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Iraqi Envoy Evaluates Violence at Home

JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden sitting in for Jennifer Ludden.

You've been hearing in our newscasts about the latest violence in Iraq, the assassination of a high-ranking official, bombings and the US offensive against insurgents in the west of the country. Today in Washington, dignitaries gathered to honor a young American victim to violence there. Twenty-eight-year-old Marla Ruzicka was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq one month ago. She'd founded a group called Civic Worldwide. Its mission was to assist civilian casualties of the fighting and to press the US government for compensation. Among those attending today's ceremony for her was the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Samir Sumaidaie. We invited him to our studio to talk about Marla Ruzicka and about a new report by the UN development program that paints an alarming picture of daily life for civilians in Iraq. He began our conversation with a tribute.

Ambassador SAMIR SUMAIDAIE (Iraqi Ambassador to the UN): Here is a girl from California which had everything going for her, enjoying a good life. Yet, gave all that up and dedicated her time and took risks to help others way beyond her boundary. I found that extremely moving and I felt it was a huge loss.

The situation in Iraq, as you know, is really dire. The economy has been brought to almost a standstill because--and that is the objective of the terrorists. They wanted to put a stranglehold on the country, prevent it from getting up and moving forward and make it, in fact, ingovernable. That is their purpose. However, I believe Iraqis are extremely resilient and they know what they are being led towards, and that's why they are bearing a lot of this hardship with remarkably little protest.

LYDEN: The number that this United Nations reports released a couple of days ago publishes in terms of Iraqi civilians killed is 24,000. Other organizations have put that number far higher. This is people killed as a direct result of the invasion. Is your government keeping track of these numbers?

Amb. SUMAIDAIE: I'm not sure who in the government is keeping track. It is I believe the ministry of health.

LYDEN: I mean, people do come into the emergency rooms...

Amb. SUMAIDAIE: Yes.

LYDEN: ...at all the hospitals and presumably it would not be terribly difficult to count.

Amb. SUMAIDAIE: It should not be. There are morgues and I'm sure there should be statistics on that, but I'm just not plugged into that item of information.

LYDEN: This United Nations report also says that over the last 25 years living standards in Iraq have plummeted to among some of the worst in the region. Obviously, some of the causes could be attributed to the UN-led sanctions against Iraq; others to the war. Let me just cite some of these statistics. Unemployment among young men at 37 percent. Sewage, water and electricity remain unstable. Almost a quarter of the children under five suffering malnutrition. Minister of planning, Barham Salih, I'm sure you know him, your colleague, calls this the tragic situation of the quality of life in Iraq today. That's quite a challenge for a government.

Amb. SUMAIDAIE: It is, indeed, and it is tragic. When we remember that before Saddam Hussein took over power, Iraq had a GDP equivalent almost to Spain and had foreign currency reserves in excess of $35 billion at that time. Now the country is on its knees economically. It inherited debts from Saddam's era of more than $300 billion, its infrastructure is in ruins, and the standard of life is really similar to some of the poorest countries in the world. Yet, it has great wealth. The amount of plunder and mismanagement and corruption that went on during Saddam Hussein plus the wars really brought Iraq to a very low point indeed.

LYDEN: When you return to Baghdad, how do you deal with your own security? Members of your government, people of your caliber, colleagues when you were in the previous government, you know, have all been killed despite being attended by security convoys. I mean, how do you think about your own personal safety?

Amb. SUMAIDAIE: I realize that I take a risk every day when I'm in Baghdad. When I was minister of interior, I knew I was a high-value target. I had my security details, of course, but then we discovered a plot to assassinate me in which one of my own security was involved.

LYDEN: I remember that now. Yeah.

Amb. SUMAIDAIE: Yeah. And we had him, of course, arrested, but it is a risk. We take these risks. We try as best we can to dodge and make our movements unpredictable, and sometimes I let my convoy go one way and I take a small taxi and go in a different way. We have to be vigilant and careful, but there's absolutely no guarantee. Any one of us could fall victim to the terrorists.

LYDEN: I just want to draw your attention to something that caught our eye this morning in the front page of The New York Times. It's a small report about a television series, a television soap opera, created with some money out Dubai inside Iraq, that currently has everyone hooked about young lovers. It's been going on for over a year and they start on the Jadbria Bridge(ph) falling in love and, `Oh, will our love survive the war,' and they do persist and they do get married and then they're tragically blown up in a car bomb on the way to their honeymoon. Is that a sort of sense of--you know, the program is known for having black humor, but is that a kind of commentary on life in Iraq today?

Amb. SUMAIDAIE: I'm afraid it is indeed. It is a reflection of the realities. Iraqis face death and stare it in the face every single day of their lives. As I said, the marvelous thing is that they are not cowed. They go on in the face of these realities, these grim realities that we can see every day. It is very easy to give up. It's very easy to allow despair to take over. Yet people are not despairing. That is both the tragedy and the heroism of Iraqis.

LYDEN: Well, Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie, thank you very much for being with us today.

Amb. SUMAIDAIE: It's a pleasure and thank you very much for this opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacki Lyden
Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.