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“As an Embedded First-Hand Witness in Iraq…I Want to Share Stories the American Public Is Not Aware of and the Mainstream Media Is Not Telling”–Iraqi-American Sami Rasouli

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Iraqi-American Sami Rasouli was a well-known restaurateur in Minneapolis. In 2004, in the midst of the war and occupation — three decades after leaving Iraq — he returned to his home country to help it recover from the war and U.S. occupation. Rasouli has spent much of his time in the Shiite holy city of Najaf where he was born. He also helped establish the Muslim Peacemaker Team. He recently returned for a visit back to Minneapolis, where he joins us today for an extended interview. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: At least 11 people have been killed and more than 90 injured after a suicide truck bomb attack in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk today. Among the casualties were children from a nearby school. Meanwhile, two truck bombs exploded in Mosul Sunday, killing two people and wounding 22.

In other violence, the bodies of 19 men kidnapped at a fake checkpoint in Baghdad were found today. All had been shot in the head. Meanwhile, six U.S. soldiers were killed over the weekend in roadside bombings south of Baghdad.

The latest bloodshed comes a day after Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain paid a heavily guarded visit to Baghdad market. McCain said afterwards the American people were not being given the full picture of the progress being made in curbing violence in Baghdad.

Iraqi figures estimate civilian deaths in violence across the country rose 15 percent over February to more than 2,000. More than 600 Iraqis have been killed in the past week alone. Among them were at least 152 people killed in a suicide truck bombing in Tal Afar, the deadliest single attack since the invasion four years ago. Shiite gunmen, including police, went on a revenge shooting rampage afterwards, killing at least 45 Sunni men.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Democrats in the House and Senate have pushed through war-funding bills that set timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces. The measures need to be reconciled before they’re sent to President Bush, who has promised to veto them.

Our guest today is an Iraqi American who has been living in Iraq for most of the past three years. His name is Sami Rasouli. We first spoke to Sami on Democracy Now! in 2004 just before he left Minneapolis to return to his home country to help it recover from the war and U.S. occupation.

In Iraq, Sami Rasouli has spent much of his time in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where he was born. He also helped establish the Muslim Peacemaker Team. He recently returned back to the United States for a visit. He is now in Minneapolis, where he joins us. Sami Rasouli, welcome to Democracy Now!

SAMI RASOULI: Thank you. I’m glad to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Sami, can you start out by talking about these latest figures? For example, the attack in Tal Afar, the worst attack — having the worst casualties since the invasion of Iraq.

SAMI RASOULI: Well, I heard Senator McCain talking about the progress, which I kept hearing this from the president and the rest of the administration’s officials in the last four years. But speaking about Tal Afar as an example, I was a member of Muslim Peacemakers Teams, among others, accompanied with Peggy Gish and Michele [Naar-Obed] from CPT, or the Christian Peacemakers Team — this is sometime in January 2006 — we visited the second Grand Ayatollah in Najaf, Sayed Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, and he told us this story after we introduced ourselves as Peacemakers. He said Tal Afar is populated by all kind of people that form the beautiful mosaic formula of the Iraqi fabric society, which Sunnis beside Shiites — and by the way, I’m Shiite, and my wife is Sunni, so this is a normal intermarriage in Iraq within the Iraqi society.

So, sometimes in September 2005, the people of Tal Afar faced heavy bombing from the U.S. air raids, and they had to leave the city seeking refuge. Those are families, women and children seeking refuge — next city, which is Sinjar. And Sinjar is populated by Yezidis, and falsely known in Iraq as Satanic worshipers. And those Yezidis were ready to receive and offer refuge for the Sunnis and Shias who fled the city of Tal Afar, and they offered them homes, food, mattresses, other needs, and assured them that they would leave if they don’t like them to be with them, because they held a different religion. So they left to stay with their relatives, the Yezidis, and allowed the Shias and Sunnis to stay in their homes until the crisis would be over in Tal Afar.

And since then — actually since May 1, 2003, when the president announced major military operation combat was over — they still in the state of fleeing their homes — it’s not only in Tal Afar — across the country. There are over two million Iraqis have got displaced in Iraq in their home own land, became refugees. There are people from Tal Afar that are still in Najaf and Karbala, and we met them, and we tried hard, as the members of the Muslim Peacemakers Team, to offer them refuge, shelter, food and others donated by the Iraqis themselves. They still share with them what they need. And, by the way, Iraqis still are surviving for that Food-for-Oil Program or Oil-for-Food Program. And it’s not enough, but they try to survive within the insecurity and hardship conditions of the occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Rasouli, as you return to this country after some three years, what is your purpose in the United States?

