Visiting Baghdad woman decries Iraq's fall into 'state of terror'

March 15th, 2006

St. Petersburg Times, March 15, 2006

She kept thinking it couldn't get any worse in Baghdad. But it did - over and over.

So pharmacist Entisar Mohammad Ariabi decided to come to the United States with a group of Iraqi women to tell what it's like to live through three years of war.

After traveling to Jordan and getting a monthlong U.S. visa at the American Embassy in Amman, Ariabi arrived March 5 in the United States. She spoke in St. Petersburg on Tuesday night and is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. today at the University of South Florida.

She will talk about how a city of air-conditioning, e-mail and fashionable restaurants disintegrated into explosions, gunfire and kidnapping. How the reassuring routine of day-to-day life in Baghdad became death and chaos, making people afraid to venture outside. And how she, her friends and the U.S. soldiers she knows have become increasingly depressed and bitter over the past three years.

In a Monday phone interview through a translator, Ariabi told the St. Petersburg Times that the once-modern Baghdad hospital where she works has electricity and running water only for an hour a day now, so only a small number of wounded or ill civilians can be treated.

"Those with at least a 70 percent chance of survival get attention," she said. "The rest we have to let die."

Arms and legs are buried in the hospital courtyard because there is nothing else to do with them, she says. Diseases like cholera, typhoid and polio, not seen in Iraq in decades, have returned. Cancer patients go without treatment or painkillers. Burn wounds quickly turn into deadly infections because of a shortage of staff to keep them clean. Doctors and nurses are often attacked by desperate family members who can't bear to see loved ones suffer.

"In Baghdad, we live in a state of terror," said Ariabi, who got to this country with help from a peace group called Code Pink.

Ariabi said many Iraqis hoped for a better life when the United States invaded three years ago.

Many Shiites and Kurds cheered U.S. soldiers for freeing them from the systematic terror, murder and oppression they had experienced under Saddam Hussein.

But as bombings, shootings and kidnappings escalated against pro- American Iraqis and American troops, and the infrastructure of the country crumbled, many hopeful Iraqis despaired, she said.

"We know the U.S. soldiers wanted to bring democracy, but they have unintentionally brought misery," she said.

Ariabi, 48, is a Sunni and her husband is a Shiite. Like her son, she said many of her friends' families are mixed Sunni and Shiite who have always gotten along.

"The American notion that there will be a Sunni-Shiite civil war here if the soldiers leave is misguided," she said. "The bombings and violence are to protest the occupation, not because Sunnis and Shiites hate each other."

Ariabi's message: "It is time for the American soldiers to go home."

In the early days of the war, Ariabi, her husband and five children were able to hold on to their lives, she said. Their 11- year-old-daughter went to swimming practice every afternoon. Their teenage boy surfed the Internet and e-mailed school pals. The older children studied French and English at the university.

Every weekday, Ariabi returned from her hospital job, where she wore tailored business suits, and made dinners of meat and fresh vegetables, while the kids watched TV. They still live in their four- bedroom Mediterranean-style home of concrete and glass in a middle- class neighborhood of Baghdad. But little else from their former life is the same.

"We did not know how light our lives were," she says. "We want them back."

She returns to Baghdad at the end of March.