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Iraqi Women Get Taste of US-Style Politics - 2004-07-13

A delegation of women from Iraq is visiting the U.S. Congress this week as part of a U.S. government-funded program aimed at giving them a glimpse of the American political process and democratic system.

The women come from Baghdad and a number of other cities where they are political leaders, teachers, city council members, and activists in local organizations devoted to advancing the condition of women, human rights and health issues.

They got together to form the Iraqi Women Network and the Women's Alliance for a Democratic Iraq, organized during the U.S.-led war to remove Saddam Hussein.

Raz Rasool is the group's executive secretary.

"We have members [who are] Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Christians, Sunni, Shia," she noted. "We didn't even ask when we were getting together to work for Iraq, for the reconstruction, for the liberation, we didn't even ask each other if we are Kurd or Arab or Assyrian or Muslim or Christian, and when we got together we thought this is how we want Iraq to be."

Raz Rasool and many of the others were active in the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein.

Samaria Mansur is an activist from the Iraqi city of Dohuk and head of an organization called the Assyrian Women Group.

Speaking through a translator, she says without the U.S.-led action to remove Saddam Hussein, the visit of the women's group would not have been possible and she had an additional message:

"I would like to say something and something very important. Stop looking for the weapons of mass destruction, stop looking for them, [if] they exist or do not exist, it is not important, the regime itself was a weapon of mass destruction," she added.

During their visit, the women have met with American families, and observed the workings of local government councils, including one in Vienna, Virginia, just outside the nation's capital.

Ras Rasool says the Women's Alliance for a Democratic Iraq has, as one of its key objectives, to encourage women to become active in politics in a new Iraq, including the elections in 2005.

"All the women here realize that this is our next step, to learn what democracy is, communication skills, how to fight corruption, learn about how to run for office, how to prepare for a campaign, how to rebuild the civil society," Ms. Rasool said. "We have a lot of homework to do."

The women will be continuing their self-education on Capitol Hill later this week, including closely following U.S. lawmakers as they go about their legislative work.

The U.S. Agency for International Development sponsored the visit of the women's group to Washington. They will also be receiving training from the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, U.S. Institute for Peace and the Heritage Foundation.