had all posted their resumes at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank.

By the fall, when Ledeen and peers arrived, the CPA had a serious staffing problem. Initial plans called for 3,700 people, but for most of the year it had been operating with 1,300. Moreover, many of those who did come stayed the minimum 90 days. Mark St. Laurent, 36, a D.C. paramedic who was assigned to the economics team, said the short commitments made getting work done difficult: "One month learning the ropes. One month doing actual work. One month lame duck -- you don't want to do anything because you don't want to piss off the guy coming next."

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Yoswa said the CPA was satisfied with the quality of applicants. Some staffers may have been young and inexperienced, he said, but "we have people right out of college leading troops on the ground."

Yoswa said the recruiting office had to hire quickly for the Madrid donors conference that fall and "turned to the Heritage Foundation, an educational facility, albeit a conservative one, but primarily a place where you can get good, solid people." He said this was a one-time event and that there was no organized effort to hire Republicans.

In late October, he said, the Pentagon set up a job site on the Web. Eleven thousand people filled out an application and several hundred of them were hired. "Nowhere did we ask party affiliation," he said.

'The Brat Pack'

When Ledeen's group showed up at the palace -- with their North Face camping gear, Abercrombie & Fitch camouflage and digital cameras -- they were quite the spectacle. For some, they represented everything that was right with the CPA: They were young, energetic and idealistic. For others, they represented everything that was wrong with the CPA: They were young, inexperienced, and regarded as ideologues.

Several had impressive paper credentials, but in the wrong fields. Greco was fluent in English, Italian and Spanish; Burns had been a policy analyst focused on family and health care; and Ledeen had co-founded a cooking school. But none had ever worked in the Middle East, none spoke Arabic, and few could tell a balance sheet from an accounts receivable statement.

Other staffers quickly nicknamed the newcomers "The Brat Pack."

"They had come over because of one reason or another, and they were put in positions of authority that they had no clue about," remembered Army Reserve Sgt. Thomas D. Wirges, 38, who had been working on rehabilitating the Baghdad Stock Exchange.

Some also grumbled about the new staffers' political ties. Retired U.S. Army Col. Charles Krohn said many in the CPA regard the occupation "as a political event," always looking for a way to make the president look good.

Ledeen was determined to prove she could do her job. She and the others worked 100-hour weeks and ended up producing not only their assigned report but a searchable Web site of possible reconstruction projects. At the end of their six-week assignment, their bosses were so impressed that they were rewarded with more permanent postings.

The occupation's economics teams had been especially hard hit by attacks by insurgents. After the United Nations bombing in August, the International Monetary Fund pulled out. And after the rocket attack on the Al-Rashid Hotel in October, one CPA staffer who suffered burns on his feet and lost a testicle was evacuated and another was so spooked he went home. So that's where Ledeen and her colleagues were placed.

High Salaries

Working at the CPA was, as Ledeen described it, a bunch of "high highs" and "low lows."

They would get up at dawn, after a fitful night of sleep in the coed hallways of the palace where alarm clocks started going off at 4 a.m. They would spend the rest of the day shuttling back and forth between the CPA headquarters and the Ministry of Finance. Meals were cafeteria food devoured with plastic utensils.

The pay turned out to be good. Ledeen and her co-workers had agreed to come to Iraq without knowing their salaries. They ended up with standard government base salaries in the range of $30,000 to $75,000 a year, plus a 25 percent foreign differential, another 25 percent for a workplace "in imminent danger," and overtime pay. In the end, almost everyone was making the equivalent of six-figure salaries.

The group's primary responsibility was to hand out money. Each month, it sent out authorizations for the release of several hundred million dollars for government employees' salaries, reconstruction projects and sundry other expenses.

But they were also involved in higher-level policy decisions -- revising the 2004 budget, shifting around money as priorities changed and formulating plans for replacing the food baskets Iraqi families got each month with cash payments.

They also had to deal with teachers in Basra, police in Karbala and others who came to say they were not getting paid at all -- or that they wanted more. A justice official grumbled that the money for prisoners' food had not been released. Security guards at one ministry demanded to know why their friends at another ministry were earning more money than they.

Once, Ledeen remembered, a bank in Baghdad refused to release money to a U.S. military division even though it had the appropriate paperwork. That meant the commander couldn't pay his Iraqi workers, who couldn't feed their families, raising the public's anger at U.S. forces.

So Ledeen raced to the bank to plead with its officials. It didn't work. Then a woman from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance showed up. The bank manager took a look at the paperwork, nodded and released the money.

"It was the same damn letter" the Army captain had given them the week before, Ledeen said with a sigh.

That was one of a limited number of excursions she made into the streets. The budget team, which wielded so much power over Iraq, was isolated from regular Iraqi life. Among the team members' greatest frustrations was how difficult it was to leave the Green Zone. Still, members of the team became close to the three Iraqi translators who worked with the budget team: Nada, an older woman who fretted over everyone's well-being, and Raghad and Hadeel, both twenty-somethings who were best friends and always cracking jokes. The newcomers took comfort in the cross-cultural friendship with women their own age. Later, that would turn to anguish.

Just the Basics

The staffers' good will, hard work and willingness to stay in Iraq impressed CPA representatives from other ministries, but it did little to alter the reality that the budget office had become a bottleneck.

The U.S.-led coalition had come seeking to establish a strong economy with high-paying jobs, functioning factories and a rich consumer market. This was seen as the road to democracy.

Far from such lofty missions, the budget team had its hands full just keeping things running.

