Iraqi Women Grateful for U.S. Campaign

ByABC News
March 21, 2003, 8:08 PM

March 21 -- They are educated. They aren't required to veil themselves. They can work. But these four women from Iraq say they were missing two crucial things in their homeland freedom and dignity.

The four women Maha Hussain, Zainab al-Suwaij, Katrin Michael and Roz Rasool told ABCNEWS' Barbara Walters stories that could be punishable by death in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Even Iraqis in the United States are terrified to speak frankly about Saddam's regime, largely because they are terrified of reprisals against family members.

The women are speaking out because they feel they are speaking for the voiceless people living under Saddam's regime.

"We know how it looks like inside Iraq," al-Suwaij said on 20/20. "We saw the torture. We saw our relatives and our friends disappearing day after day."

Human rights groups estimate that at least 290,000 Iraqis have disappeared since Saddam took power 34 years ago. Hussain was just a schoolgirl in Baghdad when the reality of life under Saddam hit home. She recalls riding on a school bus at age 13 and seeing a crowd gathered in the center of the capital, around bodies of men hanging from poles. "I remember the blue faces, the long necks," she said.

Saddam's reign of terror extended far beyond public executions. He established a strategy of brutalizing women in order to control their men. Although the stories these women tell are horrific and difficult to substantiate, they are consistent with a pattern of cruelty toward women documented by various human rights groups.

Routine Rapes, Human Meat Grinders, Chemical Baths

Al-Suwaij knows firsthand how even young girls were imprisoned for what seem to be trivial offenses. Al-Suwaij says she had a 16-year-old cousin who was beaten and tortured with electrical shocks for having written something against the government in her school notebook.

And if a man is a dissident or if a man writes a letter or makes a joke about Saddam, these women said, authorities would rape his wife or female relatives in front of him.