SAMI RASOULI: Well, the first initial visit, when I made — my mother died back in November 2003, and I wanted to go and offer my condolences to sisters and relatives, and I spent about four weeks there, and I was happy, from one side, to get reunited with my family and their 40 nieces and nephews. But from the other side, when I get outside and see the sign of the destruction and what war caused to the people, I was devastated. So I came back. I couldn’t function. It took me a year to decide to go back. So I sold my business and tried to be unobligated to anything else, and I went.

But I wanted to do something, how much this thing I can offer, less or more, it might be make little change, so I headed there, but I was surprised to meet members of the Christian Peacemakers Teams in Karbala, working with the Karbala Human Rights Watch center, where I met with them. And it was, for me, like something I found to shape up my mission. And we were all, the Iraqi, at that center, impressed with the work of Christian Peacemakers Team. So that’s why we decided to form the Muslim Peacemakers Team.

And since then, the MPT was involved with joint efforts and projects in Iraq, mainly was the clean-up project in the city of Fallujah, where eighteen delegates — three were Christian, and 15 Shiite Muslim men and women from Najaf —- who committed themselves to go offer the troubled city that faced destruction twice, in April 2004 and November 2004. So we were there and announced help to pick up rubbles, garbage, knocking the doors of the residents to ask for taking away refuse and waste. And the people there were touched. They actually haven’t seen any garbage collectors for the previous two years, since the war started. So they invited us to pray with them. And we went, and we did. We prayed in the Al Furqan Mosque in the area of Saba Nissan. There were close to 2,000 worshipers, where the sheikh change his sermon to a unity. People learned about us, that we were among them, Sunni and Shiites worshiping together, same God, having the same holy book, Qur’an. I -—

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Rasouli, we have to break, but when we come back, I want to talk to you about your meeting with the head of the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey, on Sunday. You met with him in Superior, Wisconsin. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today, Sami Rasouli, was in Chippewa Falls on Saturday. He was speaking and also protesting on the bridge there against war. Sami Rasouli, talk about your meeting with the head of the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey, in Wisconsin this weekend.

SAMI RASOULI: Actually, the person who organized my meeting, Mike Miles, called his office, and the office staff agreed that we have a meeting with Congressman Obey. And actually, I met him, and he bought me breakfast — it was nice —- and listened. He listened to what I had to say patiently. And we had a nice hour, which mostly I talked about sharing with him what I have experienced in Iraq for the last eight months and other stories. The congressman expressed his prior knowledge about what I had to tell him. And as to do anything -—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it sounds like, Sami, a very interesting meeting. You were with Mike Miles. Mike Miles actually ran against Congressman Obey on the Green Party ticket and actually got arrested in David Obey’s office, protesting the funding of war. What was your message to Congressmember Obey around the vote? As some call it, an antiwar vote, because it calls for a timetable in Iraq; others call it a continuation of war vote, because it further appropriates money for the war in Iraq.

SAMI RASOULI: Well, what I understood that they presented their bill, and the president presents his bill, and it goes back and forth. But as a result, it looks like the administration is not listening and will not listen and look at the November 7th vote seriously. So I sense that probably the presidency should be offered to the Democrats in the next election, 2008. Mike Miles was there with me, and actually he’s tomorrow going to attend a court for that arrest at Obey’s office. Anyway, I finished the meeting, actually, and didn’t learn much or any promise from Congressman Obey.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you want to see happen in Iraq right now? And what would happen if the U.S. troops were to withdraw immediately?

SAMI RASOULI: The U.S. administration, through its occupation in Iraq, has failed, has failed profoundly, and every day passes by indicates more violence happening in Iraq and more failure for their role. And, actually, I don’t know what is their role in Iraq and what is the objectives that the U.S. intend to accomplish in Iraq so far. I see nothing. I see the war as pointless. It caused lots of agony and disastrous result for the Iraqis. An average Iraqi wake up in the morning, whether it’s a child going to school or a farmer going to his farm or a worker going to his work — and, by the way, there is 65 percent unemployment rate in Iraq, so not much work in Iraq. But Iraqis are on a blind date. Every day they wake up with brutal death. Only the time and place determined for this brutal death to take place. So, the end of Iraqis’ dilemma, when that happen, but with the complete withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq immediately.

