September 19, 2004

Fern Holland's War

By ELIZABETH RUBIN

New York Times

Late one night this past March in the Babylon Hotel, on the banks of the Euphrates River, Fern Holland sat alone in her office writing e-mail -- unwinding, she wrote to a friend, with a glass of Johnnie Walker and listening to Michelle Branch singing ''All You Wanted.'' She had many things on her mind, and among them was figuring out where she could get a bulldozer so she could help two Iraqi women get their land back.

The Babylon Hotel, in Hilla, about an hour's drive south of Baghdad, used to be a regular haunt of Saddam Hussein's intelligence agents. Now it was home to Holland's employer, the south-central regional branch of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. The Hilla office was responsible for governing the Shiite heartland of Iraq. Holland, who was 33, had practiced law for several years in her native Oklahoma and worked as a human rights legal adviser in West Africa before she signed up in July of last year to help bring democracy and the rule of law to Iraq. ''Whatever the Bush administration's motive was for invading Iraq, it didn't matter to Fern,'' a friend of hers in Tulsa told me. An idealist tempered by realism, Holland was a doer, not a doubter.

Since her arrival in Iraq, she and her Iraqi assistant, Salwa Oumashi, had fertilized a broad swath of the middle Euphrates region with ideas of change. She organized human rights groups, opened women's centers and acted as a strong advocate for Iraqi women's rights. She was working 18-hour days, seven days a week, and still, she wrote to a friend: ''I wish I had more hours in the day. . . . It's crazy and is driving me crazy because I really love these people and I see the potential and I just can't give enough to do them justice.''

Sitting at her computer that night in March, she sent an e-mail message back to Tulsa to her close friend Stephen Rodolf, for whose law firm she worked from 1993 to 1999. She told him about two women from a nearby farming village who had come seeking her aid in a legal dispute:

''They are widows. They wear all black, all you can see is their faces -- no hair or neck. They don't wear gloves though and you can see their hands -- very rough hands, dry and cracked and evidence of broken fingers from years ago, and huge knuckles from years of manual labor. Their faces wrinkled and dark, no makeup, but 2 small faded blue circles on their chins -- tattoos. One of Saddam's thugs grew crops on their land and they thought they could remove him upon liberation. No such luck. He built a house on their land and refused to leave. They have court orders and everything and nobody will move the guy. Everyone's afraid of him. So much for the rule of law. I'm going to see him Saturday morning, along with the little ladies, the manager of the new women's center, the judge, and a couple Iraqi policemen. These little ladies reminded me of my mother. Salt of the Earth.''

Two days later, Fern showed up at the judge's courthouse in Kifl, a farming village about 12 miles from Hilla. The judge was impressed by her knowledge of Iraqi law. Holland promised, in her slight Oklahoma lilt, that she would bring an Internet cafe to his rice-farming village, which boasts the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel. He agreed with her when she said, ''No one should jump over a woman's rights,'' but with all the suffering people in Iraq, he was a little puzzled why this slight, 5-foot-2, fiery American, with golden hair and sky blue eyes, was putting so much energy into this particular case. The judge pointed out how shameful it is to destroy somebody's house -- so much so that no local would dare to carry out his order to do so. Tribal or religious leaders usually mediate such quarrels.

Still, he gave his word to implement the ruling that he had himself issued, but on one condition: Holland had to bring the bulldozer.

''A bulldozer?'' cried Adly Hassanein back at the Babylon Hotel. An elegant Egyptian-American human rights adviser with the C.P.A., Hassanein worked closely with Holland and shared her commitment. ''Fern,'' he said, ''that is an Israeli act.'' He begged her to let it go: it's family business; it's local culture. She smiled at him. She knew Hassanein's paternal routine. ''They can't just harass women this way, Dr. Adly,'' she said.

Three days later, on a warm spring Tuesday, Holland collected some petty cash, found a bulldozer and a driver and returned to Kifl. The judge set off with 30 policemen following the bulldozer. The man's house was demolished. The ''salt of the earth'' got back their property. And in Holland's mind another step had been taken toward getting Iraqis to trust in the rule of law.

Arabs have a saying about meddling in family affairs: Put yourself between the onion and its skin, and you'll just get a bad smell. Holland also had a saying: If I don't do it, nobody will. Baghdad red tape infuriated her. She needed to be invested in Iraqi lives, and she was not going to serve up democracy by remote control from inside a fortress of barbed wire and concrete blast walls. The C.P.A. had already earned such a reputation for governing from the secure green zone in Baghdad that ''green-zoned'' had become a term for ''safe but clueless.''

From early in her life, Holland harnessed a go-it-alone, pioneer mentality to a Wilsonian belief in universal human rights and self-determination. As an American, she felt a moral obligation to the world, despite or maybe because of her decidedly rough beginnings. As one of Holland's Oklahoma neighbors told me: ''You will never convince me that someone didn't leave that girl on the doorstep of that home. Because she's so different. And in that tiny town in Oklahoma, influences that touch on the problems of the world and the bigger picture of humanity just don't surface. She was just born with some light that comes from nowhere.''

That tiny town was Bluejacket, a place of rolling pastures, wide, daunting skies, one store and 300 people -- as heartland America as Hilla is heartland Shiite Iraq. Fern, the youngest of five children, always considered the Holland farm in Bluejacket her home, although she lived and went to school a few miles away in Miami, a sports-proud, mostly Baptist community of about 13,000 settled by land-rushers and what the locals refer to as the ''civilized Indian tribes.''

