Most Iraqis view it as progress that the countdown is under way for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. But many Iraqi businesswomen fear it will be a setback for the gains they have made during wartime.
In Iraq's male-dominated culture, women make up more than half the population, but less than a quarter of Iraqi women have paying jobs. Yet since 2005, some women-owned businesses have earned millions of dollars in contract work on projects financed by the Pentagon.
The Defense Department reserves about 4 percent of all contracts for businesses owned by Iraqi women.
"The Iraqi side believes if there is a male contractor, the results will be better," says Intisar Salman, 32. "Especially if it's a contract to rebuild a bridge or to rehab a building, they think a man is better at it."
Her company, The Working Woman, has completed more than 30 contracts to build water treatment plants across Iraq. Salman, a Shiite Muslim, dresses modestly in a head scarf and a long black robe. Her toughest challenge was completing a U.S. defense contract in Haditha, a Sunni town in restive Anbar province.
"At first, the Sunnis — they didn't accept me," says the soft-spoken Salman. "But the men were jobless, and I could offer salaries."
She says her biggest concern is the eventual withdrawal of the U.S. military. "We would rather deal with the Americans because they treat us better," Salman says. "We will be harmed by the American withdrawal."
Companies Face Significant Challenges
A core group of businesswomen meets once a month to discuss success strategies and close calls over tea and sandwiches.
When Khalida Abid Sharhan, a 33-year-old mother of two, was supervising a contract to build a car park on a U.S. base in Mosul, she was kidnapped by militants at gunpoint before the job was done.
"The only thing that crossed my mind was my kids. Who would look after them after my death?" she says, tears sliding down her face as she remembers her fear.
The kidnappers beat her, but left her in the desert when they got a call that a U.S. patrol was nearby. She went back and finished the job. "I had already finished 80 percent," she says proudly, "so how could I leave it unfinished?"
The women contractors all say that they meet their deadlines and they take no bribes.
If true, it is remarkable in a country listed as the second most corrupt in the world.
Nadia al-Izzi, 35, says she bids for the big projects: embassies, police stations and primary schools.
"It is a jungle, seriously, it is a jungle," Izzi says of heading a company of male workers. "I mean, being a woman and giving orders to men is not easy."
Her construction and design firm, called D-Jerusalem, employs 60 men.
"They know I am paying salaries. After doing $150 million projects in Iraq, they have to believe in me. They have no other option," she says. Her problem now is with male competitors who use scare tactics to discourage her from work.
"Just two week ago, I got like three or four text messages asking for $40,000," says Izzi. "If I don't pay it, I will be kidnapped. I just delete it. We get used to seeing such things."
Women Entrepreneurs Persevere, Push For Quota
Iraq's Constitution provides a 25 percent quota in elections lists — the slate of candidates running for office from a political party — and guarantees seats in parliament for women.
The political-quota system has produced six Iraqi women Cabinet ministers, including one dedicated to women's affairs.
The successful businesswomen want the Iraqi government to adopt the Pentagon's formal quotas for women contractors. But so far, there has been no government action.
Still, there is plenty of other work to be done. Izzi won a contract to build an embassy for the government of Jordan. She supervises her construction crew in the scorching heat, reminding them to wear safety helmets despite the temperature.
Izzi got the job because she meets deadlines and because so many other Iraqi companies are corrupt, according to Khalid Hamid, a Jordanian official on site to survey construction progress with Izzi.
"In Iraq, especially in Iraq, they were not honest to me," says Hamid. "This company and Nadia and her team are honest."
But Iraq is already slipping back into old patterns as U.S. influence wanes. Even the men on Izzi's team know that it will be hard for women-owned companies to survive.
Susannah George contributed to this report.