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A Long Journey From Iraq Leads to Backing for War

Zainab Al-Suwaij is the executive director of the American Islamic Congress. Web site: www .aicongress.org

For the last few weeks, the news has been filled with images of soldiers shipping out, most likely to the Persian Gulf. I see dedication in their eyes, but I also see the uncertainty that comes with going off to war.

I lived through war almost my entire childhood in Iraq. When I was in fourth grade in 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. For the next eight years, my hometown of Basra suffered daily Iranian bombing raids.

Outside our school, my friends and I used to wave at passing military cars with young soldiers in the back, heading off to the front. We would flash them victory signs, but they would shake their fingers at us and make an upside down V -- the opposite of victory. With hundreds dying every week on the front lines and capital punishment the penalty for deserters, these young men were bitter because they knew their lives had been stolen from them for no reason other than Hussein’s deadly ambition.

Throughout the war with Iran, students were forced to attend staged rallies praising Hussein and our “martyrs” dying for a holy cause at the front. Teachers would end school early, and police carrying whips would force us out into the streets and hand us signs to hold up for the cameras. The government propaganda made me sick, and I always tried to run away, but the police prevented it. In the late 1980s, the war with Iran (Iraqis call it the first Gulf War) ended, but Hussein’s war against his own people continued. Iraq was a dead end, so after graduating from high school in 1990, I left for Kuwait. But Hussein followed me south a few weeks later, with his invasion of Kuwait and terror campaign against its civilians.

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In Kuwait, I got to see the brutality of Hussein’s army up close -- people tortured and beaten. Hussein proclaimed that he was freeing the Kuwaiti people, but the only liberations I was aware of resulted in animals from Kuwait City’s zoo running wild in the streets.

To escape the chaos of Kuwait, I returned to Iraq. There, I experienced both the allied bombing assault and the painfully short popular uprising against Hussein.

As Hussein’s forces withdrew from Kuwait, the Iraqi people, encouraged by U.S. leaders, rose up. With very few weapons, thousands desperate for freedom suddenly took to the streets and confronted Hussein’s forces. Although I was only 20 years old and a woman, I joined in the fighting. American help never came, and Hussein’s forces regrouped and killed thousands to regain control of Iraq. Those of us who survived scattered across Iraq and around the world. Our hopes crushed, we tried to forget what it was like to taste freedom for a few days.

Today in the U.S., as I watch soldiers shipping off, I see protesters chanting against American ambition and greed. Having lived through wars that were all about one man’s ambition and greed, I am pained to see how these protesters have missed the mark. On behalf of Iraqis who cannot speak openly with reporters or who have given their lives trying to free Iraq from Hussein’s brutal rule, let me say clearly: American, British and other allied soldiers are a sign of hope and liberation.

War is terrible. I never want my American children to experience what I lived through in Iraq. So as my fellow Americans leave for battle today as I remember Iraqi soldiers going off to fight two decades ago, I am again moved to flash the victory sign, but this time to people who are proud to stand up for freedom at home and around the world.

I recently participated in an interfaith event at a synagogue in Boston to discuss building bridges between Muslims and Jews in these tense times. Afterward, a woman approached me with tears in her eyes. “My teenage son is an American soldier who recently shipped out to the Persian Gulf,” she said. “I just want to know, is my son going there to do the right thing?”

Even though I had never met this woman before, I immediately recognized her pain. “I am so proud of your son,” I told her. “You should be too.”


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