Bluejacket was horses and fishing ponds, firing shotguns with her brothers and sisters; Miami was where her family fell apart, one summer afternoon, when Fern was 4 and her mother tried to kill herself. Her father was a charming, hard-drinking rancher who taught at a junior college and didn't know how to respond to his wife's suicide attempt. He put her in an institution where the doctors gave her electroshock treatments.

''After that, Fern didn't talk for a long time,'' her sister Vi says. Her parents split up. Fern became her mother's guardian angel, and over time, her mother became her hero as she resurrected herself at 40, working days as a secretary at a boron plant and studying at night for a psychology degree until she became a counselor for addicts and the mentally ill. When Fern was 12, her father died of a heart attack. There was pandemonium all around, her brother Joe Ben remembered when I met him recently in his mobile home north of Tulsa. But Fern sat quiet. When Joe Ben caught her pensive stare, she just said, ''I wonder where he is now.'' Fern never got any special treatment, Joe Ben said, contemplating his sister's journey so far from Bluejacket. ''There wasn't Aristotle or Socrates around to teach her,'' he said. ''She just did it. Maybe being raised tough did it.''

What is ''it''? ''Making herself perfect,'' Vi says. Fern got straight A's while working at Tastee-Freez and Radio Shack. She was the family's peacemaker, comedian and natural athlete. She was pretty and popular, a friend to the ostracized, class salutatorian and homecoming queen. She was an honor student in psychology at Oklahoma University, then flew off to see the world, which to her meant saving it. She tended children dying of nuclear-disaster-related diseases in a Russian hospital. She taught kids in a squatter camp in South Africa. She thought about medical school but concluded that the law, as she wrote in her law-school application, was the best means to ''create the most equal and just global society obtainable.'' She got her law degree in Tulsa, then began handling medical malpractice suits while helping Vi take care of her mother, who was dying of emphysema. It was all preparation. A year after she buried her mother in the Bluejacket cemetery, she gave up her partner-track position, joined the Peace Corps and found herself in the Namibian bush not far from the Angolan border.

But if she sometimes did saintly things, she was a hard-living saint. In high school she loved to drive fast, blasting the Violent Femmes, and stay out late at the lake with a bottle of vodka and her best friend, Angie. Her vacations were on the wild side: jumping out of planes, diving with sharks, hiking alone in the snowy Himalayas with a busted knee and summer clothes.

Holland was not, and never claimed to be, a team player. She was an interventionist: getting her Oklahoma friends to send computers to Namibia to bring the Internet to the bush; rousing homeless people in New York City from their slumbers to give them what was left of her meal. As Joe Ben said: ''Fern was tough. If she got mad, thought somebody was a bully, sure she could bulldoze his house down.''

Two years ago, Holland moved to Washington, D.C., hoping to plug into the international-aid scene. She joined the firm of Woodley & McGillivary while looking out for pro bono work abroad. The American Refugee Committee sent her to Guinea to investigate claims that workers for certain nongovernmental organizations were demanding sex from Sierra Leonian and Liberian refugees, women and children, in exchange for humanitarian aid. Not satisfied with documenting the crimes, she proposed setting up a legal-aid clinic in the camps so abused women and children could pursue their cases in court. ''Everyone thought, Come on, this is Africa,'' recalled Colleen Striegel of the American Refugee Committee. ''We didn't think it was realistic. But she looked into Guinean law and learned that Guinea had signed on to international conventions against discriminating against women and children.'' That was enough. She persuaded the committee to go for the idea and began training local attorneys.

Holland was passionate about spreading the legal-aid clinics to other camps. But her firm did not want her making any more pro bono trips. Without much dithering, she decided to leave her six-figure job at the firm, went to work at Starbucks on a morning shift and spent the rest of her time trying to raise money for the Guinean project and pursuing, with her law professor John Norton Moore, the idea of an African Institute for Democracy. But it was the spring of 2003, and the only game in Washington was Iraq.

Babil, home of ancient Babylonia, is often called ''the white flower.'' The Euphrates lolls through Babil, watering willows, eucalyptus and acres of date palms. The people in Hilla, Babil's capital, for the most part welcomed coalition troops as liberators. A mostly Shiite community, Hilla had lost thousands of men during the Iran-Iraq war and the disastrous, American-inspired 1991 uprising against Saddam. In the spring of 2003, after the Baathists were overthrown, the people of Hilla dug up mass graves to look for their relatives. I was traveling there at the time and, in some of the bleakest stretches of desert, watched men praying, ''God is the only god,'' as they heaved remains from the heavy earth: shirts crumpled around skeletons, toe bones tucked in sandals, leg bones clanking like gourds. A man in a dishdasha, drenched in sweat, was searching for his wife among neatly lined-up piles in white shrouds. Inside one he found a black abaya crumpled as if the woman had melted. There was no jewelry, no shoes, just a mulch of henna-colored bones, hair and nails. He had no way of knowing who she was, but he broke down anyway. I looked at my interpreter, a Kurd from Halabja, whom I'd been traveling with since before the war began, and I could see as we drifted slowly from pit to pit that he just wanted to sink and die. One of the men shadowing a grave pointed inside. ''This is America,'' he said. ''They lie here because of America. I'm sorry if you are American, but tell your countrymen that's why they are here. The father Bush betrayed us and brought Saddam back, and look what he did.''

