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Friday, Feb 10 2006 12:45 PM

Iraq latest trouble spot visited by former IMF official

By JOE D. STEVENSON, Californian business columnist

"I have never been as concerned about my security abroad as I am now," Warren Coats Jr. wrote in an e-mail to his parents in Bakersfield, Warren Sr. and Sue Coats.

He must have had a premonition. Coats, a just-retired 25-year veteran of the International Monetary Fund, was called back to duty with a technical assistance team headed for Baghdad. They were to advise authorities on policy issues leading to the establishment of a new Iraqi currency "as quickly as possible."

That was in July. The IMF and the World Bank had established offices in the Canal Hotel, the United Nations headquarters building. Having completed his service in Baghdad, Coats flew back to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to complete his final IMF assignment started before retirement -- only to learn that he has missed possibly being a civilian casualty of terrorist activity by a few weeks.

"Shortly after my arrival here (in Bangladesh), I learned of the latest terrorist bombing in Iraq," he wrote in an Aug. 20 e-mail to his parents.

In a follow-up paragraph, he described his shock:

"The tragic suicide bomber attack on the Canal Hotel is very personal to me. Canal Hotel is also the the headquarters for the IMF and the World Bank in Iraq. When I was there last month, all my time was spent either in the Canal Hotel, Saddam's presidential palace in Baghdad, in a small hotel across the street from U.N. high representative to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello's office or in a car between these (buildings) and the airport.

"My IMF colleague, whose office is in the Canal Hotel, and I spent considerable time in his (de Mello's) office there. He was injured in the bombing but I do not yet know his condition" (de Mello died in the wreckage.)

"Sergio de Mello was an outstanding international civil servant and he will be very badly missed. He had established a very close relationship with U.S. chief administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer. Closer working relationships between the U.S. team in Iraq and the international community is badly needed."

After that opening quote about his personal safety, Coats added: "I felt fairly safe arriving in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan just after those wars had stopped (though it continues in Afghanistan) or in Yugoslavia just after the fall of Milosevic (who had not yet been arrested and was still in Belgrade when I was). The safety of Americans has never been lower, even here at home."

Coats, 60, retired as a senior banking and currency adviser for the IMF, worked with Third World central banking officials from Panama to Kyrgyzstan in a career that found the Bakersfield native in many trouble spots, including the Balkans and other countries of the Near East.

In 1992, after the Soviet Union broke up into independent republics, Coats was with an IMF delegation that met in Uzbekistan, with a gathering of central bank governors from the new republics to consider their currency futures. A year later, he was assigned to Kyrgyzstan to guide its central bankers in establishing a new currency. In recent years, he has been in Turkey to coach the Turkish bankers on strategies to curb runaway inflation.

Some seven years ago he was in Gaza City, offering currency advice to the Palestinian provisional government. It was a time of unrest in Israel, with an increase of bus bombings. His breakfast was interrupted one morning by a bus bombing within earshot.

The IMF team left Israel, crossing the Jordan River into Jordan on the somewhat-famous Allenby Bridge. Coats found both the bridge and the river a disappointment, describing the Allenby as a small wooden bridge and the Jordan River as "little more than a creek."

The departure was a nervous time, however. The team was militarily escorted into Jordan in vehicles bearing United Nations flags.

Coats has had to cope with the weather as well as various political environments. Before his recent junket into Iraq, he purchased desert clothing in anticipation of 120-degree temperatures and no air conditioning. He had a longer tenure in Kosovo, but he recalled that growing up in the San Joaquin Valley prepared him for that. He was a short-timer in Afghanistan, but it was winter and the heating oil in his room seldom lasted until daybreak.

Some of the early summer was sort of a farewell tour of past assignments. He was in Bosnia-Herzegovina to give a speech at a conference celebrating the first five years of the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina which he helped establish.

His duty in Bangladesh has been to continue negotiations with the authorities over the reform and eventual privatization of the state banks. He notes that that is one of the conditions for the country to qualify for an IMF loan.

In his July e-mail, he remarked: "You may wonder why I am joining the effort to rebuild a stable, successful Iraq when I felt the war was not justified and not wise. A bigger mistake would be giving up after doing half the job. I have nothing but high respect and praise by the impressive job by our military in its stunning success with the first phase of the war. The second phase, removing the Baathist threat and establishing security and basic services, is not going so well."

And Coats has a post-IMF job. He is a member of the board of directors of the Cayman Island Monetary Authority. He describes the Caymans as a large offshore financial center. He describes his position as "like being a governor of the Federal Reserve Bank (of which Alan Greenspan is the chairman) but, needless to say, much, much smaller."

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