Meet the New Boss: Dathar Khashab Didn’t Miss a Step When His New Managers Showed Up Wearing U.S.-Issue Fatigues

The New York Times Magazine
June 8, 2003

There are two types of people who do well in dictatorships: those who make themselves politically indispensable, doing whatever bit of wickedness the dictatorship requires, and those who make themselves economically indispensable, keeping the trains and refineries running smoothly. Dathar Khashab, the chain-smoking, overalls-wearing 58-year-old director general of the Daura oil refinery near Baghdad, falls into the latter category.

Under Saddam Hussein, Khashab rose through the ranks of the oil industry, excelling at a series of jobs. He first started working at Daura in 1968 as a junior engineer in the maintenance department. After it was bombed by American planes during the first gulf war, he oversaw its reconstruction. In March, he became the refinery’s director general.

Despite the political crudity of Saddam Hussein’s government, its oil industry had a reputation for being stocked with well-educated professionals who were able to maintain a constant flow of oil despite international sanctions and nearly constant warfare. Of course, top managers were also members of the Baath Party, the political instrument that Hussein used to pull Iraq into tyranny.

This is not a good time to be a Baathist. L. Paul Bremer III, who oversees the American occupation, recently told reporters in Baghdad that he was taking measures “to extirpate Baathists and Baathism from Iraq forever,” declaring, “We have and will aggressively move to seek to identify these people and remove them from office.”

But the only way an engineer or doctor or professor under Hussein’s government was able to rise in the system was to join the Baath Party. Khashab, for example, claims to have joined when he became the refinery’s assistant director general last year; his promotion, he says, required it. This may be true, though it may not; Iraq is filled with Baathists who say now that they never wanted to be Baathists.

These people present a thorny problem for Bremer and other leaders of the American occupation. During the war, American soldiers tried to kill Baathists wherever possible, or at least to detain them. But now, throughout broken-down Iraq, the American soldiers are discovering that many of the people who know how to make the trains run on time, or run at all, are, like Khashab, Baathists. What should be done with them?

This question is acutely felt at Iraq’s refineries, because postwar social stability depends to a large degree on reliable supplies of gasoline and propane. And in May, social stability, like gasoline and propane, were in considerably short supply. The situation at the Daura refinery was particularly worrisome, because it supplies the capital with most of its gas. If Daura falters, Baghdad falters; they are conjoined twins, needing each other to survive. Once the U.S. military realized this, the protection of Daura became a priority. In early May, the job of protecting and overseeing Daura was handed to Tom Hough, a 28-year-old captain in the 82nd Airborne Division whose principal occupations are bass fishing, deer hunting and, he says, “jumping out of planes and killing people.”

Hough knew nothing about oil, gas or how to run a refinery, yet this was not unusual. The occupation of Iraq was turning into the military equivalent of improvisational theater. According to the plan drawn up in Washington before the invasion, the postwar administration of installations like Daura was supposed to fall to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, run by Jay Garner, a retired lieutenant general, but in the looting-filled aftermath of the invasion, ORHA emerged as a case study in haplessness.

When Hough arrived, Daura was limping along at about 30 percent capacity. Its workers were being paid little, and only sporadically, and there was the risk of a riot if that didn’t change soon. S.U.V.’s and tankers belonging to the refinery were regularly being hijacked or simply disappearing. (Crooked managers drove off with a showroom’s worth of vehicles.) And that was the least bad news. The worst bad news was that the refinery’s postwar management was the same as its prewar management–and that meant Baathists. Hough’s first task was to figure out what to do with Khashab.

“Dathar’s got a nice thing going here,” Hough told me in early May, sitting in a cluttered room in a two-story building inside the refinery compound that was serving as his command post and living quarters. Hough knew the refinery was receiving cash for the small shipments of gas that it was able to move out, but with banks closed and with the Ministry of Oil in semiparalysis, he had no idea where that cash was disappearing to.

“Where is that money?” Hough asked. “A lot of people are getting rich off this chaos. Somebody in ORHA is supposed to take charge, but I have never talked to anyone in ORHA or seen them here. I don’t even know what ORHA stands for.”