It was graves like these that convinced Holland she had to stay in Iraq. As Stephen Rodolf, her Tulsa lawyer friend, recalled the story: ''I was telling Fern about the protest in the U.S. against our being there, and the fact that the lack of W.M.D.'s was invalidating everything we went in for. She said: 'I don't know anything about W.M.D. But I can tell you this countryside is littered with the graves of men, women and children murdered by this regime.' '' She was collecting testimony for future war-crimes trials from Shiite survivors of Saddam's massacres -- hair-raising tales of escape, of being buried alive beneath the dead, of identities hidden for 12 years until Saddam's fall. Some of these survivors formed the human rights associations that sprouted up across the south that spring.

Babil was ripe for the idealistic vision of Mr. Mike, as Mike Gfoeller, an Arabic-speaking American diplomat and the regional C.P.A. coordinator, was affectionately known. Gfoeller had a plan to open human rights and women's centers and tribal democracy centers in each of the five Shiite provinces he governed. Holland picked up Mr. Mike's vision and went flying, with her focus sharpened on the mission of democracy education and liberating Iraqi women.

Within a month, the crumbling, two-story building she identified in Hilla was a spanking-new women's center with computers and Internet access, sewing machines, a gym, an auditorium for democracy lectures and a kitchen where the local women could cater for the new Iraqi Olympic boxing team. Holland soon identified five more suitable buildings, one in every province.

It was an exciting time. Visions were grand. Cash was flowing by the truckload from Baghdad. Because it was confiscated money from Saddam's coffers that the U.S. was distributing and not official American funds, there were almost no regulations on how it was spent. As Rachel Roe, a reservist and lawyer who was rebuilding the legal system in Najaf, told me: ''Fern showed up in the palace in Baghdad looking for the head of democracy and human rights to see what's the plan and found some 21-year-old political appointee who had no idea what was going on. Someone would just say, 'O.K., take this cash, put it in a backpack and build democracy centers.' It was insane. I was looking for guidance on Iraqi law and was met by a 22-year-old American in charge of the Ministry of Justice who said, 'Don't worry about that, I'm pretty sure we're going to rewrite that constitution anyway.' This is a country of 23 million people, and we're there with no plan for what we're going to do. So we just started figuring it out ourselves.''

They had little time. The money and fancy gear generated envy, and Iraqi men were not accustomed to envying women in a fight over resources. In both Hilla and Karbala, the C.P.A. had kicked out religious parties from government-owned buildings to install the women's centers. A cleric ''destroyed the reputation of a woman on the town council whom I'm very fond of and I love her kids,'' Holland wrote in an e-mail message to a colleague in Washington. ''She was the driving force for the women's group, and now has withdrawn. . . . She's being called a Baathist and a Zionist, etc. . . . My brain is on overdrive trying to hold these fragile groups together. It's like you're on the verge of something explosive and just trying to contain it.''

In the evenings, after a jog along the river inside the compound, Holland would eat, but not much, then begin her nightly e-mail to family and friends, to Republicans and Democrats and nonprofit organizations. She sought money and experts to implement the Bush administration's vision of democratizing the Middle East. ''Islamic fundamentalism is spreading across the south-central region,'' she wrote in one letter, seeking money to hire professors. ''Education is the key for democracy to take root,'' she continued. ''People must know what it is and believe in democracy if we expect them to be motivated to protect it.'' She wanted to reach the ''middle-of-the-road types who are very religious in their faith but not violent'' before the Shiite religious parties engulfed the south, and before the confiscated Saddam cash, and perhaps America's commitment to teaching democracy, dried up. The local parties had 30 years of experience organizing underground cells against Saddam. They had money and they had those powerful campaign billboards -- party founders portrayed as sympathetic martyrs, just like the pictures of Shiism's beloved martyrs Hussein and Ali.

So what started as a humanitarian endeavor to liberate Iraqi women quickly shaped into a political battle. It was the war after the war, and in the Shiite heartland, Holland and her assistant, Salwa Oumashi, were at this war's center. Oumashi's mother, a Christian Syrian widow who'd lost a son to Saddam, was growing anxious for her daughter. But Oumashi and Holland would always tell her, ''If we don't take this opportunity now to fight for rights, we won't have another chance for 50 years.'' When Gfoeller rolled out his idea for a ''heartland conference'' at Hilla's university, gathering women activists as the vanguard for a democracy movement and a new political leadership, ''Fern single-handedly took over the organizing, renovating dormitories at the university, arranging travel,'' recalled her onetime boss at the United States Agency for International Development, where she worked before the C.P.A. ''She went gangbusters with visibility. She knew heavy hitters in D.C. Condoleezza Rice did a video-con message to the participants. Fern took it to greater heights than we ever imagined.''

On Oct. 4 of last year, L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the C.P.A., choppered in and told the women that the Heartland Conference was one of the most exciting events he'd been to. He made a tour of Holland's women's center. Photos were snapped. What Bremer didn't stick around to see were the angry men outside threatening to bomb the place or the slogans that went up overnight on the university campus: ''C.P.A., Americans, British don't intervene in Iraqi affairs.'' And: ''These strange women are here to spread knowledge that doesn't belong to our culture.'' The elite, secular Iraqi women who had recently returned from exile were unnerved by the backlash. Conservative women from the holy city of Najaf, just half an hour away, resented the conference and its dubious teachings. Each group of women shouted down the speakers of the other groups. When Zainab Al-Suwaij, an Iraqi who was brought up by her grandfather, a revered ayatollah, gave a talk about the need for separation of church and state, even she was heckled, despite her Islamic credentials.

