Herro Kader Mustafa is a Kurdish-American, originally from Iraq, who has built an impressive portfolio of responsibilities in the course of her career at the State Department and the National Security Council of the United States. She is currently the acting chief of staff for the undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department. Mustafa served as the senior US civilian official responsible for administering the Iraqi province of Ninawa—of which Mosul is the capital—in the aftermath of the 2003 war. She is the subject of an upcoming documentary entitled American Herro. In May 2008, Mustafa spoke to MERIP about her experiences.
When and under what circumstances did you and your family leave Iraq?
My family and I fled from Iraq to Iran in 1974. My father was involved in opposition politics against Saddam Hussein. Given his public image and the Iraqi government’s mistreatment of the Kurds, we were forced to flee. We thought our departure would be temporary and expected the situation for the Kurds would improve enough to allow us to return. The situation only deteriorated, however. We ended up living in a small town called Shino in Iran for one year. After that year, we were transferred to the south of Iran, to Mahan, Kerman, where we lived for a little under a year until we were finally sponsored as refugees to the United States in 1976.
Where did you settle in the US and what were your early experiences here?
We were sponsored by a refugee service in the small town of Minot, North Dakota, with a population of 30,000, the majority of whom were of Scandinavian descent. We were the first Kurds sponsored in Minot and, to the best of our knowledge, the one Muslim family in the town. We were fortunate to be embraced by the community and to find ourselves in a town where the crime rate was low, family was important and education was a priority. My parents quickly took up three jobs each, often taking us along on the night shift where we would sleep while they worked. We adjusted and felt fortunate to have the opportunity to live without the fear of persecution.
How did your Kurdish identity influence your experience in the US?
My parents prioritized maintaining Kurdish culture and language in our household and when other Kurdish families moved to North Dakota and South Dakota, my father made sure we went to visit them on a regular basis. Our house was also always filled with Kurdish music and food. But the event that really impacted my sense of Kurdish identity was the 1988 chemical genocide against the Kurds in Halabja. My family participated in protest demonstrations outside the Minot Daily News and, though we were few in numbers, we made sure that the story was publicized throughout North Dakota. Later, as I began to develop my career and before I joined the Foreign Service in 1999, I worked as the president of the Badlisy Center for Kurdish Studies. The Badlisy Center was a non-profit organization working to promote Kurdish studies in the United States. I found that the biggest obstacle to promoting Kurdish studies was frankly the Kurdish community itself, which was divided and constantly thinking along party lines. While the situation has improved recently given the unification of the PUK and KDP in Iraq, at the time I was working at the Center, things were very politically divided.
How would you describe your experience returning to northern Iraq as a US official?
It was wonderful to return to the country of my birth representing the country that gave me freedom. In Mosul I worked with Arabs, Kurds, Christians and Turkmen. I learned about the Yezidis, Shabak and other minorities. I was able to use my Arabic and Kurdish on a daily basis. I think I was able to get the locals to understand what it was that we were trying to do in Iraq. For instance, we were able to get women on the provincial council. It was an idea that was admittedly brought from the outside, but it was met with great enthusiasm among the women of the province and embraced as a positive initiative. The women were very eager to participate in politics and many ended up running and campaigning to be elected. It was amazing to see the initiative succeed and to see women accepted as council members even by the men of the community, who initially showed some resistance.
What did your role as senior civilian administrator in Mosul entail?
I was in Mosul from June 2003 to July 2004 as the governorate coordinator for the province of Ninawa. My responsibilities included all those that would normally be associated with a provincial governor—that is, everything necessary to make the government functional and to ensure that things were working administratively between Baghdad and the province as well as between the neighboring provinces. So, for instance, I was responsible for ensuring that books that contained Saddam Hussein’s propaganda be replaced, that the currency exchange transition proceed smoothly, that districts and sub-districts were represented on the provincial council and that the provincial council was represented in Baghdad. I always considered that the Iraqis were in charge and that our job was to assist them in making sure that they had the tools they needed to communicate effectively with Baghdad and with the other provinces and to connect people to one another across regions.
What were the most challenging aspects of your responsibilities in Mosul?
Mosul is the capital of the province of Ninawa, which is one of the most diverse provinces in Iraq. It has large Kurdish and Arab communities in addition to other ethnic and religious minority communities. Maslawis are diverse in ways that represent both an advantage for the city and a challenge for uniting its local leadership. This was a particular challenge for me since I was an American in their country acting as the governing provincial authority. While I was in Mosul as an American, I was also seen by the Iraqi Arab community of the province as a Kurd, while the Kurdish community frequently regarded me as more American. The difficulty of explaining my own identity while I was there was certainly challenging but also part of what made the job interesting.
I also faced some challenges establishing my authority as a woman initially. For instance, there was one time when an Islamic group in Mosul insisted that I attend provincial council meetings with my hair covered. Now I am a Muslim woman who chooses not to cover her hair in public settings. I observe different rules if I am entering a mosque or a private home and it is appropriate to cover my hair. But I did not consider it appropriate for them to ask me to cover my hair to attend a public meeting in my official capacity. In the end, I did not cover my hair and, after lodging the initial request, the group in question respected my decision to stand my ground. I was also often dispatched to attend meetings in villages with a roomful of 150 sheikhs and I would be the only woman, or 200 villagers and they were all men other than myself. In the end, I overcame some of the gender challenges by virtue of my status as a bridge between the American civilian administration and the local community as a result of my language skills and knowledge of the culture. It made a big difference that I could communicate directly with local leaders and that I was respectful of the culture.
Mosul is under the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but rather under the authority of Ninawa, which is at a contested border. I often had to go to the KRG-governed areas in my capacity as civilian administrator in Mosul to try to address border conflicts. At that time, what happened in Baghdad was the focus of the national government, meaning that the provinces and regions outside of the center were something of a second thought. One of the major challenges I faced was to persuade the Iraqi leaders in Baghdad to even come and visit the province so that they might better realize that running the country would require a focus on communities and demands beyond Baghdad. Voices from the regions were not easily heard in Baghdad. It was also difficult to persuade regional leaders to go to Baghdad or even to get provincial leaders to visit each other (across provinces) and work together. These coordination and communication challenges were very significant.