Norman Solomon

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Posted by Tony from ? ( on Thursday, October 03, 2002 at 3:07PM :

Published on Thursday, October 3, 2002 in the Baltimore Sun
Drown Out Drums of War with the
Sound of Dialogue
by Norman Solomon

SAN FRANCISCO -- The conventional wisdom in Washington is that it's
pointless or reckless for Americans to speak with Iraqi officials. But some
on Capitol Hill are beginning to think otherwise.

Last month, for the first time since George W. Bush became president,
members of Congress -- four Democrats -- visited Baghdad. Hopefully,
more will be making the journey later this fall.

Rep. Nick Rahall, a 13-term congressman from West Virginia, started the
trend in mid-September when he joined former Sen. James Abourezk of
South Dakota to lead a small delegation of Americans to Baghdad. As a
member of that group, I was impressed with the candor of the discussions
during several hours of meetings with high-level Iraqi government ministers.

The White House was initially low-key about our trip. But when three more
congressmen announced they were heading off to visit Iraq last week, the
White House press secretary swung into action. Eager to throw cold water,
Ari Fleischer claimed that Mr. Rahall's visit "did not turn out to be as he
hoped it would because of the rough treatment he got from the Iraqis, their
refusal to listen to him, to meet with him, to talk with him."

Actually, during face-to-face discussions with "the Iraqis" in Baghdad, there
was plenty of listening, meeting and talking. As Mr. Rahall noted in an
interview in The Hill Sept. 25, he repeatedly urged Iraqi officials "to accept
unconditional and unfettered access to U.N. weapons inspectors."

And, what's more, Mr. Rahall said, "they did not reject my suggestions.
Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister with whom I met for over two hours,
said, 'We will give it careful consideration, we will consult with our friends
and allies, and I will consult with our leadership.'"

Some prominent Republicans are now anxious to dampen prospects for
future U.S.-Iraq dialogues involving members of Congress. On Sunday,
when Democratic delegation members Rep. Jim McDermott of
Washington and Rep. David Bonior of Michigan appeared on ABC's This
Week from Baghdad, a senator on the program went after Mr. McDermott
with rhetorical guns blazing.

"Basically, he's taking Saddam Hussein's line," said Sen. Don Nickles of
Oklahoma, the GOP's assistant leader in the Senate. Mr. Nickles added
that Mr. McDermott and Mr. Bonior "sound somewhat like spokespersons
for the Iraqi government."

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi called Mr. McDermott
"irresponsible" and proclaimed: "He needs to come home and keep his
mouth shut."

But Mr. McDermott's retort was on target Monday during a CNN interview
from Baghdad: "What I would suggest [Mr. Lott] do is get on a Royal
Jordanian airplane and fly over here and take a look. He is talking from
absolute ignorance of what's going on, on the ground. And I think he ought
to be a little more careful about what he says in a country where we value
free speech."

The current smears and denunciations from Republican leaders indicate
how threatening it can be when members of Congress won't defer to the
White House on matters of international discourse.

Generally, lawmakers excel at functioning as rubber stamps or feeble
dissenters when a president puts war at the top of the national agenda. But
senators and representatives should move beyond their customary roles in
order to breathe life into democratic processes and hold open the
possibility of peace.

While President Bush continues to insist that his administration has nothing
to discuss with the Iraqi regime, dialogue could prove to be crucial.

Edward L. Peck, a former U.S. chief of mission to Iraq, recently pointed
out: "Our government is constantly saying that there must be discussions
between parties in disagreement, to avoid or at least reduce the risk of
war: India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, the Israelis and the
Palestinians, the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland. So why
don't we talk to Iraq?"

As it happened, two days after our delegation met with Mr. Aziz and Iraqi
National Assembly Speaker Sadoun Hammadi on Sept. 14, the United
Nations announced that Iraq had agreed to allow unrestricted access for
U.N. weapons inspectors. That was a highly positive step that could lead to
full inspections and effective disarmament in Iraq.

"It seems to me that if we are going to deal with this in a real and honest
way, we have got to create dialogue," Mr. Bonior said during his visit to
Baghdad. Unless war is their goal, elected officials in Washington should
find ways to conduct more dialogue with Iraq in the very near future.

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public
Accuracy, which sponsored the U.S. delegation visit to Baghdad in

-- Tony
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