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American Mother Has Iraqi Audience

September 22, 2005|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Khalda Khalaf feels Cindy Sheehan's pain. She's been there, too.

Her 28-year-old son, Majid Khalid Kabi, died in 2004 fighting on the opposite side in the same months-long stretch of clashes between Shiite militiamen and U.S. soldiers in which Spc. Casey Sheehan perished.

"Of course, she's a mother and just like our people are hurting, she's hurting too," says Khalaf, a 52-year-old resident of Sadr City, the east Baghdad slum where Sheehan's son died in April 2004. "Just as she wants America out of Iraq, so do we."

Sheehan, the antiwar mom who is due to lead thousands of demonstrators converging on Washington on Saturday to protest the U.S.-led war, has become a minor celebrity in Iraq as well. The same satellite channels that bring quick, often gruesome coverage of the violence in Iraq to the nation's TV screens also gave regular updates on Sheehan's lengthy vigil outside President Bush's Texas ranch.

Forty years ago, during the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh and his top deputies kept a close eye on U.S. public opinion and the antiwar movement. Now on the streets of Baghdad, Najaf and Mosul, even ordinary Iraqis have heard of Cindy Sheehan and formed opinions about her and her movement.

"I sympathize with her and her cause, but I don't think that the American administration will be affected by such a thing," said Hassan Hashim Mahmoud, a 32-year-old government employee in Najaf.

Television and newspapers have reported the upcoming marches. And footage of her speaking before previous rallies, aired on television channels such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Al Sharqiya, has made Iraqis aware of the antiwar movement in the United States.

Even poor families such as Khalaf's know about Sheehan via "news" videos distributed by political parties, such as the radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's movement, for whom Kabi died in August 2004 in Najaf.

To some Iraqis, Sheehan's stand at Bush's ranch and her continuing opposition to the war make her a hero.

"The president doesn't have the credibility to face the mother of the U.S. soldier who was killed in a war that many in the U.S. say was a fatal mistake," columnist Muthana Tabaqchali wrote in the Iraqi daily Azzaman, which the U.S. Embassy considers hostile to the American mission in Iraq.

"Sheehan was a lady who stood like a lioness with her lofty staff in front of the president," he wrote. "She collected all her strength and motherhood to face the strongest president in the world to tell him enough!"

Others, however, view her with cynicism.

"This might be a part of a political game, like when pictures of prisoners' abuses in Abu Ghraib prison were published, just to harm President Bush's reputation," said Hameed Shabak, 35, a Mosul resident.

In front of the Faqma ice cream shop in Baghdad's Karada district, Fathel Saad, a silver-haired professor of philosophy and theology at Babel College south of Baghdad, debated a friend about Sheehan while finishing up an ice cream cone.

"I think she is misguided," Saad said. "What the Americans have given Iraq is the greatest gift: the freedom to think."

His friend, schoolteacher Fares Mukhlis, disagreed. "This is a brave woman standing up for her principles that are correct," he said.

Nabeal Mohammed Younis, a professor of political science at Baghdad University, recalled seeing Sheehan's image on Al Jazeera, the Arab news channel, while having lunch at a Baghdad hotel with colleagues.

"We said that this woman is not very different from the women in Iraq who've lost their sons," Younis recalled. "We started talking about Cindy Sheehan and started to distinguish between how the women are affected by the war and how the men are affected."

With thousands of Iraqis killed in violence since the March 2003 invasion and with the legacy of Saddam Hussein's tyranny still haunting them, Iraqis are inclined to sympathize with a grieving mother, regardless of their political views, Younis said.

"Most of them are with her and share her misery for losing her son," he said.

Sheehan's plight, as well as the news of thousands of Americans voicing concern about the troubles in Iraq, helped Haqqi Fathulla, a 33-year-old Mosul resident, feel personally connected to Americans.

"The stand of this woman emphasizes the fact that there are no hostilities between Iraqi and American people," he said.

Times special correspondents in Najaf and Mosul contributed to this report.

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