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Rebuilding Iraq


Exile to leave Mass. to help build free Iraqi society

By Wayne Washington, Globe Staff, 04/05/2003

WASHINGTON -- Amid widespread skepticism, Iraqi exile Zainab Al-Suwaij of Quincy came to the capital yesterday to offer her vision of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq: a civil society governed by a parliament representing the country's religious and ethnic factions.

Suwaij also met with President Bush, who is consulting with Iraqi exiles willing to return home and assume leadership positions. Sawaij said she expects to participate in rebuilding the country's education system and envisions an Iraq with free labor unions, courts, schools, and media.

As the Bush administration looks past the war and toward reconstruction, many specialists express concern that efforts to build a democratic Iraq will be hampered by ethnic and tribal divisions and the country's long history of authoritarian rule. But Suwaij, who organized the Cambridge-based American Islamic Congress to promote tolerance within the Muslim community, expressed confidence that a democracy would take root.

"People are eager to have civil society," Suwaij told an audience at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank. "I think Iraqis are capable of establishing a free society."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday's meeting with Iraqi exiles was a reminder of "how much people care about freedom and liberty and how the voices of those who are fortunate enough to have left Iraq and who can speak freely without being tortured or killed, that these voices here in America represent the voices of the people living inside Iraq today."

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that an interim administration should be set up quickly, with exiled Iraqis and opponents of Hussein's regime playing a prominent role. "We are anxious to move quickly," Powell said after a meeting at the White House with Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

In the vision of post-Hussein Iraq Suwaij outlined, the country's Shi'ite majority, long oppressed by Hussein, does not take bloody revenge against the Sunni Muslims, a minority population who have been part of the ruling class. Kurds who dominate the northern part of Iraq do not form an independent nation. The Iraqis, who have never lived under democracy, work together for a free society.

Suwaij, who left Iraq in 1991 after participating in an uprising that failed to remove Hussein from power, shares Bush's disdain for the Iraqi president and gave an audience at the Ethics and Public Policy Center gripping details of the brutal methods used to crush dissent.

With the promise of American support still ringing in their ears, Suwaij and others tried to overthrow Hussein's government, which had been battered by US forces during the 1991 Gulf War.

"Within one week, we liberated 15 of the 18 provinces in Iraq," Suwaij said.

Suwaij said she was allowed to tour an Iraqi jail in Karbala, a heavily populated city one hour southwest of Baghdad. There she saw a torture chamber, a human-meat grinder, rooms for sexual torture, tools to pluck fingernails, a chemical bath area, and electrical wires used to shock opponents of Hussein's regime, she said.

"For three decades, war has been waged in Iraq -- waged against the people of Iraq," Suwaij said.

But the promises of US assistance to dissenters were not fulfilled. Hussein crushed the revolt.

Suwaij escaped, eventually immigrating to the United States.

The White House largely shares the view that a stable democracy can take root in post-Hussein Iraq. But some scholars say the reality could be different, and much more messy.

Laura Drake, a former adjunct professor of Middle East studies at American University, said a post-war US occupation of Iraq will pose special challenges to both American foreign policy interests and to Iraqis returning to assume leadership positions.

"I don't think people inside Iraq even know who they are for the most part," Drake said of exiled Iraqis. "In Iraq, like anywhere else, you have to have a political base. And they have no political base; they left.

"The only way they can get in there is if the US puts them in, and then they'd be seen as puppets."

Drake said Suwaij and others like her clearly want good things for their country, but probably do not have an up-to-date picture of life there.

"You lose your tie to it," Suwaij said. "You lose your instinct for it. It becomes a caricature."

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