Suwaij told me later that Holland had taken a leadership position and tried to please everyone, but it was impossible. ''It was very tense,'' Suwaij said. ''My bodyguards would hear the men outside talking about Fern. They hated her. She was a threat to them. She was nervous and didn't know what was happening, and I told her: 'Be careful. These people you are dealing with are smiling in your face and at the same time putting up slogans against you and sending women to find out what's going on here.' Even I didn't feel safe.''

Suwaij hadn't been back to Iraq in many years -- she went into exile after participating in the 1991 anti-Baathist uprising -- and she said: ''Basra, my home, used to be a modern port city. After I came back, almost all the women were covered. The mentality of the people changed. The wars, the sanctions. They are generous and sweet when you visit, but they are cynical and don't trust people. The political parties are controlling their minds and the women's activities. . . . You find Hezbollah offices in Basra. Hamas offices in Nasiriya.''

Last November, Holland persuaded families in Karbala and Najaf to allow her to take some women to Washington, New York and Boston for democracy seminars and to meet President Bush. She even included some of the conservative Najafi women. One Iraqi lawyer returned to her home in Najaf to find an effigy of herself hanging on her door with the word ''spy.'' She dropped all her activities. One close Iraqi friend of Holland's recalled riding a minibus in Najaf with a simple man who told him, ''My uncle, these foreigners have come to take our wives to foreign lands.''

Fern Holland was making a name for herself. Those she touched called her Barbie, the doll, the white dove or the angel dropped from the sky. But there were also the other names that adhere to Westerners -- spy, Jew -- and, in her case, dangerous agent injecting Western notions in the minds of good Muslim women. Oumashi too, who had lived for a time in the United States and brought back her American clothes and airs and ideas about women's liberation, was considered an American agent. They were, after all, touching Najaf, the center of the Shiite world. It is the home of the shrine of Ali and of the Shiites' most sacred burial ground, where millions have transported their dead for burial in the city's catacombed cemetery. Billions of dollars were at stake from the pilgrim industry, as was the power to define much of the Shiite majority's future in the new Iraq. The last thing male religious leaders wanted was Holland and Oumashi teaching women that they had the power to select their own leaders.

By February of this year, Holland was busy getting a women's center up and running in Karbala, 12 miles northwest of Hilla, despite strong local opposition. It was not just a matter of struggling with local religious conservatives, though that would have been enough in a city built around the tomb of the Shiite martyr Hussein. Just across the street, Karbala's policemen worked in a blighted station house while Holland and Oumashi unloaded new computers and other fancy goods for the sole benefit of Karbala's women. The police were not even being paid any longer; the interior ministry had stopped sending money to the provinces, despite the desperate need for security. Why were the Americans spending their money in this way? In Friday sermons, clerics loyal to the young militant Moktada al-Sadr spread rumors: ''You know what the Americans are doing in these centers, my brothers? They are offering free abortions. You know what these Internet centers are doing? They are offering free porn to the students of the Hawza [the Shiite seminary].''

Bremer flew in for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the women's center with an entourage of private bodyguards and Western reporters. He extolled the talents of the Iraqi women -- all of whom were draped in black from crown to toe. The C.P.A. needed some good-news stories, and the liberation of Iraqi women -- which the administration had increasingly trumpeted as the insurgency failed to crumble and no weapons of mass destruction could be found -- read well back home. The more Iraq spun out of control, the more sugary were C.P.A. Hilla's press releases. ''During the past few weeks, the coalition has given out more than 1,000 soccer balls to children,'' read one. ''The children always come running up . . . happy smiles on their faces.''

But inside the center, the women were worried about their men and the lack of jobs. Dr. Amal, a young farm veterinarian whom Holland had chosen to direct the Karbala center, asked Bremer what he planned to do for Iraq. ''Always it was the same promises -- democracy, participation of women in the political future,'' she told me last summer. But no jobs. Companies, Bremer told her, couldn't come into such an insecure environment. Bremer touted the free market, borders flung open, no restrictions on goods. But in truth there was no free market. Bechtel and Halliburton were stepping in to do the work of the government ministries that had employed so many Iraqis. These companies were hiring foreign workers and security guards from around the world, paying enormous salaries, while young Iraqi men sat idle.

On March 9, the same day Holland went to Kifl and the house was bulldozed, she and Oumashi were scheduled to visit Karbala. Adly Hassanein, the avuncular Egyptian human rights adviser, later told me that he had urged Holland to skip her Karbala visit. Tensions were high in the city. A week earlier, suicide bombers tore apart hundreds of Shiite pilgrims congregated around the shrine of Hussein.

Holland told Hassanein she had to go, but she'd be quick and turn back if the roads were bad. She had a special appointment at the women's center. The previous summer, she began a close working relationship with Ahmed Alhilaly, an investigative judge, and Mohanned Alkinany, a lawyer. Together, the two men founded the Karbala human rights center. They never had any money, and they and Holland joked about forming a ballet company, with Alkinany as the lead dancer because he was so fat. On a trip home over Christmas, ''she didn't forget to get the ballet slippers,'' Alhilaly remembered when I spoke to him in July. He and Holland had arranged a surprise gift-giving ceremony for the morning of March 9 to give Alkinany his dancing shoes. Alhilaly filmed the event and Holland gave a speech about how lucky she was to have discovered people like them who truly wanted to build a new Iraq.

