An Iraqi CIO’s diplomatic mission

For 18 months, Haidar Attia has been hard at work setting up a new IT infrastructure. He has purchased 500 new PCs, nine new servers, new network hardware and a private switch for his data network. He has bought a physical security system, installed voice over IP and deployed a new e-mail system. Now he’s rolling out new business applications. The work is ordinary, but because Attia is the IT director for the Iraq Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baghdad, there is much at stake.

The ministry’s effectiveness plays a critical role in the future prospects for Iraq, says Juan R.I. Cole, professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. “Iraq’s position as a player in world affairs is up in the air, as the country is still in the midst of such chaos,” he says. Assuming Iraq does not descend into civil war, however, the ministry “could be a big player” in world affairs, because of Iraq’s potential as an oil producer, among other reasons, according to Cole.

And IT investments are critical to the ministry, whose current mission is to overcome the legacy of mistrust and hostility directed at Iraq. “We are rehabilitating the infrastructure of the entire ministry and its embassies worldwide after the collapse of Saddam’s rule,”Attia explains. “These investments should facilitate the process of the ministry’s daily work.”

The ministry has thus far spent US$3 million on IT, according to Attia. One new application he is deploying is a document management system from U.S. software vendor Laserfiche. The system will store the ministry’s official documents in digital format so that its employees around the world can retrieve them via a secure Web connection. The system will also back up these documents in case of disaster. Among the records stored and exchanged on the system will be meeting minutes, general correspondence, visa applications for foreign visitors, and information about Iraqi students, ambassadors and diplomats living abroad. The system appealed to Attia because the U.S. Department of Defense has certified its capability to keep documents secure, and because he found it easy to deploy and to use.

Attia purchased the document management system from Laserfiche distributor BMB, based in Beirut. Because travel to Iraq is too dangerous, BMB employees set up the system in Beirut, and 25 ministry employees traveled there for training. Then the Laserfiche servers were shipped to Iraq. Attia’s next step will be to deploy the document management system and other applications at Iraq’s foreign embassies, many of which closed after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s rule and are being reopened by the new government.

Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari is focused on four goals: debt relief, ending punitive damages for Iraq’s role in the Gulf War, soliciting foreign investment and repairing relations with the Arab world. How effective those efforts will be remains to be seen. “(The ministry) initially had some success,” Cole says. “But with the increased violence it’s been a harder and harder sell.”

Still, Attia remains focused on building an IT backbone that could support the ministry in the best-case scenario. Though he has no fixed budget, Attia anticipates more money will be invested in IT in the future. “We have an opportunity to build a strong foundation for the future of Iraq,” he says. “Cutting-edge technology will help us rebuild Iraq by connecting one of our most important government agencies with the rest of the world.”

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