And we cannot justify the presence of the U.S. troops in Iraq by saying, well, they will — or they are doing anything good for the Iraqis to prevent such as civil war, so-called fight between Sunnis and Shias. This is not a civil war. This is a political war between who supported the U.S. invasion, which is the current government and its death squads, and the people of Iraq, who resisted, resisted this occupation and is still resisting this occupation. Iraqis are fed up with the administration allegation, and if there is any civil war taking place, they are saying, we should have it now, rather we have it later, one year later or five years later. Let’s have it now and get over with it. Then we will have our country back, we can rebuild it, and we rule it. We are the people that belong to an ancient multi-civilization country. It is Mesopotamia, where Hammurabi set his first code of law; the Sumerian, they came up with the invention of writing; the Babylonian; the Acadian; the Sumerian; and all the civilization that was built around Tigris and Euphrates.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Rasouli, what do you think, if the U.S. were to withdraw U.S. troops, the U.S. owes Iraq? What should the U.S. presence be in Iraq?

SAMI RASOULI: I think the U.S. should maintain a mutual relationship with Iraq as a sovereign country. The Iraqi government should not be influenced by any sort of outside dictation. The U.S., when it leaves and takes the troops — and the weapons, by the way — with its withdrawal, then the U.S. should maintain the mutual relationship based on respect, according to the international norms, according to the U.N. Charter. And the U.S. is obligated to rebuild Iraq and offer the Iraqis enough reparation, enough money to get over with the dilemma that they are having for the last four years, and just exercise their right, human rights to live among the rest of the humanity on this Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the division of the country? The Iraqi government, it’s being reported, is encouraging Arab settlers in the city of Kirkuk in the north of the country to return to their original homes further south. The measure is called for in an article of the new constitution dealing with Kirkuk. A referendum on joining the other three provinces, recognized as Iraqi Kurdistan, BBC is reporting, will be held later this year.

SAMI RASOULI: Well, in Iraq, unfortunately, again, it’s a lawless country, it’s chaotic. And there is no sense of any central government or a proper communication between the central government in Iraq and other parts of the country, such as the leadership in Kurdistan. And those parties, whether they are ill-advised, motivated, self-motivated or motivated and influenced by outside parties, they are doing the dirty work, which might lead to a division, which some of our government officials, the congresspeople officials, such as [Joe] Biden, is pushing for, like partitioning of Iraq for three sections.

The Kirkuk, which today suffered severe bombing, led to 13 people get killed and other injured, it’s a subject of dispute between Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds. But I think because the country is still having no self-rule, and the leaders who are aiming to have the U.S. forces out of the country, they are keen to sit down with each other to solve the problem, not only of Kirkuk, other disputed paragraphs in the Iraqi constitution, which should be reviewed as condition, at least for the Islamic Party, led by Mr. Tariq al-Hashemi, who put a contingency for his involvement in the political process in Iraq, if the constitution is reviewed. And the constitution, as you know, was rejected in the province of Anbar and also of Salah ad Din. And in Ninawa, we expect it to be rejected, but for somehow the result came as 55 percent approved it. So, there are lots of suspended issues that need to be dealt, but should be only by Iraqis dealt, and by Iraqi resolved. And the outsiders should be not there influencing this party against the other party.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Rasouli, how do you get information in Iraq? What kind of media do you turn to?

SAMI RASOULI: Well, we have a direct contact with the religious authority leaders, whether through the Shiites’ seminary in Najaf or the Sunnis’ seminary — it’s not seminary, but the Muslim — they call it Muslim scholar boards. So we met with those leaders and talked to them about the issues in current Iraq. And, by the way, none of them, none of them, authorized, as we learned, to spill any Iraqi blood within this so-called the Sunnis against Shias, or vice versa. They all are keen to get together and solve the problems through direct communications or indirect communications, due to the lack of security in Iraq.

We travel from community to another community, as members of Muslim Peacemakers Teams, to connect and build bridges and shrink the gaps between — actually, when I talk about this, shrinking the gaps, they laugh and tell me, “There is no gap, Sami. There is an occupation, and the occupation is dividing us.” But we really — they appreciate the effort of the Muslim Peacemakers Team that trying hard to remove all the psychological barriers that built and set between communities and divide them as sects and ethnic background, unfortunately, since Paul Bremer took over to set his hundred orders for the Iraqis within the new democratic free Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Rasouli, what is your relationship like with U.S. soldiers? I mean, here you lived in this country for decades. You, of course, speak English. You returned to Iraq. How did the Iraqis see you? And how does the U.S. military see you?

SAMI RASOULI: Usually, there are some — many, many, actually, Iraqi checkpoints and some right now in the reduction, or becoming less and less the American checkpoints. Occasionally we need to go and visit some American U.S. military bases to discuss some detainees that they have for Iraqi families that we asked to go and check and see if those detainees are sentenced, are about to be released, or they are not there, missing or dead. So we’re kind of a link, and for me, as an American Iraqi-born citizen, I feel I’m privileged that I speak both languages and understood both cultures and is still learning about both. My role is important, in a way, to be a medium between the Iraqis and the Americans.