What Hough said he was hearing, from members of the Special Forces detachment based near the refinery, was that Khashab was corrupt. “I think we’ll have to get rid of him,” Hough said. The room was filled with flak jackets and M-16’s; in one window there was an air-conditioner that functioned only occasionally. “I’m working with him now because I can’t find anyone better,” he continued. “But I think we’ve got to find someone better. I think he is operating like a Baath Party guy, taking all the money and screwing everyone.”

My own impression, when I first met Dathar Khashab, was that he operated out of an intense loyalty not to the Baath Party or to Saddam Hussein, but to the interests of Dathar Khashab. Because his superiors were now Americans and not Baathists, he was happily touting a book about W. Edwards Deming, the American management guru who is widely credited with restructuring Japan’s industrial base after World War II. “He is a fantastic man,” Khashab told me, speaking in fluent English. “His book is, for me, like a god.”

We were driving in his Nissan S.U.V. to his first meeting with Captain Hough, and when I fired up a cigarette, he told me to put it out. “American safety standards,” he laughed.

Khashab grew up in Mosul, in northern Iraq, and was just 3 years old when his father died after being bitten by a scorpion. The family scraped by; his eldest brother became the family patriarch. When Khashab was 11, that brother, then a policeman, was killed by Communists, and Khashab moved to Baghdad with another of his brothers. Because he was an excellent student, he earned a rare prize: a foreign scholarship from the Ministry of Oil, which recruited the best and the brightest from the country’s secondary schools. Khashab arrived at Heathrow Airport on Sept. 19, 1961, just 17 years old, barely able to speak English. Five years later, he had earned an engineering degree from the University of Sheffield, graduating with honors.

The reason Daura was not stripped bare in the looting that followed Saddam Hussein’s fall can be summed up in two words: Dathar Khashab. As things began to crumble into chaos, he decided to fight for it. He organized the work force into a militia, handing out AK-47 assault rifles along with orders to shoot at anyone who tried to enter the sprawling compound. He oversaw the refinery’s defense for nearly a week, going virtually without sleep, and just as his side was about to be overwhelmed, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division finally showed up.

Even after the Americans arrived, thieves continued to attack the refinery, and there were so many that the soldiers could not detain them all; most were placed in flexicuffs and told to leave, their hands bound behind their backs. The youngest looters–12 or 13 years old–were not cuffed, because that seemed a harsh thing to do to kids; they were required to do push-ups until they could push no longer, and then they were told to go home.

A few weeks later, the 101st Airborne detachment at the refinery was replaced by Hough and his company of 140 soldiers.

Hough was raised on a farm in Illinois. His childhood was almost as difficult as Khashab’s, bouncing from one foster home to another. At 17, without any close family members to rely on, he enlisted in the Army, though he got a degree from Eastern Illinois University before starting his military service. Hough, who completed the Army’s rigorous Ranger course, is the sort of officer who knows that his backwoods demeanor suggests a lack of sophistication; he plays the shucks-I’m-just-a-dumb-farm-boy routine with a con man’s skill. As his commander, Lt. Col. David Haight, told me, Hough is “as dumb as a fox.”

That is fortunate, because as soon as Hough took control of Daura, he found he needed mental agility rather than marksmanship or night-vision goggles to deal with the problems that piled up like the boxes of M.R.E.’s in the hallway leading to his office. Workers who hadn’t been paid were demanding money that wasn’t there; banners appeared at the refinery urging a struggle against “the infidels,” which Hough knew meant him and his men; families with domestic disputes demanded arbitration from Hough, because the police and courts had disappeared; workers were trying to find and beat up the corrupt managers who had made them miserable and were suspected of stealing their wages; an Iraqi who was suspected of cooperating with the Americans was found dead, near an American checkpoint, with a bullet in the back of his head and a note on his body that said, “This is what we do to traitors.” And then there was the question of Khashab.

