President George W. Bush’s hopes for re-election are now riding on turning Iraq, a country riven by ethnic and religious factions with no memory of anything but dictatorship, into a stable, thriving democracy. In that daunting task, the president is counting not only on the US military, which has suffered more casualties from guerrilla attacks since the declared May 1 end of the anti-Saddam war than during it. He’s also relying on Andrew Natsios, head of the United States Agency for International Development and the man charged with rebuilding the war-torn country.

“The president took a big risk to do the right thing,” says Natsios, “and we have to make sure this [reconstruction] works.”

Natsios was shot at in Sarajevo and taken prisoner by Sudanese thugs.

It won’t be Natsios’s first salvage operation. Natsios was secretary of administration and finance under Gov. Paul Cellucci when the Big Dig cost overruns came to light, and Cellucci gave Natsios the job of restoring public–and Federal Highway Administration–confidence in the nation’s largest public-works project through a combination of tough management and open communication. But even the Big Dig mop-up was light duty for a man whose career has bounced between the Massachusetts State House and the nation’s capital, where he has specialized in international disasters. When he took over the Central Artery/Tunnel Project in 2000, he joked to a Boston Herald reporter, “I know it won’t kill me.”

Natsios began public life representing Holliston in the state Legislature from 1975 to 1987, diligently toiling in the political wilderness then occupied by Massachusetts Republicans; Natsios also served as state GOP chairman. In 1980, he worked on the first (unsuccessful) presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush alongside fellow Republican lawmakers Cellucci, now US ambassador to Canada, and Andrew Card, now White House chief of staff. When the elder Bush, who was Ronald Reagan’s vice president, defeated Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988 to become president, Natsios left for Washington, where he was named head of USAID’s office of foreign disaster assistance. After Bill Clinton defeated Bush in 1992, Natsios became vice president of World Vision, a humanitarian relief organization based in Washington. It was exciting –at times terrifying–work. Natsios was shot at in Sarajevo, taken prisoner by Sudanese thugs, and witness to the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, he says.

Natsios returned to Boston in 1999, signing on with his old friend Cellucci, first as budget chief and then taking over the Big Dig as chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. But another old Massachusetts hand, Andy Card, lured Natsios back to Washington in 2001 to work for another President Bush, offering him the top job at USAID.

But Natsios could not have predicted how much of his international-development work would revolve around the war against terrorism. Less than a year after his arrival at USAID, Natsios was one of the first officials to travel to Afghanistan, arriving even as the United States fought for control of the country. And in June of this year, Natsios traveled to Iraq, touring the country from north to south for six days. He visited broken-down power plants, palaces that had been looted, foul-smelling sewer treatment facilities, understaffed health clinics, and burned-out government buildings. He also saw some examples of what the United States’ deep pockets can do for the new Iraq: a refurbished school, a newly reopened courthouse, a fire station rescued from looters.

Of all the things Natsios saw during his whirlwind tour, the one that stuck out most, he says, was a graveyard. Traveling with a television crew from the cable station C-SPAN, Natsios visited the arid Al Hilla region of southern Iraq, where it is believed that thousands of Shiite Muslims were executed by Hussein’s henchmen after the 1991 Gulf War. Since the United States took over Iraq in April, volunteers have uncovered many of the bodies, removing clothes and personal effects from the bones and placing them in white plastic bags atop the graves, so that relatives can try to identify them.

Natsios spoke with one woman who said that 50 of her family members had been taken away by Saddam’s henchmen. “She thinks they are coming back,” says Natsios, sadly. “She never saw them get killed. She never saw the mass graves.”

Experiences like that have redoubled Natsios’s determination not only to succeed in rebuilding Iraq but also to bring economic development to the rest of the world’s developing nations. If the United States is ever to eliminate terrorism abroad, he believes, those efforts have to succeed.

“For a conservative Republican who believes in less government and limited taxation, he’s very compassionate,” says Cellucci. “He’s determined to help poor people around the world have a better life, and he’s dedicated a good portion of his life to it.”

