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Visiting Iraqis Find Little Comfort Here

By Courtland Milloy
Monday, March 13, 2006

The peace activists from Iraq were not surprised that a visit to Washington had stirred their emotions. An effort last week to persuade some members of Congress to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq had left them frustrated, and a subsequent meeting with local peace activists to discuss the horrors of war in their homeland had rekindled their outrage.

But the feelings stirred up during a peace march through downtown Thursday and other more light-hearted events seemed to catch them by surprise. The four Iraqi women were accustomed to battling frustration, anger and fear. Experiencing everyday pleasantries, on the other hand, took some getting used to.

During the march, Rashad Zadan, a pharmacist who provides aid to widows and orphans, noticed that the stores along Connecticut Avenue were well stocked and the pedestrians well dressed and that infants traveled in the safety and comfort of car seats and strollers. And when it dawned on her that three years had passed since she'd last heard the sounds of leaves rustling on a tree, she began to weep.

The next day, the women gathered for breakfast at Busboys and Poets, a new restaurant and bookstore at 14th and V streets NW, a part of the city undergoing the kind of urban reconstruction that has eluded Iraq.

Grits were on the menu. "It's sort of like Cream of Wheat," Andy Shallal, the Iraqi American owner, tried to explain. When a bowlful was served up for their inspection, the women smiled and started to talk about food -- but stopped, their facial expressions turning serious again, and they ordered tea.

"How can one country say it's helping another country by destroying it?" asked Entisar Mohammad Ariabi, a pharmacist at a barely functioning hospital in Baghdad.

As the U.S. military presence in Iraq nears the three-year mark, the country's water supply, electrical capacity and oil production remain below prewar levels. According to U.S. officials, much of the $18.4 billion originally earmarked for reconstruction in Iraq has been diverted to the security needs of military personnel -- leaving civilians largely unprotected -- and the money that is left is expected to run out by the end of this year with many projects likely to be unfinished. Brig. Gen. William McCoy, the Army Corps of Engineers commander overseeing reconstruction in Iraq, told The Washington Post in January: "It was never our intention to completely rebuild Iraq."

During a visit to Capitol Hill, the peace activists voiced their complaints to one congressman who asked if they'd rather have Saddam Hussein back.

Eman Ahmad Khamas, a human rights advocate, replied: "The destruction caused by the U.S. occupation is so bad that even people who hated Saddam the most are beginning to wish he was back."

The Iraqis were in Washington as part of a peace campaign sponsored by Code Pink, an international social justice movement started by women to end the war in Iraq. On March 18, the group hopes to mark the third anniversary of the war with protests throughout the country.

During an appearance at a church, the women asked the audience of about 200 how many favored staying the course. Only two people raised their hands -- one a woman carrying a poster of an Iraqi who had just voted for the first time since the overthrow of Hussein.

"You want to see our troops defeated?" one person asked.

Rashad replied: "You want to see millions of innocent Iraqis die?"

To help make her case, Rashad carried photographs of buildings turned to rubble by bombs and a field inside a sports stadium turned into a graveyard.

As difficult as making such presentations might be, coping with the quiet of the night could be even more difficult. The Glover Park house where they stayed offered many of the comforts that they could only wish for back home. But that was not enough to comfort them.

Eman had awakened one night with a scream. "I think my mind is full of horrible things," she said. Entisar, who shared the room with her, also awakened with a shout. "I heard a building explode, and I imagined that my children were inside," she said.

Faiza al-Araji, a civil engineer, had not slept at all. "It was too quiet," she said. "I'm used to hearing the sounds of gunfire and bombs at night."

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com

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