Hough’s first meeting with Khashab took place around a conference table in one of the refinery’s office buildings. Hough and several other soldiers were studying military maps of Baghdad. In their fatigues and flak jackets, they looked as if they were planning an attack, though their mission this time was simply to get more fuel into nearby gas stations. Khashab and his top aides offered advice and small glasses of sweet tea. They were in the odd position of rubbing elbows, literally, with members of the army that had just destroyed the regime they had worked for, yet their adjustment to their new situation appeared so quick and sure that Karl Rove, if he had been there, would have recognized his political equals. The walls bore no decorations, just nails from which portraits of Saddam Hussein and other Baathist memorabilia had been hastily removed. In the reception room outside Khashab’s office, a framed photo of the entrance of the refinery had been doctored–the portrait of Hussein that used to stand atop the gates was covered with a piece of white paper, on top of which was written, in Arabic, the name of the refinery.

Khashab excused himself to a corner of the room to make a call on a Thuraya satellite phone given to him a few days earlier by the U.S. Army. He shouted in Arabic because the connection was poor.

“Yes, there’s a mess about me,” Khashab said to the friend on the other end of the line. Some workers were agitating for his ouster. But Khashab was defiant. “They can say whatever they want,” he shouted. “This is the new democracy. But I’m not leaving.” Hough, without an interpreter, didn’t catch a word.

Khashab received another call, and after a brief discussion, he told the caller to buy a satellite phone for himself. “I’ll pay for it,” Khashab yelled. “I have enough money.”

The source of Khashab’s money was an interesting topic. Hough would have liked someone to clarify for him how a man who claims to earn just $250 a month could seem to be smoking that much in imported Gauloise cigarettes.

But as Hough learned during the war, when Iraqi fighters mixed with civilians, clarity is not a feature you can count on in wartime or the murkiness that follows it. Whether or not Khashab was adding to whatever riches he may or may not have accumulated before the Americans arrived, his own hands did not appear to bear any bloodstains, and he was providing a useful service by keeping the refinery running. Baghdad, and the American occupation of Iraq, needed Daura, and it was not unimaginable that Daura needed Dathar Khashab.

A few days after their first meeting, Hough and Khashab met again, this time in Khashab’s office, where a white construction hat from KBR, the American engineering firm that is part of Halliburton, was placed prominently behind his desk; an oil painting of the refinery was on the wall. Although Khashab had not wished for his country to be invaded by Americans, he accepted the fait accompli and urged the Americans to do the job properly. If he was to throw in his lot with them, he wanted to be sure that his new allies came out on top.

“All our work, all of your efforts, will go down the drain if we don’t do anything about security in general,” Khashab said to Hough. “We are just going around in a vicious circle. I mean, you’re occupying the country–secure it! Get 20,000 or 30,000 more troops.”

“I know we’re not doing a good job,” Hough replied. He had taken off his flak jacket but was still wearing black kneepads.

“You are losing,” Khashab said. He offered his American visitor a plate of apricots.

“I know we are losing. Everybody is turning against us.”

“A lot of people welcomed you for what you’ve done, but believe me, a lot of people, because of the insecurity, are turning against you, and not only that, they are turning back to Saddam.”

“Two days ago,” Hough responded, “an intelligent Iraqi who I meet with every day and have tea with said: ‘I welcome you. I like you. But if this insecurity continues, if I have a harder time feeding my children and protecting them in a month than I do now, I will be killing you.’ It’s embarrassing to me. I don’t know how to rebuild countries. But I’m wondering, Where are the people who rebuild countries?”

The two men also had to deal with a family dispute. A local girls’ school had reopened, but not the local boys’ school, and so the boys, being boys, pelted the girls with tomatoes as they walked to class. The principal caught one of the boys as he was harassing the girls and did what principals had often done to trouble-makers–he spanked the boy. Soon after, the boy’s father showed up at the school with two of his older and beefier sons and beat up the principal, sending him to the hospital. This is the new Iraq.

“I need you to make gas, not solve family disputes,” Hough said, and promised to arrest the father if he got within 500 yards of the school.

“If I don’t intervene and you don’t intervene, we will have problems,” Khashab noted.

“Yes,” Hough said, becoming aware of the common ground they had begun to share. “I think you and I are paddling the same boat.”

It was 11 on a Wednesday morning in mid-May, and most of the refinery’s workers were crammed into a conference hall that was too small and too hot for such a crowd; it was a sauna inside, filled with hard men wearing oil-stained overalls and grim expressions. A table was at the front of the room, and behind it sat Thamir Ghadhban, who was appointed by the Americans as the interim chief executive of the Ministry of Oil. On Ghadhban’s left was Khashab, inhaling one Gauloise after another. The shouts began within seconds of them sitting down.

