Wednesday night, Americans watched as President George W. Bush turned to the gallery of the U.S. Congress and recognized an Iraqi woman, Safia Taleb al-Suhail. He acknowledged her as one of Iraq’s “leading democracy and human rights advocates” and spoke of her father, Sheikh Taleb al-Suhail, murdered by Saddam’s agents in Beirut in April 1994.
Safia al-Suhail’s efforts on behalf of her people are an example of the courage and determination of Middle Easterners, and in particular Middle Eastern women, to build free and just societies. With father, Sheikh Taleb al-Suhail, Safia fought against Saddam’s regime, organizing its opponents and drawing attention to its crimes. The al-Suhail family knew the long and difficult years in which Iraqi democrats were shunned, the decades during which the cause of a free Iraq was regarded as a hopeless or undesirable cause.
Sheikh Taleb al-Suhail was assassinated precisely because he posed a credible threat to Saddam’s grip on power. A former Iraqi diplomat and head of the Bani Tamim tribe in central Iraq, a mostly Shia Arab tribe that may have as many as a million members, Sheikh Taleb had used his connections to attempt a coup against Saddam’s regime in 1993. The coup failed, but Sheikh Taleb, who had left Iraq in 1968 when the Baathists seized power, continued to work for Saddam’s overthrow.
In response, the Iraqi regime recruited a Lebanese businessman and supposed friend of the al-Suhail family George Tarkhaynan. With Tarkhaynan’s assistance, Iraqi diplomats gained entry to the al-Suhail home in Beirut and gunned down the 64 year old sheikh in April 1994.
Although initially detained by the Lebanese authorities, Tarkhaynan and his three fellow conspirators, all Iraqi diplomats, were released after spending just three years in prison. Saddam’s regime bribed the Lebanese government to release the assassins from jail. Tarkhaynan was sent to Iraq where he is believed to have been given the vouchers to trade oil sold as part of the United Nations Oil-for-Food program. These vouchers, a reward for murder, were worth around $3.5 million: They were part of an elaborate bribery system that Saddam’s regime invented to siphon money off from the sale of oil. The oil proceeds were supposed to be spent on food and humanitarian goods for the Iraqis. Instead, millions ended up in the pockets of men like George Tarkhaynan .
Like so many Iraqis who lost a close relative to Saddam’s regime, Safia responded with determination, not defeat. Along with her husband, Bakhtiar Amin, an ethnic Kurd whose family Saddam’s regime had expelled from the city of Kirkuk, she campaigned for Saddam and other leading Baathists to be put on trial. She went from forum to forum and constantly battled the indifference and hypocrisy that is all too often the common coin of the political debate in the Middle East.
In 2003, Safia organized “The Unheard Voices of Iraqi Women,” a series of press conferences in European capitals and Washington, D.C. where Iraqi women testified about the fate of women under Saddam’s regime–they spoke about arbitrary imprisonment, rape, and beheadings. In recognition of her efforts, Safia al-Suhail was invited with a delegation of eight other Iraqi women to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair in December 2002. That same month, she was one of the few women to address the conference of the Iraqi opposition held in London.
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies asked Safia if she would be interested in our support to amplify the voices of Iraqi women in the United States, and give Americans an Iraqi perspective on why we should liberate Iraq. Thanks to the hard work of Safia and dozens of other Iraqi women, the “Women for Free Iraq” campaign was launched with support from FDD and a dozen Iraqi-American groups in January 2003 with a meeting at the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney.
In her own life, Safia al-Suhail has tried to symbolize the new Iraq. She is proud of her heritage as the daughter of Sheikh Taleb al-Suhail, as a Shia Arab and member of the Bani Tamim tribe. Safia also stands for tolerance and reconciliation and she and Bakhtiar Amin have given their son both a Kurdish and an Arabic name.
Above all, Safia al-Suhail has been clear-eyed on where the problems in the Middle East lie and how they can be addressed. Americans tired of hearing Middle Eastern leaders tell them that they are the cause of the Middle East’s ills, before promptly begging for American aid and support, will want to listen to Iraqis like Safia al-Suhail. In response to those who call for an end to the “U.S. occupation” of Iraq, Safia has a response that is now part of a State of the Union address: “We were occupied for 35 years by Saddam Hussein. That was the real occupation. Thank you to the American people who paid the cost, but most of all, to the soldiers.”
–Eleana Gordon is senior vice president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.