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Seeing the light in Iraq

Rector Rawafid Shahad looks optimistic at the upcoming Iraq elections. She means to speak on behalf of the majority of Iraqis when she challenges the Norwegian left.


Another week has passed in Iraq, as the week appears in Norwegian media: The lawyer of one of Saddam Hussein's co-defendants has been killed in his own car. In Anbar Province in western Iraq, 3500 is fighting US and Iraqi forces against so-called rebels. While al-Zarqawi has announced new suicide attacks as revenge.

Still, Rawafid Shahad sits and smiles. She is principal at the Urtehagen Free School in Greenland in Oslo, which was started in 1998. Under her leadership, 70 immigrant women receive upper secondary education in social sciences and media. Shahad herself came to Norway from Baghdad in 1993, where she had completed her bachelor's degree at the university. Born and raised, she is in Najaf, one of the most sacred cities of Shia Muslims, just south of Karbala, by the Euphrates, with a population like Oslo. She has a father, mother and sister in town. The brother was killed by Saddam's forces in 1991.

Like a majority of 60 percent in Iraq, Rawafid belongs to the Shia religion in Islam. She is now pleased that the Constitution was recently passed with over 78 percent support, and that Iraq is facing a new parliamentary election 15. December.

- Finally, we Iraqis feel free and happy, like my family in Najaf. It is such a joy for us that Saddam Hussein's regime fell, says Shahad.

- But it's not safe considering terrorist attacks, is it?

- No, we can not feel 100 percent joy as long as we have this anxiety about attack. The situation becomes more difficult because of this. It is these Saddam supporters and fundamentalist foreign groups that are destroying everything. When I was in Najaf a year ago, they killed 92 civilians standing in line on the street. There were no Americans nearby. They were killed just because they were Shia.

- Who are these people behind?

- We do not know, they never say who they are. They say they are against Americans, but they are killing us Iraqis. At least they are not Muslims. None of the suicide bombers so far have been Iraqis, they come from abroad and kill because of people's identities.

- So how do you see the situation now?

- The great thing is that we have now said a clear yes to the constitution in Iraq. It is good that the Sunni Muslim Arabs have also now participated in the election, even though most voted no. However, it is not the case that Sunnis are against today's democratic process. The Kurds are mainly also Sunnis, and they also clearly support the new Iraq.

- But the opposition is also strong among many?

- Yes, but I can not explain it as anything other than that this is the old guard who loses power, and that they do not accept democratic elections. Remember that they had great power under Saddam Hussein. It is the Saddamists and the foreign forces that have a different agenda than democracy. I think the United States has a different goal than just democracy with Iraq, but I am optimistic about the situation. We have 150 newspapers now, women can go free with their headscarf, and in parliament there are 25 percent women. Under Saddam, women could only gain positions if they were affiliated with the Ba'ath party. So women have gotten better now than before. When I was last in Najaf, I was interviewed several times on TV. Such was unthinkable before, then one could not say anything in pure fear.

- But women are also exposed to increased pressure to wear scarves?

- Watch TV – in Baghdad, for example, many go without a scarf. In my hometown Najaf everyone uses it, but it is common and the tradition there. We Shiites do not want an Islamic state like in a couple of neighboring countries, because we are Iraq is a completely different country. We have Christians, Sunnis and several other religious groups we must take into account, and no one is talking about an Islamic state. Each group has its rights. The constitution only states that Islam is one of the most important guidelines in society. My message is that abroad one must not be so worried just because Shiites rule.

- What do you think is the reason for the skepticism against the Shia majority coming to power?

- We have 22 Sunni Arab states around us, the Shiites are a minority. When we were oppressed under Saddam, no one helped us. What we are asking for is that we who were oppressed now be given a chance to govern democratically.

- What do you think about the invasion of Iraq in 2003?

- We received no help against the regime, so we had no choice but to support the invasion in 2003. That was right. I am not a supporter of Bush, but we want to have a friendly cooperation with the Americans as is the case in Norway. I and most people want the United States to leave Iraq eventually, but they should stay there now until there is more peace and quiet. The only big mistake they have made is moving terror from the United States to Iraq.

- What about Norwegian forces in Iraq?

- I recommend that Norway should stay in Iraq and help us build the country.

- But are not many Iraqis who support the resistance against foreign soldiers?

- No more than 10-15 percent. Several Sunnis are involved in parliament and in the dialogues. The election of the constitution shows great support for the current democratic process. Most Iraqis are afraid of terrorist attacks. We have a new fear, under Saddam we had a different kind of fear. And American, Danish and other foreign soldiers are more concerned with protecting themselves than us Iraqis. But I'm optimistic. Write it, then. And make sure that you do not have to be afraid even if it becomes a Shia-dominated government.

Dag Herbjørnsrud
Dag Herbjørnsrud
Former editor of MODERN TIMES. Now head of the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas.

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