“We want new leaders!” yelled one of the workers.

Another worker took a seat on Ghadhban’s right and spoke into the microphone. “We want to have clean leaders, not corrupt ones,” he said, and the crowd applauded loudly. “We should change our managers.” There was more applause.

An older worker, with a white scarf covering his head, began speaking. “We don’t want people from the Baath Party anymore.” The applause, this time, was deafening. “We hate these people.”

Khashab remained tranquil. He applauded speakers who were condemning Baathists and corrupt managers. He took notes. He was getting ready to speak, but not quite yet.

A manager who was particularly hated by the workers tried to address the crowd. “Shut up!” they yelled. “Go home!”

Ghadhban interceded. “It is clear you hate this man and you don’t want to hear him speak, but let him finish.”

The man finished, and as he left the table, a worker shouted, “You are evil.”

Another manager, also hated by the workers, tried to speak; he, too, was shouted down, and as he left the table, he made some rude gestures at the crowd, which responded with more shouts and rude gestures; yet somehow punches were avoided. The refinery’s first experience with democracy was not a polite affair, but neither was it violent.

It was time for Khashab to speak. The room turned silent.

“You people, all of you, protected the refinery,” he began. “Everyone sitting here protected the refinery, even your sons and your daughters. I want to thank you all for this.”

There was a small amount of applause and nods of approval from some workers.

“I have put aside the salaries for people who left before the war, and I will give them their money. I have not forgotten them. Everyone will get their money. I have heard your demands, and I think they are fair. We can do it.”

Nobody tried to shout him down. Khashab played the room masterfully; he was humble, not claiming credit for saving the refinery, simply drawing attention to the fact that the refinery, remarkably, had been saved. By letting several thoroughly hated managers speak before he did, he had allowed the workers’ venom to be released at targets other than himself. Also, most of the workers knew that Khashab was different from the men they had shouted down; he might possess wealth beyond his salary, but he did risk his life to save the refinery, and this saved their livelihoods. After he spoke, several workers took the microphone and said Khashab should not be fired.

The meeting, which lasted an hour, was adjourned. Khashab was surrounded by workers reminding him that they needed to get paid or that the hated managers needed to be dismissed, and he promised to do it. As he stepped outside and walked back to his office a few hundred yards away, under the harsh noon sun, a remarkable thing occurred–workers shook his hand, slapped him on the back, joked with him. Khashab could hardly move forward, so some of his assistants had to shout, “Let him through, let him through, for God’s sake, let him through.”

Baathist or not, corrupt or not, Khashab had become their savior.

At the same time as Khashab was earning credibility with his workers, he was earning it with Hough. Khashab had agreed to mediate a meeting at a mosque on the refinery premises between the principal’s family and the misbehaving boy’s family. The principal had agreed to accept a million dinars (about $700) in compensation for his beating, and that was supposed to be the end of it. The meeting was scheduled for the early evening, and when Khashab arrived, the principal was inside the mosque with other members of his family. The principal, in his 30’s, wanted the feud to be finished, but the principal’s brother, in his 20’s, approached Khashab and said that no matter what his brother agreed to, he wanted revenge against the boy’s family.

Khashab told him to be calm. “Respect me like your father,” he said and kissed him on his cheeks, a gesture of friendship in Iraqi culture. They waited for a half-hour; the boy’s family was late. When they finally arrived, elder members of the boy’s clan entered the mosque and shook hands with the principal; the healing had begun, it seemed. However, younger members of the boy’s family remained outside, as did the principal’s brother and other hotheads from his side, and the result was violence.

Khashab recalled the uproar as we sat in his office a day later. He seemed to enjoy recounting it.

“I heard shots,” he said. “Everything was aflame. Pistols were shot; AK-47’s and knives were used.”

He remained inside the mosque and used his mobile phone to call Hough, the only man who could save his life. Hough, back at his command post, could not understand what Khashab was saying, but as he recalled later, he could hear shots being fired and people shouting.

