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Monday, March 15

New Iraq scouting program a test of diplomacy

By Greg Barrett | GNS

WASHINGTON - Years from now, when Iraqi children pledge to follow Scout Law and be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent, the troop's origins will be forgotten.

Gary Thatcher and Chip Beck, the Americans who proposed resurrecting the scouting tradition in Iraq, will have wiped the effort clean of their fingerprints.

The influence of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in Texas, Virginia and North Carolina will not be mentioned.

The regal-looking red and green Iraq Scout patches stitched today in rural Michigan will be replaced by patches that dare not read, ``Made in America.''

By all accounts, Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs in Iraq must be sewn whole cloth - by Iraqis. At the very least, they must appear that way.

``It can be done, this Iraqi scouting, but it must be done very discreetly. If we are seen as cooperating with the Americans alone, it will be a very big problem,'' said Malek Gabr, deputy secretary general of the World Organization of the Scout Movement in Switzerland. ``There is no such thing as a fast track to a scouting program. We need time to find the leaders.''

In a nation as divided as Iraq by religion and ethnicity, scouting is seen as a model of public diplomacy, a common interest that may one day bind Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish boys and girls.

So a quiet, almost covert effort is under way to rekindle the long-dormant scout programs of Iraq. In less than a month, an idea sparked by Beck and Thatcher has spread from the Coalition Provisional Authority's sealed-off Green Zone in Baghdad to the World Scout Bureau in Switzerland to the Arab Scout Region office in Cairo.

Beck and Thatcher, civilians from the Washington suburbs who are working in Iraq, have discussed the plan privately with some of Iraq's clerics, including Hussein Sadr. Two weeks ago, they received the endorsement of Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Next month, Beck, an outgoing former scout and Vietnam veteran, will fly from Baghdad to Geneva to meet with Gabr (pronounced Ga-Beer) and incoming World Scout leader Eduardo Missoni. Joining them will be Mike Bradle, a 39-year-old Eagle Scout from Lampasas, Texas, who is coordinating much of the effort in the United States and is paying his own way to Switzerland.

Thatcher, a coalition civilian employee and father of three who returned in late February to his home in northern Virginia, sounds stunned by the pace.

``It's been one of those things that every time you turn over a rock, something else surprisingly good jumps out,'' he said.

An Iraqi lawyer living in Los Angeles has donated 3,000 acres of his personal property between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for scout camps. A Rotary Club in Palo Alto, Calif., recently donated $5,000.

^A lasting legacy

Meanwhile, Beck is searching for camps in Iraq's broad Kurdish Mountains and southern marshes and along the Persian Gulf coastline of Um Qasr. Ideally, he said, the Iraqi program will someday have five scouting camps, a national office in Baghdad and 18 regional offices stretching from Irbil in the north to Basra in the south.

``We could easily get a couple dozen children today and put them in uniform and call it a troop,'' Beck said from Baghdad. ``But it wouldn't last long and it would not be a lasting legacy. We have to develop a national infrastructure for this.''

Last week, Fawzi Farghali of the Arab Scout Region discussed the plans with Iraqi youth officials in Sudan. He said they were enthusiastic but wary.

``You cannot let the Iraqis think that you are coming to lead them. You must support them from behind, not in front,'' Farghali said from Cairo. ``You have to let the Iraqis feel they blend, they share, they design, they do.''

That used to be the case.

During the 1960s and `70s, Gabr said, Iraq had 15,000 to 20,000 Scouts - Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish - who participated in world Scout programs. But soon after Saddam Hussein and the Sunni-led Baath Party took control in 1980, Iraqi Scouts stopped coming to the World Jamborees, a sort of Olympics and World's Fair for scouting programs.

Gabr recently unearthed a list of about 100 former Scout leaders in Iraq and gave the names to Beck. It's a starting point but not necessarily an encouraging one.

``I don't think the list will be a lot of use,'' Gabr said. ``Many of the leaders will be too old today. It is also extremely difficult to say which people are not identified with Saddam. How can we trust some of the people on the list?''

The immediate goals are to identify appropriate land and buildings and raise millions of dollars for the program's startup, Beck said. Laurie Schultz, a Girl Scout volunteer from Julian, N.C., heard about the program through the Internet and suggested asking each of the 10.8 million U.S. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to donate 50 cents.

She also suggested selling the Iraqi Scout patches designed by Beck and made in Shelby, Mich., to U.S. Scouts.

If all goes as planned, the patch will have a short shelf life.

``The patches are not a bad idea for a start,'' Gabr said. ``But it cannot be a long-term thing. The Iraqis themselves must adopt their own patch.''


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