Holland and Oumashi shared a lunch of fesenjoon -- chicken with dried-pomegranate sauce -- with the women on the Karbala center's board and began explaining how the money would be distributed when the C.P.A. left in June. Bob Zangas, an idealistic marine who fought in the invasion of Iraq and returned as a civilian, was upstairs giving a lecture about media ethics and the possibility of installing a radio station for women.

Well before sundown, Holland, Oumashi and Zangas headed out of Karbala with Salman Majeed, a translator who lived outside town. Majeed had taken Zangas to take pictures around Karbala that afternoon. ''Fern was asking Bob about what he'd seen,'' Majeed recalled. ''He was so excited describing the shrine and downtown. He'd taken pictures of faces, banana sellers, watch sellers, people celebrating the birthday of Al Hussein.''

They dropped off Majeed and stopped at a tea stall on the crowded streets of Hindiya, then got back on the road, Holland at the wheel, driving past the blossoming farms. She often teased her worried sisters and brothers by saying Hilla was just like Bluejacket: ''Peaceful. Birds chirping. Kids playing. Elderly walking hand in hand.''

As the three sped along a flat, desolate stretch of road 20 minutes from Hilla, a white police truck gunned its engine and veered alongside her Daewoo. Bursts of AK-47 rounds blasted through Holland's windshield. Her car swerved across the highway median and jolted still into a scraggy verge. The gunmen vaulted out of the pickup and fired again at Oumashi, who was crouched in the back, her arms covering her head.

Fifteen minutes later, Brigadier Qais Al Mamouri, the police chief of Hilla, whom Holland had befriended, showed up at the scene. ''I pulled them out of the car with my hands,'' he told me. Holland was leaning into Zangas as if she were sleeping. ''Fern had been driving,'' Mamouri said, ''and most of the bullets targeted her. The man was shot in the head, but the bullets were fired 360 degrees around the car. Probably 30 or more.''

Mamouri sent his officers across the fields and down dirt roads and before dark six policemen from the Karbala station were captured in a white Nissan pickup with supposedly hot AK-47's and pistols, which used the same types of bullets that were found at the scene. A witness had apparently noticed one of the gunmen shouting at Oumashi in Arabic, leading investigators to conclude that the gunmen knew their victims. The Hilla police arrested the men and turned them over to Polish and American forces. And the case appeared to be closed just as suddenly as the murder had ended the lives of Bob Zangas, Salwa Oumashi and Fern Holland.

That night, Abu Amir, on guard at the Hilla women's center, got a phone call from a friend in the police force. He couldn't believe the news. He thought of a night when had Holland pulled in from Jordan and was unpacking her car under a streetlamp, her hair radiant like the sun. Amir rushed out and told her to get inside for fear such a beauty would be abducted. But killed? He drove to the hospital. He opened the freezer drawer and talked to her, touching her hair. In tears he told her, ''You don't deserve this.''

Before dawn in Oklahoma City, Viola Holland, Fern's sister and best friend, was text-messaging her boyfriend because she couldn't sleep. The phone rang at 5 a.m. with a call from a friend in Washington saying she'd read something on the Internet about three people killed outside Hilla. Vi phoned the Pentagon looking for information. Then came the call from a general at the Pentagon and a simultaneous knock at the door -- two men in uniform from Fort Sill. She asked them to sit quietly for a few minutes while she composed herself.

Holland and Zangas were the first American civilian employees of the C.P.A. to be killed in Iraq. The murders had a lock-down effect. When Steve Moore, a democracy promoter and fellow Oklahoman, was e-mailed about the murder, he had to break the news to Salwa Oumashi's sister, Suhair, who was his interpreter and sat in the next office. ''I had to tell Salwa's family,'' Moore told me. ''And everything you might imagine about telling someone's mother that their daughter is dead. . . . It was absolutely awful.'' Suhair immediately quit the translating job. Oumashi's family became terrified of contact with foreigners. ''Fern had been killed for doing what we both do, and so after that, I started thinking, Well, how long do I want to stay here?'' Moore said. ''What do I want to accomplish?'' He'd been in country for nearly eight months. He decided it was time to move on.

Although the Shiite insurgency, the battles in Falluja, the kidnappings and the beheadings would not begin for another month, the us-versus-them atmosphere had already begun to take over the Shiite world. Women began receiving increasingly graphic death threats. ''Fern changed my life,'' said Sausam al Barak, a chemical engineer and board member at the Hilla center. ''She was the best face of America.'' But when I met her in May, Barak was holed up home with several armed guards posted outside. Women at the various centers read the March 9 murders as a clear augury of their own future. Iraqis who danced with the infidels would die like the infidels.

In Baghdad after the murders, I met Manal Omar, an American activist who has worked all over the Arab world and is director of Iraq's branch of Women for Women International, which in Hilla and Karbala operated out of Holland's centers. Omar immediately froze the work in the south after March 9. The previous day, she noted, had seemed so propitious. March 8 was international women's day; the interim constitution was signed, and it included a goal of 25 percent participation by women in the projected parliament. Holland had worked hard with Iraqi colleagues to ensure this, and it had seemed time for celebration. ''It was pure ecstasy,'' Omar remembered. ''And then the next day, pure terror.''

That same morning of March 9, Omar's own staff members were ambushed on the way to Karbala and survived only by their driver's wits. The murders that day ''challenged all my absolute beliefs,'' Omar recalled. ''Fern and I had the same approach. No guns. Community outreach. Don't hide behind walls. Don't alienate the women. After her death, I thought maybe we're wrong.''

