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The "friendship" campaigner
Riad El-Taher
"The country is thousands of years old, and Saddam is just a second compared to that history."

Riad El-Taher

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Iraqi-born Riad El-Taher made the UK his home in 1970, but as chairman of Friendship Across Frontiers he tries to "build bridges" between the land of his birth and the British public.

"I have lost two brothers as a direct result of the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War. They both fell ill and the hospitals lacked the proper diagnostic equipment. Without the sanctions they would have been treated and lived.

I try to return to Iraq six times every year. The vast majority of people are indifferent to Saddam. The country is thousands of years old, and Saddam is just a second compared to that history.

People just want to get on with their lives without the sanctions. That is their only aspiration. I have seen no support for the opposition parties in exile, in fact Iraqis resent anyone who advocates the bombing of their country.

Whether Iraqis are pro-Saddam or anti-Saddam they are hurt by sanctions. That is why they fear a war. Bombs will not differentiate between Baath Party members and ordinary people.

Iraqis fail to understand why the US and UK are taking an aggressive line when there is a peaceful solution to the weapons inspections issue. Tariq Aziz [Iraq's deputy prime minister] told me categorically that UN inspectors would be allowed in if the threat of conflict lifts and if sanctions would end.

I don't believe the US and UK want the inspectors to go in. They want to eliminate Iraq because it holds the only oil reserves not under US influence and because Iraq supports the Palestinian Intifada. This is not to encourage more suicide bombings, but to see a durable peace in the Middle East, not a fragile settlement entirely on Israeli terms. America doesn't like this. I'm not sure what the UK hopes to gain by risking its soldiers.

I have no political axe to grind, I'm just trying to avoid the further loss of life. Unless you say Saddam is very bad and should be removed, people here don't listen to you. Both Iraq and the UK are wrong. I don't see the point in subjugating the Saddam regime further when there is a peaceful way out.

Opening dialogue with Iraq will help the ordinary people and improve human rights in the country. Human rights are violated in every Arab country and Iraq is no exception - but it is not an issue that needs immediate remedy. Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan violate human rights and the US closes its eyes.

I have just returned from Iraq and the people are apprehensive and fear war, but I don't think they fully appreciate what lies ahead. They cannot imagine why a whole nation will be destroyed because of one man, Saddam."

Photographs by Phil Coomes

Some of your comments so far:

While I appreciate Mr El-Taher's comments regarding the avoidance of war and opting for, 'a peaceful way out,' the fact is that weapons inspectors have been in already and were expelled. Foreign governments have attempted to open dialogue with Saddam, but have been treated to a succession of delaying tactics and bluffs. I agree that invading Iraq is dangerous and is likely to inflame anti-western sentiment in the Middle East as a whole and am certainly not naive enough to believe that there are no vested US interests at play, but Iraq must accept a large portion of the blame for the state of affairs which we now see.
Alastair Scollay, UK

What a blessing that ordinary people like Riad El-Taher can reach out to touch the hearts and minds of other ordinary people. What he says is common sense, lacking in guile and reveals the hypocrisy and hidden agenda of US and UK governments with stunning clarity. Saddam is a tyrant but only one among many.
Colin Moore, UK

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