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Lehigh students meet with Iraqi ambassador

Hamid Al-Bayati, the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks with Lehigh students.

In a private meeting with a group of Lehigh economics students, Hamid Al-Bayati, the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations, expressed optimism that American forces could leave Iraq as early as January 2008.

“The forces will stay as long as they are needed and not one day longer than they are needed,” Al-Bayati said.

He said that more than 80 percent of the violence in Iraq is concentrated in two provinces—Anbar and Baghdad—and the remaining 16 provinces are relatively peaceful.

The April 2 meeting at the Iraqi Mission to the United Nations was a class field trip for students in the Political Economy of Iraq course taught by Frank Gunter, associate professor of economics in the College of Business and Economics and a colonel in the U.S. Marine Reserve. Gunter supplements available material with his own experience serving in Iraq for 13 months, seven of which he spent as the chief economist for the U.S. military.

Rather than rely solely on his own observations, Gunter uses a variety of sources for information. “I think the situation in Iraq is so complex that everybody who has been there has a different view about what is going on,” Gunter said. “That’s why it is important to get as many different views as possible.”

During the first weeks of class, students read and discussed a variety of papers and news articles about the situation in Iraq. Now, students are learning from experts intimately involved in the economy of Iraq, such as Al-Bayati.

The Lehigh-U.N. connection

The Lehigh contingent poses for a group photo with the Iraqi ambassador.

Al-Bayati granted the interview because Lehigh holds a unique status as one of only seven universities in the world to be recognized as a non-governmental organization by the United Nations. Bill Hunter, director of the Lehigh University/United Nations partnership, organizes many activities with the U.N., including five trips to the New York location in the next two weeks.

“Our partnership goal is to expose as many staff, students and faculty to the U.N. as we can,” Hunter said.

Hunter has been fostering a relationship between Lehigh and the Iraqi Embassy. In 2003, one week before President Bush declared war on Iraq, a group of Lehigh students met with the then-current ambassador of Iraq, Mohammed Al-Douri, just before he fled the country. In February 2005, Samir Sumaidaie, Al-Bayati’s predecessor, spoke at Lehigh.

Hunter mentioned Lehigh’s history with the Iraqi Mission in his request for an interview and within 24 hours, Al-Bayati’s office replied with “by all means.”

Hunter hopes that these trips continue to support the university curriculum. “Tonight when the students on the trip hear a broadcast about Iraq, they will think differently—more personally—about the U.N. and about Iraq,” Hunter said.

The ambassador’s views

Bill Hunter, left, director of the LU/UN partnership, and Lehigh students listen to Al-Bayati.

During the interview, Al-Bayati told the students that most of the violence in Iraq is caused by foreign terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda, or by former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Most of the foreign terrorists entered Iraq when Hussein fell, he said.

“It was the best place for a safe haven,” Al-Bayati said. Once in Iraq, the terrorists aroused animosity between Shia and Sunni groups, he said. Rather than associating with any group, the terrorists’ objective is to kill as many people as possible, regardless of their religious or ethnic background, Al-Bayati said.

He suggested that they kill Sunnis and blame a Shia group or vice versa. “The atrocities they commit in Iraq are horrifying to me,” he said. Al-Bayati hopes the troop surge will drive out the foreigners and Iraqi militias can be convinced to disband and join in the political process.

The additional troops will also allow Iraq to establish the infrastructure its economy needs, he said.

“American forces have huge capabilities and provide support,” Al-Bayati said, adding that as a result, Iraq “is safer and construction can go forward.” Few businesses can thrive without a strong police force, sufficient electricity and fuel supply, and purified water, he said. Once peace is established, these issues can be addressed, and Iraq’s economy can move forward, he assured the students.

Al-Bayati said that coalition troops are currently needed to maintain peace, but he predicted that the Iraqi Security Forces will be able to assume this role by the end of the year, allowing the coalition troops to leave.

The Iraqi ambassador seemed to enjoy the give-and-take with students. Exactly one hour after the session with Al-Bayati began, an aide opened the door, signaling that time was up, but the ambassador waved her away. Fifteen minutes later, she returned, but Al-Bayati still wasn’t ready to end the session.

“Just one more question,” the ambassador said. “She hasn’t asked yet,” referring to a student who had raised her hand. He then proceeded to answer her question about corruption before concluding the interview.

The ambassador’s emphasis on partnering with the United States and U.N. was not lost on the students attending. Tom Viglianti ’07, an economics major, was impressed at how willing the ambassador was to answer questions and how positively he viewed American-Iraqi relations.

“I learned that the relationship between Iraq and America is a lot more cooperative than I perceived,” he said. “It was clear that we need a group effort to solve the problems in Iraq.”

After leaving the U.N., Gunter declared the trip a success. “The students asked good questions, some soft balls and some hard,” he said.

Likewise, Viglianti declared Gunter’s course a success. “The class has met all my expectations,” he said. “In class, we have access to information that would otherwise be unavailable and the format of the class has been great—conducive to learning and understanding.”

This semester’s Political Economy of Iraq was taught as an experimental course, but Gunter hopes to offer it again.

“I proposed that I alternate teaching on China and Iraq every other year until the end of time,” Gunter quipped.

Becky Straw

Posted on Tuesday, April 10, 2007

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