Holland's story immediately took on mythic qualities. Rumors spread in Baghdad that she'd been riddled with 79 machine-gun bullets, a palpable symbol of Iraqi wrath against America. And in a way her story slipped effortlessly into a parable about American exceptionalism. Headstrong, reckless, idealistic, Americans have always believed in the power of will -- that one man or woman with enough faith and tenacity can at some moment pull off his or her vision. It happens here, in America, often enough. But in much of the rest of the world, the willful individual, moiling away against the system, may attain nobility in some moral order but is nonetheless fated to be crushed. These two perspectives are colliding in Iraq. The collision may, in the future, give way to some fruitful synthesis. For now, the result of the occupation is mostly carnage.

As if suspecting that Holland's death might breed doubts, one of her colleagues at the C.P.A. in Baghdad wrote to me: ''Fern had no patience for the narcissistic anguish about the legitimacy of American power that now pervades the foreign-policy establishment, and that is all about what Americans feel about themselves. For Fern it was all about the Iraqi people and what she could do to help this obviously tortured people pull themselves out of the morass of repression.''

But how do you separate Fern's humanitarian mission from the politics of American occupation?

Just off the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad stands an Alhambresque blue-and-white house, with peeling columns and faded arches -- a rare relic of old Baghdadi architecture in an impoverished neighborhood. Zainab Salbi's grandfather owned the house, and now she's using it as a center for Women for Women International, which she founded in 1993. Women for Women receives grants from the U.S. government, and when I traveled in Iraq this past spring, several fatwas and notices were circulating in the mosques forbidding Iraqis from working with foreigners. One of the Women for Women trainers, cloaked in a black abaya, told me: ''Our society doesn't understand our relation with Americans, and that's why I and all of us are afraid. Anyone dealing with Americans -- friendship, work -- they're considered a spy. In my neighborhood, one of the clerics on the municipal council was threatened once to get off. The next time, they killed him.''

The conservative, poor women I saw had all received approval to be at the center from their husbands and brothers. The program's goal is to lead women to financial independence and educate them about their rights. In one room a trainer was telling the women: ''A woman cooks kuba and gives it to her husband to sell in the market. She must learn to ask her husband for a salary. She must speak out and ask for her rights. No one will give them to her.'' Then she added: ''We mustn't work against the men. I have to help my husband, so he will demand even more for me.''

One woman arrived late because her nephew, who drove a Kia-brand taxi, disappeared three days earlier, on the same day that three Kia taxis were blown up in a car-bombing. They were trying to find him or his remains. Another woman was absent because her nephew had been killed in a shootout. Every day this summer there were more such stories of killing and dying.

The center's director was completely rattled -- and like so many Iraqis these days wouldn't dare speak English on her cellphone if she was on the street. She talked about how patient Holland had been. And she said: ''The Shia took the sweets from America and now their real face will appear. They want us to be like Iran. Iran is funding them with money, guns and people because the borders are open. They don't want women's rights or democracy. I am Shia. I know. They call America the biggest devil.'' It was an outburst made in anger and fear, but with regard to the religious parties, much of it was true.

As I left the center, one of the trainers told me how much Holland had changed the image of Americans and said she hoped such people would appear again. Yet everywhere I went, that idealistic, generous side of America was curdling, overwhelmed by cultural dissonance.

When I'd arrived in Karbala, the city was still in shock from the uprising of the Mahdi Army and a week of heavy American bombardment. The smell of rotting flesh baking in the noonday sun suffused the pilgrim hotels and the old market. Around the shrine to Hussein, crowds gathered in front of a small TV playing video of an American tank being attacked. The police station across from the women's center was ringed by Bulgarian tanks and American Bradleys. Most of the police fled the day the Mahdi Army rose.

I stopped in at the Karbala women's center, a two-story yellow and brown building set back behind a gated garden. A Bulgarian soldier was playing a video war game to a Metallica song in the reception room. His comrades were camped out with their machine guns and ammo boxes in the library amid the potted plants and democracy pamphlets and copies of the Swiss constitution. Bullets had pierced the monitors in the computer rooms and destroyed the windows. A machine gun on a tripod was perched beneath small posters with political aphorisms that were a testament to Holland and Oumashi's ambitious dreams: ''A society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves'' (Bertran de Jouvenal); ''Those against politics are in favor of the politics inflicted upon them'' (Bertolt Brecht); ''A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep'' (Saul Bellow).

Some of the women had come back to check the place out only to be handed a decree, announcing a new board, from the offices of Sayyid Farqat Qizwini, a cleric who had managed to endear himself to the C.P.A. A few days later the phone calls began -- You'll be followed and killed if you don't abandon the women's center. The C.P.A. had financed the sleek new Regional Center for Democracy in Hilla and appointed Qizwini director. The day before Bremer left Iraq, he flew down to Qizwini's for a photo op and a ceremony of encouragement. ''He was just a great press release to send to the White House: 'Big religious figure, tortured by Saddam, saying great things about the liberation of Iraq,' '' remarked Adly Hassanein. Nonetheless, Hassanein, too, found it expedient to accept Qizwini: ''He opened up a place for us to teach democracy for people who didn't want to be seen as collaborating with the coalition.''