Army Reserve Sgt. Glenn Corliss, who worked with the Ministry of Industry and Minerals, said staffers were so inexperienced and rotated out so quickly it was difficult for them to act on anything. In November many state-owned factories had been shut down for want of electricity, a potentially explosive problem because it left thousands jobless. Corliss had found private firms willing to invest in portable generators for the most critical factories. All they wanted was a letter of credit saying that they would be paid for their services. No one in the budget office would make a decision on it for months and Corliss finally gave up in March when he returned to the United States. "I wanted to pull their heads off oftentimes," Corliss said.

Brad Jackson, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who worked with the CPA, said the budget team regularly asked other ministries at the last minute to produce information that would take hundreds of people half a year to gather.

"There were a lot of people who, being political science majors, didn't know what an income statement was, who were asking the impossible. . . . That was giving us ulcers, quite frankly," he said.

The young budget advisers are the first to admit that they weren't the most qualified to be managing Iraq's finances. "We knew we were overwhelmed. We wanted help," Ledeen said. "We were doing maintenance, trying to make sure there were no riots, that no one went hungry." The budget team reported to Rodney Bent, a former U.S. Office of Management and Budget official, and Tony McDonald from the Australian Treasury. McDonald said it angers him to hear people criticize the budget team. "The people who came were young and keen -- not necessarily the most experienced -- but they were here. They did a great job in working as hard as they could."

The Big Blast

December was the month everything seemed to come together. The staffers were becoming more confident in their work, more intimate in their friendships. Greco celebrated her 26th birthday and Hadeel her 29th -- old for a single Iraqi woman. The translator joked that she would be an old maid. For Hanukah and Christmas, the Americans gave the Iraqi women jewelry, and they gave the Americans miniature silver frames. On New Year's, Hadeel surprised everyone by announcing that she was engaged to marry.

A few weeks later, on Jan. 18, Greco was in the shower and Ledeen was still in bed when they heard a giant boom from the direction of the north gate of CPA headquarters. Colleagues called to check on each other, but no one could locate Raghad and Hadeel, who often traveled together to work by taxi.

Ledeen checked out a car and drove the five minutes to the gate. She saw mangled bodies, flames shooting out of vehicles, families screaming and crying, but no sign of the two women. A few hours later, she learned the news: Raghad was wounded and Hadeel was dead.

The next day, wearing flak jackets and helmets, Ledeen and Greco went to visit Raghad in the hospital. As they moved to embrace Raghad -- who was covered with cuts and bruises and had lost hearing in one ear -- the mother of another injured woman told them to leave, saying they should have never come, that it wasn't safe.

"It's okay," Ledeen told her.

"It's not okay, little girl," the woman snapped back. It was only then that Ledeen understood the mother wasn't worried about her safety. She was concerned about the Iraqi women who, as workers for the CPA, were seen by insurgents as collaborators.

The memorial service was held in the cavernous theater in the convention center with hundreds of seats, far more than needed for the small gathering. It was a mixed Muslim-Christian ceremony. A local mosque leader chanted from the Koran. A group sang a hymn. Bremer made a brief speech, but rather than remembering the victims he focused on the terrorists who had killed their friends.

Ledeen said the service was beautiful, but as she sat near Hadeel's family and fiance, all she could think of was how the victims' names hadn't been read aloud and how empty the room seemed.

"I was ashamed for all of us that there were so few people there," Ledeen remembered. "We should have filled those seats with CPA people to thank them for their sacrifice for us. We should have filled those seats."

Turnover

Reinforcements for the budget team finally began arriving in February, another batch of young, eager faces.

Ledeen was assigned to train Brendan Lund, 26, a Merrill Lynch software developer. She taught him to greet people with "Salam alaykum," how to tighten the straps on his flak jacket, how to read the government employee payment spreadsheets. When he said, "We don't seem to have enough senior-level folks making the decisions in the right place," she responded that he was right and that he should be prepared to take the initiative.

During her last few days in Baghdad, the two met with a woman seeking money for heart surgery and with a former Ministry of Information official under Saddam Hussein.

Ledeen promised to help the woman by making calls to George Washington University and to influential members of Congress. She was equally decisive in her response to the former Baathist official who asked if he could get a raise even though he wasn't working and if his former co-workers could cash the 1 million dinar clothing allowance checks that they had been issued before the invasion.

"I laughed," she said. And then she showed him the door.

It was then that she realized, she said, that "I was all grown up."

Ledeen left Baghdad in late March to be with a sick cousin. The rest of the group departed soon afterward. On the plane ride home on May 15, Baldwin, Greco, Hanley, Wasson and Burns talked about being reunited with family and friends and about vacations plans. But the conversation kept turning back to Iraq -- what they did, what they could have done, what they should have done, what they could still do.

"I support what we're doing, and I absolutely don't think we should pull out and not finish what we started," Greco said. Burns wasn't as confident. He said he was at the same time full of "optimism, pessimism and realism. . . . In some ways we went looking to establish an American system in Iraq, and we can never do that."

Meanwhile, back in Baghdad, weeks before the June 30 handover when the CPA is scheduled to dissolve, staffing levels have finally improved. Twenty people are doing the old jobs of the six.

Anita Greco, John Hanley, center, and Basel Abushaban of the Ministry of Finance gather for an office party in Iraq. Todd Baldwin, 28, a former legislative aide for Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), drives a convoy. Anita Greco, 25, a teacher, and Casey Wasson, 23, a college graduate, arrive in Baghdad in October. Soon they were working 100-hour weeks managing Iraq's finances. Simone Ledeen greets John Hanley at Dulles International Airport on Monday upon his return from Iraq. Ledeen came home in March.