Thursday, July 22, 2004

Zainab al-Suwaij: "I Was One of the Rebels"

The Fire Last Time
by Zainab Al-Suwaij

The New Republic
Post date: 02.03.03
Issue date: 02.10.03

As war with Iraq draws closer, commentators, journalists, and policymakers frequently question whether the Iraqi people would really support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But that question has already been answered. Although Americans remember the Gulf war, many do not realize that, for a few momentous days immediately after it, much of Iraq rose up in open rebellion against Saddam's regime. In fact, 15 out of 18 Iraqi provinces rebelled. I was one of the rebels.

For over a decade, I have stayed silent about what I saw. But now, as the world considers freeing Iraq from Saddam's rule, I feel compelled to bear witness to the last time Iraqis tried to liberate their country.

In February 1991, I was living with my grandparents in Karbala, a city of roughly 350,000 an hour southwest of Baghdad. The Gulf war was raging, and my family and I often listened to Voice of America for news free of Iraqi-government control. We heard President George H.W. Bush repeatedly assure us that if the Iraqi people rose up against Saddam, the United States stood ready to help them. "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop," Bush had said, "and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside." I was excited by Bush's words, but, after two decades of living under the brutal rule of Saddam's Baath Party, it was impossible for me to imagine we would ever be liberated. Even though millions of Iraqis dreamed of overthrowing Saddam, we were afraid to speak about it and doubted anyone would ever come to help us. I felt the world had abandoned us.


America's showdown with Saddam has evoked all the emotions from March 1991 that I have tried so long to forget. They remind me of the diary I kept during the uprising. I made a point of writing in it every day because I believed we were making history. I wanted to preserve those moments so that I would never forget the first precious days of freedom. I wrote every day at noon, if I could, or at night, by candlelight. After the uprising failed, when I was on the run and cut off from my family, this diary was all that I had.

The night before I left Iraq, I burned my diary in an oven, page by page. Anyone caught with such a document would be killed. In all, I burned over 200 pages--full of details about what I had seen and done in Karbala. As the pages went up in flames, tears streamed down my face.

For many years, I have tried to forget what I wrote in those pages. But I can never erase those memories. Sometimes I feel I am back in Karbala. We are waiting for the Americans once again.


Zainab Al-Suwaij is executive director of the American Islamic Congress (

Copyright 2002, The New Republic