After Holland's death, the C.P.A. gave Qizwini $5 million in cash to administer all the provincial centers for democracy, human rights and women. However, it seemed that the human rights activists and women were refusing to submit. By empowering Qizwini, the C.P.A. had tried to create an alternative the Shiite establishment, but he had no credibility among Iraqis. ''Fern would be rolling in her grave if she knew a man was running her centers,'' said Manal Omar of Women for Women International's branch in Baghdad. ''Most of my staff is Shia, I am a practicing Muslim, we are all god-fearing women, but we're pulling out of those centers because of the unclear organizational structure. We love and respect the religious groups but need to preserve our independence when we are working with the women.'' The boardmembers Holland had chosen in Karbala were all young women who swore they would remain independent even if it meant they'd have no budget.

John Berry, the Karbala C.P.A. director and a seasoned Arabic-speaking foreign-service officer, had not had his optimism dented in the least. He was barricaded in a fortified compound inside a trailer on the outskirts of town and, despite everything that had gone wrong -- ''we thought most people knew we were the good guys'' -- he was proud of what he'd accomplished in less than a year. The C.P.A. had given way to the interim Iraqi government under Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Berry saw his own job as having been exhilarating. ''For the first time,'' he said, ''I was running a province. Where does a guy go from here?'' At times, he said, he'd felt like a medieval king taking petitions. ''By golly this was a golden opportunity for Americans to interface with Arabs, to play a mentoring role with Iraqis and change the way they think,'' he said.

''I think we can take credit for a lot here,'' Berry continued. ''I formed the provincial council and got the governor elected.'' In fact, there had been no election. Berry selected the council after a half-hour interview with each candidate, testing him or her on the fundamentals of democracy.

Holland had not been impervious to this kind of maneuvering. In Najaf, when Bremer's office saw that religious parties were going to win the provincial council elections, Bremer canceled them. Shortly thereafter the Najaf C.P.A. director was nearly killed and fled the country. Adly Hassanein told me that, in order to get more women on the council, John Berry simply drew up a list inside his trailer. ''There was no democratic process at all, and Fern helped him by getting women's names to put on the list,'' Hassanein said. ''They were all good people. But do they represent the will of the society? No. They weren't elected. So immediately they're 'our guys.' I wanted Fern out of this. Working on the ground to advocate for women's rights is different than working from the top and imposing your views. The backlash was that Moktada al-Sadr's people pressured 60 to 70 percent of the women in the council, and they withdrew.''

In conversation, Abu Saddiq, the hospitable local representative of the religious party Sciri (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq), immediately brought up the 11 women appointed to the 40-member provincial council. ''I told the American representative: 'In the American Congress you don't even have that percentage. Why here in the religious city of Karbala? It's possible for you to develop our country in science, or by building factories and general services, but you can't change our traditions. Our religion is like a nail in the wall. When you hit the nail it doesn't come out. It goes deeper.' ''

Who killed Holland, Oumashi and Zangas? As I drove around the region, I met many women and men who wept when they remembered Holland. But I was discovering that there were plenty of people who wanted her and Oumashi out of the south. Zangas, it seems, was simply in the wrong car. The Karbala police chief, a portly and friendly man known as General Abbas, told me one morning in May that the police officers accused of killing Holland had been released from Abu Ghraib prison two days earlier. Ballistics tests done by the F.B.I. didn't produce a match, so the men were presumed to be innocent.

In Hindiya, a notoriously seedy crossroads town where Holland stopped shortly before being killed, I met some farmers from the same tribe as the arrested policemen. At first they denied knowing anything, but later one of them said: ''Don't think it was some spontaneous decision made that day. Everyone knew those 'journalists' were spies. A lot of special groups were watching them for a long time before they planned and killed them.'' In Hilla, the special police told me a small clique connected to Sadr's sharia court in Najaf ordered Holland's killing. An investigative lawyer in Najaf told me that her death was ordered by a 27-year-old self-proclaimed ayatollah in Hindiya, whose fanatical followers had killed American M.P.'s in Karbala and who has since disappeared. A judge in Baghdad told me it had to be Sciri or Dawa, the two most organized religious parties; Holland was becoming too successful at organizing women in Najaf, he said, and the clerics and political parties there had some bizarre notion that she was a Jew trying to create an espionage base for Israel. An American lawyer told me that the F.B.I. suspected her killing was connected to Kifl. It appeared that the woman who had chiefly instigated the bulldozing was a cousin and sister-in-law to the man whose house was destroyed. There were also rumors in Kifl -- whose Jewish population fled to Israel in the 1950's -- that Israel was sending agents to collect information on formerly Jewish properties. ''Imagine you put your finger in that ball of fire?'' Adly Hassanein said.

Americans working in Iraq blamed the occupation. The Shiite south was initially expected to be quiet. For Washington's political reasons, and out of an unwillingness to bring in more U.S. troops, the south was mainly handed over to a coalition of the least enthusiastic nations, who have demonstrated above all else a talent for conflict avoidance. ''Everyone in Najaf will tell you that this was the second great betrayal of the Shia by the Americans,'' said Rachel Roe, the Army legal adviser working with marines in Najaf.

A State Department official in Washington told me: ''We're responsible for her death. When you push someone with a greater sense of urgency to get their good-news stories done, and when you bring down Jerry Bremer for high-profile ceremonies with helicopters and bodyguards so he can take credit for liberating Iraqi women, after he flies off, the person caught in the crossfire is Fern. And we had a responsibility to protect her. We didn't.''

