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Rebuilding Iraq

'We know what war means'

As conflict looms, three Iraqi-Americans tell their side of the story

By Vanessa E. Jones, Globe Staff, 2/17/2003

Iraqi-American Zainab Al-Suwaij fought during the 1991 civilian uprising against Saddam Hussein. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

A fellow political refugee fears for his family's safety and prefers to remain anonymous. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Sahar Bazzaz, who has a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard, has spoken out about her experiences in Iraq. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

They left their Iraqi homeland for different reasons. Two are political refugees forced to flee after participating in the intifadah, as Iraqis call the 1991 civilian uprising against Saddam Hussein. Another arrived in the arms of her parents, part of a wave of Iraqis who immigrated here in the 1960s and '70s to study at American colleges.

These strangers gathered together at the Globe recently for a two-hour discussion, sprinkled with laughter and disagreement, about war, Iraq, and Hussein. Chuckles erupted over a joke about Iraq's lack of democracy. A fierce debate broke out over how much US intervention is needed to rid Iraq of Hussein. And uncomfortable, awkward silences followed hushed descriptions of terror and suffering under Hussein's rule.

As the Bush administration tries to build proof that Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction and relentlessly marches toward an invasion of Iraq, their stories illustrated the human toll behind the black-and-white words of war. Their opinions differed on various issues, but they agreed on one point: Hussein must go.

The individuals meet shyly, asking gentle, probing questions about one another's origins in English that soon melts into mellifluous Arabic. There's Sahar Bazzaz, a 37-year-old Cambridge resident who speaks with the Midwestern accent of the Urbana, Ill., town where her family moved when she was 2 years old. Zainab Al-Suwaij, 31, also lives in Cambridge and was one of the few women battling beside the men during the intifadah against Hussein. And there's another intifadah refugee, a loquacious 36-year-old Quincy man who asks to remain anonymous because he fears his criticisms could lead to the harassment or even the death of his mother, sister, and brother in Iraq.

They are members of a disparate community of recent immigrants and longtime American citizens who began arriving here in waves in 1936, when Christian Iraqis fled after a failed coup attempt against King Ghazi. It isn't clear how many Iraqi-Americans live in the United States. The 2000 Census estimates that 300 people of Iraqi descent live in the Boston area. The figure may be higher; the Census counts 33,000 Iraqis nationwide, and the Iraq Foundation, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., says the US population numbers half a million.

''We are people who suffer,'' says the man who asks to be called by the pseudonym Abu Ali, ''the father of Ali'' in Arabic, in deference to a son who will be born in July. An accountant by training, he works as a gas-station attendant in Dorchester because he hasn't been able to find a job in his field since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

''We know what war means,'' Ali says. ''When you see your neighbors or your house destroyed by a bomb, when you see bodies . . . getting slaughtered in the most horrific images that you can ever generate, you understand war is not something easy to do. War is justified only when you are attacked. Other than this, it's a horrible place to be.''

Differences of opinion

In truth, Iraqi-Americans are divided on the question of war. ''Liberation of Iraq must be done by Iraqis,'' Ali says. ''Exactly,'' responds Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, an organization in Cambridge's Kendall Square that promotes tolerance of American Muslims. ''But Iraqis themselves cannot do it.'' So, she says, she anxiously waits for the United States to go to war with Iraq.

These Iraqi-Americans are united in one thing: They want the reins of power wrested from Hussein. ''Everyone desires change,'' says Bazzaz, who received a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University in June and still looks like a student in a red down jacket, jeans, and tousled hair. ''I mean everyone, everyone, has lost someone [to Hussein's brutality]. It doesn't matter whether they've been here 10 years or they've been here 30 years.''

Bazzaz lost her uncle, a prime minister in the regime that preceded Hussein's. Witnesses say he was tortured before dying in an Iraqi prison in 1972. The others describe an Iraq where relatives can suddenly disappear, informers permeate all parts of society, and government-sanctioned torture is as creative as it is brutal.

Al-Suwaij, who covers her hair traditionally with a white scarf decorated with pink flowers, arrived in the United States 11 years ago. She and Ali remember President George H. W. Bush's 1991 promise, made days after the Gulf War ended, to provide help if Iraqi civilians rose up against Hussein. An uprising was attempted, but the help never arrived -- ''unfortunately'' is the word Al-Suwaij and Ali repeat forlornly. Hussein's forces slaughtered those who hadn't crossed Iraq's borders to safety.

