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Iraqi ambassador thanks U.S., remains optimistic

Samir Sumaidaie speaks at Zoellner Arts Center Thursday.

When Samir Sumaidaie was growing up in Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s, he recalls his native country—and Baghdad in particular—as gentle and hopeful. Iraq was at peace both internally and externally, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations told a large crowd at Zoellner Arts Center Thursday afternoon.

By the 1970s, Sumaidaie said, he saw the writing on the wall. He left Iraq in 1973 to study in Britain, returning in 1977 for what turned out to be his final visit for almost three decades. He lived in exile from the time Saddam Hussein seized power in 1979 until the war that toppled Hussein in 2003.

When Sumaidaie finally returned home to Baghdad after the war, he was deeply saddened by what he found.

“It was a different city,” he said. “It had lost its gentleness, lost its glamour, lost its innocence. It was no longer the city of culture. It was the city of armed people, people who had gone through the military machine.”

Elections a turning point

A large crowd turned out at Baker Hall for the talk.

Sumaidaie’s talk was the second in the Ambassadorial Speaker series that grew out of Lehigh’s standing as one of six universities from around the world to be recognized by the United Nations as a Non-Governmental Organization.

To understand the current situation in Iraq, Sumaidaie stressed the importance of understanding the roots of violence. Hussein’s regime took Iraq back socially, politically, and in every other sense possible, Sumaidaie said.

The ambassador compared Hussein’s regime to the Mafia, where every opportunity was suppressed by harsh means. “Tools like propaganda, manipulation, intimidation and fear were used exceedingly well by Saddam and his regime,” Sumaidaie said.

The Iraqi people, he said, had no way of rationalizing what was happening to them, and this disconnect led them into a downward spiral. The Americans, on the other hand, were relatively naïve and lacked an understanding of the level of propaganda Hussein employed to maintain power.

“Perceptions in politics are just as important as reality,” Sumaidaie said. “In fact, they are reality. They propel people to make choices.”

Sumaidaie was introduced by Gregory Farrington, Lehigh president, who noted that the recent Iraqi elections were “a wonderful day for freedom for a society.” Farrington welcomed the various military personnel who were present and thanked them for their service.

Sumaidaie agreed that the elections were a turning point. He said the participation in the elections by the people of Iraq demonstrates that they desire to live in a democratic society.

Prior to the election, Sumaidaie said, the general mood in Iraq was worried and frightened, yet he believes there has been a transformation. “The general desire of the Iraqi people is to move forward along the road of democracy,” he said.

”Iraqis know … that the Americans saved them”

Sumaidaie spent almost three decades in exile.

The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq today is an extremely complex issue, Sumaidaie said, adding that he believes that often, many of the complexities are lost in the media coverage. Sumaidaie said he hopes that things in Iraq will continue to move forward and that American troops will return home safely. However, he said that American troops are needed in Iraq to sustain the current situation.

Even with the continuing insurgent attacks and uncertainty, Sumaidaie remains optimistic about the future.

“Iraqis know deep down that the Americans saved them,” Sumaidaie said.

He expressed gratitude that the U.S. helped Iraq and believes that the freedom now enjoyed by Iraqis offers hope for better opportunities.

William Hunter, director of the office of international students and scholars, led a question and answer session with the audience after Sumaidaie’s speech and audience members questioned him on a wide range of topics.

--Blair Tapper

Photos by John Kish IV

Posted on Friday, February 11, 2005

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