In the lobby of one of Najaf's pilgrim hotels I met Fuad al-Turfi, a stout, white-turbaned cleric and a spokesman for Moktada al-Sadr. I expected him to have harsh words for Holland's work on women's rights. I was stunned when his eyes became red as he began talking about her. He said that Sadr had sent him to the inauguration of the Najaf human rights center. He met Holland there. She offered him cake. ''She was so courteous,'' he told me as he smiled at the memory. ''She had such good behavior.''

He was dizzy for days after he heard she had been killed, he told me. ''This is not our behavior,'' he said. ''It's against the dignity of the Iraqi. She was a woman. She was unarmed. She came for humanitarian reasons and human rights. And I said, 'What will the good-intentioned people in the U.S. think of us?' To me her murder is a historical crime.'' Embarrassed, he whispered that he kept Holland's photograph as his computer's screen saver.

Turfi bore the Americans no ill will, but was astounded at how badly they'd mishandled the Shiites -- not supporting the police, not securing the borders and most of all, welcoming every religious faction into politics except Moktada al-Sadr and his followers. The results, he said, were the growing popularity of Sadr as a revolutionary hero and the gun-toting young men outside the hotel trading shop talk -- Rocket the tank in the treads, not the turret -- and yearning for martyrdom.

Turfi said that Sadr's office had sent him to Karbala to investigate the murder. He said he had discovered that a tribal man angry over her work in Hindiya had told his buddies at the Hindiya police station that she was a spy. ''He followed her with the local police and they killed her,'' he said. ''He's called 'Aja,' a nickname meaning sandstorm, because he has such a temper. We say in our slang this man 'reached the devil hour,' that he could kill a woman.''

Hassanein, however, didn't buy any of these theories in particular. He said that when he spoke to Iraqis about the murder, their answer was simple: ''She crossed the line. She went deep into the land of male superiority. She was trying to bring with her a very Westernized women's-emancipation program, and she hit the wall. Whether there's a specific group or an individual or anything, it has to do with the religious beliefs in the region and it has to do with the folkways.''

Holland probably knew what she was up against and, despite her indefatigable energy and will, was beginning to have doubts. A week before her death, she made the 20-hour journey from Jordan -- where she took some judges and lawyers to a conference -- to Hilla with Ahmed Alhilaly, the investigative judge from Karbala, who later fled Iraq to save his life. Holland was upset. She said she felt that too much money was being spent on buildings and not people. ''She always said, 'We have to build people before buildings,' '' Alhilaly recalled. ''She loved those words. She asked me how we can change Iraqis. I told her we need years, not months. We know nothing about democracy or human rights or freedom.'' And then he recalled that she said to him: '' 'I've failed. I've discovered I've been fighting for nothing.' ''

Alhilaly protested, but Holland went on, he said: '' 'I went back to America to get another contract with the C.P.A. to continue with you, to establish the women's centers and human rights centers. But if you want the truth, I didn't find almost anyone who is working for his community. Everyone is out for himself.' '' Alhilaly suggested she go back home. ''But she said: 'No. I'll wait. Every step is difficult, but we have to give some time to your people, and we can win three here, three there. It will make a difference.' She had lovely dreams. But they are still just dreams. They killed her and our dreams with her.' ''

Shortly before I left Iraq, I went to a Baghdad provincial council meeting with a council member, Siham Hamdan. She lives in Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City and had spent several days with Holland in Washington. A professor of English literature at Mustansirya University in Baghdad, Hamdan tried to explain why Iraq's young men had revolted. ''We did nothing for them in a year,'' she said. ''No jobs. No projects. No water, services, sewage, electricity.''

And then there was the cultural miscommunication, which seems to have been complete. The American military has its code of ethics and behavior; the Iraqis have their dignity; and the two have only clashed. She said she spent her last night in Washington touring the city with Holland and had met some of her friends. ''I came to believe she was wonderful,'' Hamdan said. ''She told me she wanted to come back to Iraq because she loved the people and couldn't leave them anymore.''

The conversation reminded Hamdan of E. M. Forster's ''Passage to India.'' She valued Forster for understanding that some English conventions were wrong, and that he needed to change the colonial mentality: ''He tried to tackle this in all his novels until he made this final clash -- personal, religious, political, social, cultural, all in one time, in one place in the caves.'' She was describing the novel's climax, when two Englishwomen visit the Marbar Caves with their Indian male friends, and the young Miss Adela Quested comes flying out of the darkness accusing the Indian doctor of assaulting her. ''From that point every party tries to defend his own,'' Hamdan said. ''And what began as an attempt at friendship and understanding ends in misunderstanding, failure and total chaos. And the final sentence is marvelous.'' As Hamdan recalled it, the English colonial, Fielding, asks the Indian doctor if they can ever be friends again: ''And the doctor answered: 'Not yet. Not now.' '' Hamdan laughed, then said: ''Sometimes I feel what's happening between Iraqis and Americans is just like this: 'Not yet. Not now.' I can have an excellent understanding on the personal level but understanding between our nations is somehow impossible.''

Actually, the novel ends a little differently than Hamdan remembered and, in the context of Iraq today, perhaps more prophetically. The Indian doctor on his horse rages at his old friend Fielding: ''Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don't make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it's fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then' -- he rode against him furiously -- 'and then,' he concluded, half kissing him, 'you and I shall be friends.' ''

Elizabeth Rubin, a contributing writer for the magazine, has reported extensively from Iraq.