“Where are you?” Hough yelled.

“The mosque,” Khashab yelled back.

Hough grabbed his assault rifle and jumped into a white S.U.V. that his unit had been using; his quick-reaction force, about 30 soldiers, followed behind in Humvees and a gun truck. As they rushed to the mosque, the fighting cascaded inside. A man carrying a sword rushed up to Khashab and demanded to speak to the director of the refinery. Khashab did not flinch.

“I said, ‘Why do you want the director general?”‘ Khashab recalled. “He said, ‘He is the problem.”‘

Several more men entered the mosque with knives. Before any of them could figure out that the man they wanted to kill was standing right in front of them, several friends of Khashab’s hustled him out to a nearby house. Most of the gunmen and swordsmen, realizing the cavalry was on its way, hopped into their cars and sped away.

Hough found Khashab in the nearby house. A small mob remained outside, demanding to be allowed inside so that they could finish their lethal business. Hough and his soldiers chased them away. Inside the house, Hough recalled, Khashab was shaking. When I asked Khashab afterward, he said he was not afraid.

“I was angry,” he explained. “When I am angry, I shake. This silly thing–it could stop the refinery from working.”

Hough posted several soldiers around the house and went to the house of the boy’s family; the men had disappeared, but a number of women were inside. Hough escorted them to the refinery gates, put them in a taxi and told them to never come back. This was as much for their own safety–the principal’s family would certainly try to kill them–as for punishment.

The Americans had risked their lives to protect Khashab and restore order. Hough now had more than Khashab’s gratitude; he had his respect too. They were becoming a team.

Hough is known by his men as an expert at spades, the card game. Spades turns not on luck but strategy; the winner is usually the player who knows which cards to throw and which cards his partner and rival players need. Picking the right partner is crucial; you must know what he is thinking and what he needs, even though he cannot, according to the rules, tell you any of this. You must sense it. Spades turned out to be the best preparation Hough had for his work at the refinery.

“The most important thing I’m doing here is picking Dathar,” Hough told me after the riot. “At the mosque, I got to see the emotional side of him, the way he was shaken up after the incident. He really cares about this refinery and the people. I share this. There are some crooked things Dathar might have done in his life, but everything I’ve done isn’t roses, either. He’s my ace in the hole here. He works 20 hours a day, and so do I. I feel a responsibility to these people. We destroyed their government. I want to feel that when I walk out of here I tried just as hard to help them as I did to kill them.”

During the war, Hough’s battalion carefully planned each battle, and they had trained for years. There is no plan for the refinery or, it would appear, for Iraq. For now, the country’s future is in the hands of young soldiers like Hough, who are improvising their way through the reconstruction.

“I don’t have any idea what the Bush policy is,” he said in one of our final conversations. “I don’t know what they are planning for the future of Iraq. No idea. I am just trying to get things done here. We are making it up as we go along, because I sure didn’t read the latest State Department policy paper.”

Khashab’s life, meanwhile, remains in danger. One of his friends has already been killed by carjackers, and he knows the same thing could happen to him. Hough will leave Daura sometime, rotated out, as all G.I.’s are. Whether he is replaced by a captain as sharp as he or whether he is replaced at all–who knows?

The tumult at the refinery, and in Iraq, does not swing as wildly now as it did in the early days of the postinvasion chaos. The Ministry of Oil is even predicting the resumption of exports by the middle of June. That may be optimistic. Daura’s production is creeping upward, but it remains far below normal levels, and some days little crude oil is delivered and production slumps.

Violence continues as well, even at the refinery gates. On my last visit to the refinery, on May 25, when I stopped by to say goodbye to Hough, his first words were: “You should have been here last night. We had a firefight.”

Khashab soon arrived, and he was almost giddy. “Did you hear what happened?” he said, smiling. At midnight, Khashab heard shooting behind the refinery. He called Hough, and both men went, with American soldiers and armed refinery workers, to confront the would-be thieves; at least one of the intruders was shot. Khashab was buoyant because he had once again protected his refinery; for him, the refinery is everything.

Wary of each other a few weeks earlier, Hough and Khashab had now gone into battle together, the G.I. and the Baathist, and survived. They may not be so fortunate next time.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.