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Last Updated:  Saturday, 5 April, 2003, 02:05 GMT 03:05 UK
Iraqi exile plans return

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

Zainab al-Suwaij travelled a long way in a decade - from fleeing Iraq for her life in 1991 to a meeting with President Bush in the White House on Friday.

Zainab al-Suwaij with President Bush, 4 April 2003
Zainab al-Suwaij has the ear of the president

It was a long journey from Karbala, the town southwest of Baghdad where Zainab al-Suwaij was growing up in 1991 - and where the US 3rd Infantry Division has just surged through on its way to the Iraqi capital.

Things were very different at the end of the first Gulf War - and when Iraqis like Ms al-Suwaij responded to a call from President George Bush senior to rise up against Saddam Hussein, there were no American troops to protect them from the reprisals of the Republican Guard.

But Ms al-Suwaij can still recall the feeling of freedom in the few days when the Iraqi people rose up and liberated 15 of 18 provinces.

And her faith in that process - and the revulsion at what she saw when the prisons were emptied - has sustained her during her years in exile in the United States.

Just before meeting the president, she spoke to journalists in Washington about her life and future hopes for Iraq.

Shia roots

Ms al-Suwaij had been brought up a religious Shi'a in a secular Iraq, and said she always stood out, even in elementary school.

But her grandfather, a prominent Shi'a cleric, advised her not to get involved in the fighting against Saddam Hussein, telling her that politics and religion should not mix.

However, she had been in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion and had seen the looting and brutality.

And so she joined the rebels in Karbala, even throwing a grenade to stop an Iraqi tank.

But "what changed her life" was the sight of the torture rooms and a human meat grinder in the huge Karbala prison that was thrown open by the rebels.

After the unsuccessful rebellion, she fled the country with her family packed in a small car, eventually reaching the United States.

Tasting freedom

For many years Ms al-Suwaij - although she says she tasted the delights of political freedom in the US - played little part in exile politics.

But after the events of 9/11, which she believed threatened Muslims in America, she founded the American Islamic Congress, to fight against prejudice against people of Muslim faith, and to show that all Arabs were not extremists.

And she retains a faith that liberal tolerance can also be applied in a post-Saddam Iraq.

Ms al-Suwaij says she has not been involved in the faction-fighting among Iraq exile groups, but she is sure that Iraqis can run their country as a secular democracy.

But she argues that the most important measures will be rebuilding the civil institutions of Iraq, including a free press, a free education system, and free trade unions.

And she says that there will not be the in-fighting between Sunni, Shi'a and Kurds that some predict in a liberated Iraq.


If she has been surprised by the turn of events in the past six months, she has retained both a modesty and an optimism that has served her well.

Now Ms al-Suwaij has been thrust centre-stage into the running of Iraq.

As she was meeting the president, his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, was briefing the press on the key role that Iraqi exiles would play in governing the country.

"There are exiles who have carried the flame for a free Iraq for a decade," she said.

"They are a wonderful resource for a new Iraq. They have an expectation and we want them to be involved in the future of Iraq," she added.

Ms al-Suwaij says she has been asked to help rebuild the Iraqi education system, advising the US interim government team that will take over the education ministry.

She says that, unlike some other Muslim countries, Iraq does not have a problem with religious fundamentalism and the madrassa schools.

Instead, she sees the need to take the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein out of the textbooks.

It will, nevertheless, be a challenging and a delicate task, given the political uncertainty in the country.

Zainab al-Suwaij says she plans to return to her quiet American existence after giving what assistance she can.

But like other exiles, she may find that she has been drawn into something much bigger, and lasting much longer, than she thought back in those few days of freedom in Karbala.

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