News: CJ Exclusives

Iraqi-American Discusses War

UNC neurologist offers views on Hussein’s tyranny, recent trip to Baghdad

Dr. Maha Alattar has a perspective on Iraq that’s different from the one reported by national media. Unlike American journalists, Dr. Alattar is a native of Iraq and offers an unusually insightful version of what is happening in her country.

Alattar is an assistant professor of neurology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spoke Monday at a John Locke Foundation luncheon.

Alattar left Baghdad in 1983 with her family when she was 10 years old. They escaped persecution under Saddam Hussein’s government because of their Persian ancestry and their Shiite faith.

Alattar’s relatives, however, were persecuted by being imprisoned, deported, and executed in the late 1980s. Seven of her cousins—all children—were taken away from their parents and thrown into jail. Her aunts and uncles were deported to Iran. They were dropped off at the mine-filled border and forced to walk across in the middle of the cold winter. They made it over safely, only to live with the agony of not knowing the fate of their children. After the war ended, the family learned that their children were executed at Abu Ghraib and other prisons where they were held.

So, Alattar said, she has difficulty understanding the way journalists have covered the war in Iraq and the country under reconstruction. She wants to know why, for instance, the media insists on emphasizing the number of deaths, among Americans and Iraqi civilians, inflicted by insurgents after the war.

She also wonders why many Americans are protesting U.S. involvement in her country. “How many people died during the regime of Saddam Hussein?” she asked. “I didn’t see demonstrations when Kurds were being killed and when Saddam committed numerous other atrocities,” she said. “To me, that is hypocritical.”

Alattar returned to Baghdad in February and observed changes to her country. Cafes and restaurants have sprung up along the Tigris River. They were forbidden to build along the river under Saddam’s regime.

Saddam built “incredible” palaces while millions of Iraqis were starving to death under U.N. sanctions, Alattar said. Saddam’s family took wealth from the citizens and built luxurious compounds, sitting in stark contrast with the ruin of the rest of Baghdad.

Baathists did not follow any political doctrine, she said. Instead, Saddam operated “a regime driven by greed, instead of ideology, that ruled with, and for wealth only,” she said.

Neither money nor geography was obstacles to Saddam, Alattar said. He built a lake behind his wife’s palace, and he diverted rivers and built other lakes around Iraq.

The media’s coverage of Iraq does not reflect reality, Alattar said. Journalists, eager to paint a dark side of America and its role in Iraq, fail to report the news fairly. “This war saved 25 million people,” she said. “And some people say their religion doesn’t allow them to go to war. But is it against their religion to watch people murdered by Saddam’s regime?”

“For the first time in history, a democratic nation has been created in the Middle East,” she said. Iraqis have conducted local elections, and now the entire country is preparing to stage a national election. It’s not a matter of whether or when democracy will come to Iraq, Alattar said. “Iraq has—not will have—democracy. Where will Iraq be in 25 years? Some people need to wake up,” she said, referring to opponents of President Bush’s decision to liberate Iraq.

Iraq is composed of many ethnic divisions, Alattar said, and a “decentralized process” is under way there. Kurds are forming their own federation, and the rest of the country will be Iraqi under local control, she said. Despite the divisions, Iraqis are capable of governing the nation, she said, because the families of different races grew up together in neighborhoods for hundreds of years.

Among the many groups, women will participate in the democratic process, Alattar said. She helped organize a new organization, Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq, which teaches leadership skills to women.

Richard Wagner is editor of Carolina Journal.