The failure to assist the Iraqi uprising left Ali distrustful of the United States. ''In 1991, we learned that Americans didn't help Iraqis because they don't want the change to happen randomly,'' he says. ''They want the change to be controlled.''

He says he would rather have Iraqis determine their own road to democracy than have American soldiers invade and occupy Iraq: ''To help [Iraqis] gain their liberty will be appreciated forever, but giving somebody liberty? It doesn't make sense.''

Paying a price

Al-Suwaij heard a different message in October when she was in the Middle East interviewing Iraqis for the autobiography she's writing. She says they told her, '' `We cannot do it,' '' referring to another attempt to overthrow Hussein. ''They're clear: `We did it in 1991 because we knew Americans were there.' ''

The former Yale University professor of Arabic who moved to Boston four months ago agrees with their assessment. ''Without support,'' says Al-Suwaij, ''the price we paid in 1991 was very, very high. Many people being killed, many people being tortured, many women being raped. I think we just need a force, just a backup.''

Ali and Al-Suwaij had good reason to fight Hussein then. Ali believes his college grades were lowered to keep him out of graduate school partially because he was an outspoken Shiite Muslim in a country ruled by the Sunni minority. He describes a country where ''people were executed in the streets because they resisted going to the war. We were all living in `scared' mode. I spent four years in college back home. My mother used to say, `I don't know if you're going to come back today.' ''

Al-Suwaij also tells harrowing stories. In the late 1980s, Iraqi officials told her she could take her final exams in high school only if she joined Hussein's Baath Party. When Al-Suwaij refused, the principal asked her to sign a statement that the government could execute her if she joined another political or religious party.

She signed, she says quietly, her head hung low, ''just to be part of the final exam.''

Al-Suwaij has lyrically detailed her experiences in Iraq and her opinions about war in op-ed pieces published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The New Republic. She and Bazzaz have spoken at Simmons College and Harvard. But they are in a minority. So far, only a smattering of Iraqi-Americans have told their stories to the media.

''The Arab diaspora, my community here, is a silent community in a very strange way,'' says Bazzaz. ''Part of it has to do with . . . the political culture they came from, not quite understanding the political culture they're in.''

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, also drastically changed the political climate in the United States. This is, Bazzaz says, ''a patriotic time when any negative word about the US is considered unpatriotic. That's something that all immigrants face. I think [Iraqi-American] people have a fear, too. Better to not get involved. We've had enough of this [nationalism]. We're trying to get away from this.''

That doesn't stop Iraqi and American political tensions from reaching into everyday life. Ali has gotten meager responses to the hundreds of resumes he's sent out seeking an accounting job. Is it the recession? Discrimination? It's impossible for him to tell.

''I can't say [discrimination] is not there, because in one of my jobs somebody did say, `Are you trying to blow up the place?' or whatever,'' Ali says. ''But he did it as a joke. So I responded to him as a joke. But after, I felt very defensive about that.''

'Why now?'

Talk turns to the motivation behind US intervention in Iraq. The question `Why now?' hovers over the discussion. ''There's no precedent in US foreign policy to indicate that human rights in the Arab world are at the forefront of the agenda,'' Bazzaz says. ''What has historically guided US foreign policy is geopolitical interests, at the expense of human rights.''

The fact is, these Iraqi-Americans say, Hussein has used weapons of mass destruction against his people for decades. And if he does possess them, they point out, he's not alone: North Korea, India, Pakistan, and several other countries also harbor such weapons.

They angrily note that the United States helped Hussein attain his deadly toys by supporting Iraq during its war with Iran. That fact only weakens the American position in Ali's eyes: ''The judge is not that much different from the criminal.'' Instead of military intervention, Ali repeatedly calls for Hussein to be tried by the United Nations' war-crimes tribunal.

They watched as President Bush detailed his case against Iraq during his State of the Union address last month. They listened as Colin Powell told the UN two weeks ago that Iraq is harboring illegal weapons and has ties to Al Qaeda. Hussein, these Iraqi-Americans grudgingly say, is much too smart to be caught.

''He's scared of his shadow now,'' says Ali. ''The last one he wants to make trouble with is the US. All he cares about is his place in Iraq -- to be the king of all the people.''

Don't expect Hussein to give up the weapons he has hidden in schools and private homes for years, they warn. The seesaw of accusation and denial will continue between the West and Iraq until war finally erupts, they believe.

''He's like a baby,'' says Al-Suwaij. ''He spent so much money on [his weapons]. He risked a lot of lives for it. He's not going to give it away like that.''

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 2/17/2003.
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