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Iraqi Women Speak Out on Problems

During a two day visit to the United States, a delegation of Iraqi women spoke out about problems facing their country three years after a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. The delegation came to Capitol Hill to deliver a message to U.S. lawmakers about the obstacles they face in bringing peace and stability to Iraq.

While U.S. lawmakers were busy debating various issues and controversies of the day, 11 Iraqi women sat expectantly preparing to address an audience in a small conference room in a House of Representatives office building near the U.S. Capitol.

In Iraq, they lead organizations that help to empower women, support community projects, and improve the life of children affected by years of dictatorial rule, sanctions, and, more recently, military conflict and terrorism.

All describe an Iraq still desperately in need of help, in its medical system, its schools, and its economy, particularly the effort to fight unemployment:

Ummaya Ismel, who works with orphaned children in northern Iraq, says solving the security problem in Iraq requires ensuring that young people have jobs.

Noha Nadhim Salin Al-Agha, who founded the Nintu Society for Humanitarian Assistance and has worked with United Nations development projects, said "We need [the young people to be able to find] work, to find a new [direction] in life, to find a new mechanism [for] peacemaking. I think we can use the children and youth [in] peacemaking, they will build a new peace for Iraq."

Lamia Jamal Talabani, an artist who heads the Voice of Independent Women Organization, says Iraq needs a comprehensive approach to development that encompasses every sector of society. "From the grassroots level in terms of the civil society, going upwards to get democracy skills, a new way of implementing these programs, according to the Iraqi potential, skills and resources," she said.

Can the steps needed to begin this process take place while American troops remain in Iraq?

That question was an undercurrent during the women's visit to Congress, and led to an interesting moment. "From the polls [conducted in Iraq] that we are seeing here in this country, the polls we're seeing, is that the majority of people of Iraq want the U.S. military out," said Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat noted for her strong opposition to the continuing U.S. presence in Iraq. She appeared surprised when a number of the women disagreed with the statement that most Iraqis want an early departure of U.S. forces.

Simeone Campbell, with NETWORK, a Catholic peace-advocacy organization that sponsored the women in Washington, said

"There are very diverse opinions [among the group] on the political, military reality. It is abundantly clear, and I think we have all agreed, that the issue of security is key, that no one wants the U.S. there for the long term. The question is what can we do to create security now so that troops are not necessary?"

Pascale Warda is president of the Assyrian Women's Union, and was minister for migration and displacement in the former interim government of Ayad Allawi.

Also a co-founder of the Iraqi Human Rights Society, she says Iraqis going through the first steps of democracy are frustrated with the lack of economic development and with the slowness of the political process.

At the same time, she says Iraqis should not be focusing on where to place blame. "The problem is not to say why or who is responsible. Everybody is responsible. Terrorism is responsible. The Iraqi government is responsible. And Americans are responsible, because all those people are called to do something, to do at any level which is possible to do," she said.

Others accompanying the Iraqi women described a country suffering from years of neglect and deterioration of its health care and medical system. They pointed to a nationwide shortage of hospital beds, equipment and medicine, a dysfunctional drug distribution and quality-control system, and insufficient pre and post-natal care.

When asked if Iraqis were expecting better by this time, three years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Dr. Saieb Aziz al-Gailani, a member of the Baghdad City Council, answered, "We were expecting many beautiful things. We were expecting. Because, according to your words, you had a commitment in our country, to build the democracy, and to make Iraq a symbol of, and leader, of democracy in the world. As far as we know, this has not happened."

If that vision is to be fulfilled, he says, the United States needs to do more to help the Iraqi government secure the country's borders and implement effective development programs.

During an appearance at Freedom House in Washington earler this week, President Bush praised the role of women in advancing freedom around the world. He also shared the concern of an Iraqi-American woman who worried that Iraqis are becoming disillusioned with the slow pace of progress in Iraq.

"My concern is that the tangible benefits of democracy aren't reaching into people's pockets yet. There has got to be a direct correlation with someone's lifestyle, someone's standard of living and the style of government. That is one of the things that people who push freedom understand. People have got to see the direct benefits at some point about being free," she said.

During their brief visit to the United States, the Iraqi women's delegation also participated in an Iraq-U.S. Women's Summit in New York City, aimed at promoting dialogue between Americans and women in Iraq.