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A Remedy That Harms More Than It Heals

War would devastate the innocent. Change is needed, but it must come from within.

October 06, 2002|HAIFA ZANGANA | Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi British novelist.

LONDON — I believe Saddam Hussein is responsible for leading Iraq from a situation of great promise into one of unmitigated catastrophe. I believe he must be held to account for the country's abject failure and for the crimes his regime committed against the Iraqi people, against Arabs and Kurds alike.

But I do not believe the U.S. and British-led war now being contemplated will benefit Iraq.

I say this as someone who knows firsthand how bad things are for Iraqis under Baath Party rule. In August 1971, when I was in my third year of pharmacy school at Baghdad University, Hussein had not yet come to power, but his party had. Its excesses were legion. I had taken the risk of joining a radical opposition party that advocated such things as developing the Iraqi national economy, granting popular freedoms, freeing all political prisoners and securing self-rule for Iraqi Kurdistan.

Inevitably, my political activities came to the attention of the regime, and one day I returned home to find security officers waiting for me. They arrested me and drove me to Qasir Al Nihaya, a political detention center, where I was forced to stand naked in the middle of a room in front of four men. A man sitting behind a desk was clearly in charge, although he did not say much. He was of medium height with dark skin and wore sunglasses with gold rims. He had a dark suit on and fingered a rosary, which held his attention when he wasn't looking at me.

Another of the men circled me. Then he touched me. I could hear the laughter of the others. He began beating me and kicking me in the groin. Soon, I was wet with blood and urine. He kicked me again in the head and then stopped.

I was held in prison for months. Everything around me emphasized what seemed like inevitable death. They brought in my friends, one by one, and I saw their tortured bodies and the same strange emptiness in their eyes. In January 1972, three of my friends were executed.

Finally, I was released, in part, perhaps, because the Baath regime was trying to polish its image internationally, and executing a young women was unlikely to help. More important to my getting out, in all probability, was that I had an influential relative: Sabah Mirza, Hussein's friend during his college years and later his most faithful bodyguard (although he is currently under house arrest).

After my release, I remained imprisoned by my memories. I could still hear human howling and see the bodies of the dead. Fearful of further violence, I fled Iraq on a false passport and settled in London where, 15 years later, I wrote an autobiographical novel, "Through Vast Halls of Memory." Even today I am burdened--as are other friends who survived--with the guilt of being alive.

Now I watch as my adopted country prepares to join the United States in a war it says will liberate the Iraqi people from Hussein's dictatorial regime, establish democracy and save the world from weapons of mass destruction. These are all things I believe in fervently, but I am horrified by the wrongheadedness of what I see unfolding.

The Iraqi people's experience of U.S. interest in their country has not been positive. When 5,000 Kurds were massacred in Halabja in 1988, the U.S. did nothing--other than continue cozying up to Hussein, whom it viewed as an important counterweight to Iran. There was no war on Iraq to defend the Kurds. There was no U.N. resolution to condemn the atrocity.

A couple of years after Halabja, though, when the Iraqi regime occupied Kuwait--an important oil producer and former ally of Hussein in his war against Iran--the U.S. leapt into action. The trouble was, the 1991 war on Iraq was really a war on the Iraqi people, who were Hussein's primary victims.

For 43 days, the attack was constant. Bombs rained down on water purification plants and pumping stations, on electrical power stations and oil refineries, on warehouses that stored seeds and animal vaccines. Three of Baghdad's historic bridges were destroyed. On the road to Basra, thousands of retreating soldiers were killed, most of them conscripts.

The terror for average Iraqis didn't stop with the cease-fire. Children who went through the siege continued to be terrified by loud noises. Newlywed women refused to have children for fear of giving birth to deformed babies resulting from the depleted uranium ammunition used by British and U.S. troops.

And there was great bitterness toward the U.S. A month into the war, on Feb. 15, 1991, the first President Bush called on the Iraqi people "to take matters into their own hands and force the dictator to step aside." Many Iraqis answered the appeal, only to see the U.S. agree to a cease-fire that left Hussein in place.

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