For some — like sometimes in January, last January — actually 2006, January 23rd, I was traveling from Baghdad, coming from Najaf, going to Fallujah, and we couldn’t — the driver couldn’t drive through the main highway. There was a fight between the U.S. forces and elements of the Iraqi resistance. So the driver suggested to take a side road, which was dirt and unpaved. So a few minutes later, when we were on that road, we were raided by three Humvees, and about 12 servicemen jumped from their vehicles, pointing their rifles at us, asking us to get out. An Arabic translator was there, also translating whatever the soldiers were saying. And I felt like, I’m not in a good position. So I reached out to my American driver license, and I claimed I’m an American. And then the sweet young man looked at me, and he goes — I don’t know if I can say this —- “No sh**!” so and with a big smile. So I tell him, “You betcha.” So he said, “Well, you must be a Minnesotan.” So he called upon his commander to come and check me out and give me sort of clearance. And when they talked to me, he asked me, “What the f—- you’re doing here?” I told him, “Well, I’m visiting family, but what you are doing here?” They said, “We are looking for enemies, terrorists. They just killed two of us in Al Taji.” So I replied, “Am I the enemy?” He said, “No, you look good. You can go.”

And at that moment, I thought about it. And while the panic was on, the mistrust, the fear among the other Iraqis who were selling, some vendors, on the right of the streets, so I thought about how many Iraqis have those little IDs, the driver license, or speaks English, and how many Americans understood or understand the culture of Iraq and can speak Arabic to communicate with. The distance — as Americans are the occupiers, so they are the enemy, it’s there — the distance between the Americans and the Iraqis, as the Iraqis are terrorist, such as I was suspected until my driver license saved my life and saved the driver’s life. When we left, the driver told me how many of his brothers got missing, killed, the relatives in the neighborhoods in Fallujah, and he told me what kind of trouble Fallujah went through for the last four years.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Rasouli, you were well known in Minneapolis. You were the cover of many magazines, especially when you were leaving, a well-known restaurateur who had the restaurant Sinbad’s in Minneapolis. Since you’ve gone, the first Muslim member of Congress has been elected. He is from Minneapolis. He is Keith Ellison. Do you know him? Also, as you return here for a visit, Keith Ellison is in the Middle East. He was in Israel, now headed to Lebanon and Syria today. And he spoke to the press and said he hopes this will be a model — he is in a congressional delegation with Nancy Pelosi — of people being able to live together. Your thoughts?

SAMI RASOULI: Well, I know Keith Ellison. Right after the ’91 war, the Kuwait war, he invited me with other members of the Arab Muslim community in Minneapolis to be interviewed in his weekly radio show in northern Minneapolis. And we demonstrated together for peace many times in Minneapolis. And lastly, last March 18th, we spoke to the rally in Loring Park in Minneapolis.

Keith Ellison, as a first Muslim in the Congress, that really tells the Muslims and Arabs in this country they should not to be hidden in their shell. They should be out, and the fear factor should not be dominating their life. They should come out and participate in the mainstream politics process and get out and not let the 9/11 outcome of wars against two Muslim countries in Afghanistan and Iraq to scare them out. They should be themselves. They should tell the truth and be true patriotic Americans to save the lives, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but here.

Our men and women who come back injured should be treated better than they have been treated in Walter Reed, and we believe they got robbed, because the billion of dollars that are spent for this war, it’s not getting to their healthcare, it’s not getting to the education and probably to the elderly who are probably soon will have no Social Security or retirement — yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Rasouli, as we wrap up, do you think you’ll ever come back to live in this country, in Minneapolis, or will you stay in Iraq?

SAMI RASOULI: Well, my initial plan to be back and forth, mostly spending my time in Iraq to help the Iraqis, in sort of education and self-learning about the Islamic roots of peace and nonviolence culture. It’s essential to be in Iraq for this five years. After the five years, I’ll be evaluating the work that I have done with the other members of the MPT. This is my other end of the bridge that I’m trying to build. This is my home, and there are my home, and, actually, my home is Mother Earth. Peace should prevail, wherever there is violence, not only in Iraq, Afghanistan, but beyond that, and we keep continuing our efforts.

AMY GOODMAN: Sami Rasouli, I want to thank you very much for being with us, for coming into the Minneapolis studio. Sami Rasouli, an Iraqi and an American, has been living in Iraq for the last few years, returned after three decades of being away, founder of the Muslim Peacemakers Team in Iraq.

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