Iraqi women share their view of the war

Amal Al-Khedairy, left, and Nurmin Al-Murti

Amal Al-Khedairy, left, and Nurmin Al-Murti

When U.S. bombs began to fall on Baghdad in March, Amal Al-Khedairy could do little more than watch in horror as her 14-year-old arts and culture center was hit by rockets and turned to rubble. “All the windows were blown out. It is ashes now,” she said.

It was a cruel case of dàjà vu for Al-Khedairy. Her center, an elegant repository of Iraqi art, music and artifacts situated in her Ottoman-era home on the banks of the Tigris, had been hit and destroyed once before by U.S. bombs during the 1991 Gulf War. It is perhaps no wonder that, as she recounted her experiences Saturday night to an audience of nearly 100 at Chico’s First Baptist Church, Al-Khedairy struggled to contain her rage, sometimes looking to the ceiling as if trying to keep tears from rolling down her face.

Al-Khedairy, an Iraqi university professor and cultural expert, was in town as part of a national Iraqi women’s tour sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. She was joined by award-winning Iraqi journalist Nermin Al-Mufti, author of five books and countless articles whose entire body of written work was destroyed in last spring’s bombing and subsequent looting. “I have nothing,” she said. “No record of my life.”

Despite their personal losses, the two women embarked on the tour, which began in late October in Washington, D.C., to dispel myths about Iraq and to make an impassioned plea to Americans: end the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

They highlighted the fact that Iraq was the cradle of civilization, with 5,000 years of written history. For several centuries, Baghdad served as the cultural center of the medieval Muslim world, a place where medicine and philosophy flourished and where analytical geometry was founded.

“We are not a small village where Americans have to come and teach us how to rule ourselves,” Al-Mufti said of her country, which achieved independence from British rule in 1932. “Iraq was one of the founding countries of the League of Nations; it was one of the founding states of the United Nations, the Arab League, and OPEC.”

It was also a place where, even under Saddam Hussein, education and health care were free to all citizens, including women, and where all people, regardless of ethnicity or religion, were considered Iraqi first.

But under U.S. occupation this is changing, Al-Mufti said. Iraqi ID cards are now required to specify a person’s ethnicity or religion. “For the first time in Iraqi history, they’ve divided Iraq into Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian, Muslim, Turkoman, Kurd and Arab,” Al-Mufti said. The women said these divisions were also reflected on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, whose 25 members were chosen to reflect ethnic and sectarian differences. They said the divisions are a recipe for civil war.

The women did not deny Hussein’s brutality, nor did they claim that the country was free of ethnic problems before the U.S. occupation. But those problems did not justify a U.S. invasion, they said. “This is occupation of a country … bringing democracy by tanks and liberation of people by killing them every day,” Al-Khedairy said. “In the name of finding Saddam, [U.S. troops] have violated every house. Whenever they think Saddam could be there, they enter that house, break the windows, break down the doors. … Is this democracy?”

Since the bombing ceased in May, Al-Khedairy said, Baghdad has become an "open-air jail," with checkpoints snarling traffic across the city. It’s a scenario that’s souring even those who may once have held out hope for U.S.-sponsored democracy and liberation. "Who’s resisting now?" Al-Khedairy said. "Everybody."