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American-run assistance center sometimes struggles to help Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—As soon as Morooj Abdul Lateef's husband returned from morning prayers at his Baghdad mosque, a group of soldiers knocked on the door of their house and politely asked to detain him. They would be back in 10 minutes, the soldiers promised.

That was on May 14. She hasn't seen him since, and with a mix of American, Iraqi and private militia forces securing the country, she didn't know who came for her husband or where to start looking for him.

She canvassed the neighborhood, tried searching the area prisons and asked to speak to someone at the Ministry of Interior, which runs the police department. But no one could help her.

Desperate, she went to the Iraqi Assistance Center, an American-run office based in Baghdad that's designed to help Iraqis find arrested relatives, get medical care, get compensation for those wronged by American soldiers and find jobs. Opened two years ago, it has become ever more valuable as one of the few assistance centers that can navigate through U.S. and Iraqi bureaucracies.

Iraqis must get through five checkpoints to find the center, which is based in the Green Zone, where National Assembly members hold their meetings. Once the families get there, they are helped by one of the 35 Iraqi staffers—including a doctor.

The center receives 7,000 requests a month, said the director of the National Iraqi Assistance Center, Army Col. Chester Wernicki, of the 353rd Civil Affairs Command from Staten Island, N.Y. Iraqis often hear about the assistance center through other groups. Lateef first heard about it when she went to the Red Cross looking for her husband.

So far, the group has helped get 50 sick people out of the country for better care in Jordan, Kuwait and the United States, Wernicki said.

The center depends on donated plane tickets to get sick people to better medical care or for a hospital to make space for someone. As a U.S. military-funded organization, it can't accept cash donations, Wernicki said.

Funding aside, it's still hard to help people. The Iraqi government is fragmented, and information about arrests, accidents or medical procedures is scattered.

Some people waiting at the center complained that their case files had been lost. Others said the center demands too much evidence before it awards compensation. The most common gripe: waiting for hours for little information.

Workers at the center conceded that getting help can be difficult but said many applicants try to file false claims. A family that can show an American soldier wrongly killed a relative can receive up to $15,000, a worker at the center said.

Imad Mohsen Hasan, a 23-year-old Fallujah resident, said he fractured his leg while escaping the city before the November standoff with U.S. soldiers. He said he's been coming to the center to try to get money for his medical care.

"I have been coming back and forth to this center, yet got nothing," Hasan said. "If these people can't get me outside for treatment, they should at least pay me some money to do it myself."

Wernicki said the organization is doing the best it can to give Iraqis honest assessments.

"We have tried to build this organization so that people could feel they could come here to us and get help. What we don't want to do is have someone stretch that truth to make (Iraqis) feel that there is something we can offer here when we really can't," Wernicki said.

Dr. Shwan Ali Abdelnaby, who's in charge of the medical section, said sometimes people claim they need help just to get out of the country.

"Some don't just want to get treated. They want to leave the country. And so they accuse me of not helping them getting outside the country when I find a way for them to be treated in Iraq," Abdelnaby said.

The most common request is to help find a detained person, like Lateef's husband. The center receives up to 100 requests a day, a worker at the center said, but can only help find people in American prisons.

Staffers check a list of detainees they receive weekly from the American prisons. The list is in English, so the staff must translate the names, which isn't easy. Some people are listed under family names; others by their tribes. And there can be several spellings for a name.

Staffers have no way of knowing if Iraqi forces are holding someone.

Lateef walked into the center and up to the desk. She first had to prove that she was related to the man she was looking for. She then gave a worker her husband's name: Ali Abdul Razaq Abdul Hameed. The worker went through the list. He found nothing.

Lateef, frustrated, began to cry. Perhaps an Iraqi prison is holding him, the worker said. Be patient, he told her, maybe he'll be on the list that comes in next week.

None of his ideas placated Lateef, who said she wanted a better government in place so she could go to a judge, not an American, to find out why he was detained.

"I know my husband. He is not a terrorist," she said. "If he was a bad person, I wouldn't come here."


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(Al Baldawy is a special correspondent. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Nancy Youssef of the Detroit Free Press contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.