IRAQ: Iraqi people yearn to taste freedom again

Zainab Al-Suwaij

Posted Feb 11, 2003      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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As an American who was born and raised in Iraq, I am often asked, “Are you for the war on Iraq?”

My answer: I am for ending the war in Iraq ? and that won’t happen until Saddam Hussein goes.

I know the horrors of war all too well. In 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, beginning eight years of bombing raids on my hometown of Basra. In 1990, I left for Kuwait, only to witness Iraq’s invasion in August. In 1991, I returned home and experienced both the allied bombing assault and the painfully short popular uprising against Saddam.

But I also know that freedom is possible. For one week in March 1991, I saw what it was like to live outside of Saddam’s control. As Saddam withdrew from Kuwait, the first President Bush encouraged Iraqis to rise up. We did and, within a few days, liberated most of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The secret police state collapsed, and we began to talk openly with our own families and our neighbors. Iraqis celebrated in the streets, freed Saddam’s prisoners and volunteered in hospitals. But American help never came, Saddam regrouped, and his state of terror came crashing back down on us.

If the Iraqi people are to have any hope of again experiencing that exhilarating feeling of freedom, the United States needs to make certain that Saddam can no longer terrorize his own people. If America again fails to remove Saddam Hussein from power, the long-term suffering of my people will only continue.

Saddam’s war in Iraq has raged for more than 30 years. In 1968, his Baath Party seized power, and Saddam began his climb to become Iraq’s dictator. To dominate the country, he has unleashed every known weapon in Iraq’s arsenal against his own people ? from tanks to torture chambers to poison gas. The war in Iraq has claimed more than 1million lives and made 4 million refugees.

Saddam employs thousands of secret police and informers throughout the country to turn Iraqis against each other, even within families. On TV, we watched Saddam reward fathers with large cash prizes for turning in sons who had deserted the army.

Even children are not spared. When I attended fourth grade in 1981, my teacher called me to the front of the class and asked: “Do your parents say anything bad about the government?” The whole class was staring at me. Stunned and scared, I answered, “No.” But when one of my classmates said in passing that Iran was not so bad, she disappeared the next day, along with her family.

To pass the final exam for ninth grade, Iraqi students must read a speech by the seventh-century governor of Iraq, Al-Hadjadj, who killed 120,000 and jailed tens of thousands. We spent hours memorizing his words: “I see heads that are ripe, and I am the one to pluck them. ... O people of Iraq, people of discord and deceit ... I will tie you up like a bundle of twigs. I will beat you like stray camels.”

The message was clear to all of us: The role of Iraq’s leader is to terrorize his people.

For Kurds, an ethnic minority in northern Iraq, this terror has been genocidal. On a recent flight from Cairo to Damascus, I sat next to Shahram Saied, a Kurd who was jailed for four years in a prison outside of Baghdad. He was tortured every day and described the shrieks of prisoners held in solitary confinement. After his release, Shahram fled north, only to discover that his family and village had been destroyed. In 1988, Saddam waged a brutal campaign against the Kurds, killing thousands with poison gas; tens of thousands of other civilians disappeared throughout the 1980s.

“Saddam is just playing games with the weapons inspectors,” Shahram told me. “People in the West are complaining about the effects of the sanctions. But we don’t need food; we need freedom.”

When I arrived in Damascus, I met for the first time my great uncle, who was jailed for years by the Iraqi police before being released due to old age. The prison guards hung him by his toes for hours on end. As we sat and talked in his living room, he pulled up his robe to reveal his toes, all deformed and twisted on top of each other.

For three decades, the bodies and minds of Iraqis have been tortured and twisted like my great uncle’s toes. To end the war against the Iraqi people, Saddam must go. I say this as someone who has suffered through more than a decade of war ? but also as someone who saw Iraq free from Saddam’s rule for one week.

The world has largely forgotten our 1991 uprising, but this event from the past offers a vision of the future. Liberated from the weight of Saddam’s terror state, Iraqis will regain their humanity, start to speak openly and instinctively organize a civil society.

Zainab Al-Suwaij is the executive director of the American Islamic Congress, an organization dedicated to building tolerance and civil rights in America and the Muslim world.  You can reach the American Islamic Congress at or   617-621-1511

Originally published in the January 14th issue of U.S.A. Today and reprinted with permission of the author.