His latest mission: Remake foreign aid.

That determination has put Natsios in the middle of another Bush administration initiative: remaking foreign aid. Though less explosive than Iraq, foreign aid is nobody’s idea of a popular issue on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress have always found it difficult to justify foreign aid to their constituents, especially because of the general perception–mostly correct–that such financial assistance has failed to lift developing countries out of poverty. In the 1990s, the percentage of the federal budget going to foreign aid hit a new low, placing the United States behind 21 other countries in its generosity toward the developing world. In 2000, debating Al Gore, Republican nominee Bush openly mocked the idea of using US resources for “nation-building” in foreign lands.

But September 11, and the recognition that poor countries provide ready breeding grounds for terrorist networks, changed Bush’s attitude. So now Natsios finds himself not only the manager of billion-dollar reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also a critical player in the Bush administration’s drive to boost foreign aid 50 percent by 2006–and to recast entirely the way that the United States divvies it up.

In response to the widespread view in Washington that much foreign aid has gone to waste at the hands of corrupt foreign governments, Natsios helped design a new mechanism, called the Millennium Challenge Account, that would force developing countries to compete for funds. Only countries judged to be promoting democracy, human rights, and economic development would have a shot at the money, and only those that use the funds effectively would receive continued assistance. This kind of performance assessment, if approved, would be the first of its kind in foreign aid.

Congress seems willing to give the Millennium Challenge Account a try. Both the House and the Senate Foreign Relations committees have approved, by wide bipartisan majorities, bills to create the fund. Observers say that Natsios’s tireless lobbying has helped move the proposal along.

“Andrew has always had a let’s-get-this-accomplished attitude,” says Catherine Bertini, undersecretary for management of the United Nations and a longtime colleague. “He knows what he wants to achieve, and he’s very aggressive.”

“It goes back to the time when he was a young state representative,” says Leon Lombardi, who served with Natsios in the Legislature. “He just has a very good knack for looking at a larger picture and having a focus and consistent philosophy. He knows how to work hard to achieve his goal.”

He’ll have to. In Iraq, his agency is overseeing nine contracts to do everything from rebuilding infrastructure to promoting democratic institutions. Still, Natsios says the work itself is nothing out of the ordinary for USAID, whose 2,000 employees are used to toiling in the most dysfunctional countries in the world. The difference is, “it’s on a much, much larger scale,” he says. “We’ve never spent this much money [in one country] since the Marshall Plan.”

Natsios says the agency has made progress more quickly in Iraq than in any of 12 prior reconstruction efforts in which he’s taken part. But that hasn’t kept USAID from drawing fire for both the pace and effectiveness of its efforts. In April, Newt Gingrich, the former Republican US House Speaker, called for USAID’s abolition, describing the agency’s relief work in Afghanistan as listless and overly bureaucratic. And in Iraq, USAID has come under fire–and congressional investigation–for limiting competition on its reconstruction contracts. In all cases but one, the agency limited the bidding to a few firms. The most substantial contract went to San Francisco-based Bechtel, the Big Dig’s major contractor.

Finally, the prominent role of the US military in the reconstruction of Iraq bothers many humanitarian relief groups, some of which have refused to work in the country because of it. J. Brian Atwood, who headed USAID for six years during the Clinton administration, says the aid agency needs to be more independent of the military. “It’s a dangerous thing for USAID to be pushed around by the White House and the Pentagon,” says Atwood, who has since worked for former congressman Joe Kennedy’s Citizens Energy Corp. in Boston and is now dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

But Natsios says the real threat to his work in Iraq is impatience. “The biggest problem that USAID and the US government face is rising expectations that are not realistic,” he says. “People think the United States in two weeks can rebuild a society. It doesn’t take two weeks. It takes months and years.” With the presidential election just 12 months away, whether Natsios–and his boss –will get those months and years remains to be seen.