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Iraqi Fulbright Fellows Meet with President Bush, Other US Officials in Washington - 2004-02-04

The first group of Iraqi Fulbright fellows in 14 years is in the United States to begin their studies at American universities around the country. The Iraqi students say their main aim is to build person-to-person bridges between their home country and the United States.

Forty-two-year old Fulbright fellow Abdul Zahra Jassim Muhamad, from the central Iraqi city of Najaf, says he will study translation at a university in the midwestern U.S. state of Indiana. "I want to develop my skills in the English language and improve my language and my translation skills and carry that experience to my students in the University of Kufa, where I live there," he said. "In fact, I want to play the role of cultural ambassador to my city, to my country Iraq and to let the Americans know everything about Iraq. I'm sure that they have a lot of questions about Iraq right now."

The 25 Iraqi Fulbright fellows arrived in the United States Saturday. Twenty-eight-year old Iraqi-Kurd Rawand Abdulkadir Darwesh, who is on his way to Indiana from the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, had one complaint about American food - not enough rice.

But he said he is impressed with the relative ease with which people of different backgrounds tolerate each other in American society. "The first impression I got of the United States was the cultural and ethnic diversity of the people here," he said. "I found a rich diversity of people coming from everywhere in the world."

For nearly six decades, the U.S. Fulbright program has brought 160,000 academics from other countries to the United States to study, teach or conduct research.

Thomas Farrell, of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, says the Fulbright program in Iraq started in 1951, but was halted in the 1989-1990 school year because of the Gulf War.

Mr. Farrell calls the program's resumption "historic," adding that the Iraqi students will be able to make important contributions back home. "The Fulbright program in Iraq focused on critical areas such as public health, English teaching, law, economics, journalism and the environment," he said. "Those were fields we felt this year were very important."

On Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Iraqi students they are joining other Fulbright scholars who became important political figures in countries like Poland, East Timor, the former Yugoslavia and Peru.

"As Fulbright pioneers for a free Iraq, you must be inspired to know that Fulbright alumni from other countries rose to the challenge of leadership when their nations made historic transitions to democracy," he said.

Twenty-three-year old Muhammed Othman Mohammed said one highlight for him was a visit Tuesday to the White House, where each of the 25 Iraqi Fulbright scholars had their picture taken individually with President Bush in the Oval Office. "The president's visit, for sure, it was a great honor," he said.

Meanwhile, his colleague, Rawand Darwesh, from Arbil, added that it is especially timely to be in the United States during a presidential election year - to see, first-hand, the American democratic process in action.