On Thursday, President Bush will take his case for international action against Iraq to the United Nations. But while he has declared his desire for a regime change in the country, he has been vague about any specific plans for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. His ambiguous position has sparked a national debate on the threat of Iraq's weapons arsenal, the potential casualties of an armed conflict, and the impact of a new war in the Arab world.
But, while overdue, the discussion ignores one key fact: In 1991, the U.S. made a promise to the people of Iraq about Saddam Hussein. Over a decade later, America has yet to make good on its word.
After driving Saddam's army from Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush, encouraged by his national security advisers, called on the Iraqi people to rise up and liberate their country. I, along with millions of other Iraqis, heeded his call. We had been suffering under a police state for years, and were desperate to breathe free. The promise of U.S. support was all the encouragement we needed. Within days, a popular uprising had liberated 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
But as Saddam Hussein's remaining forces regrouped outside Iraq's newly free cities, President Bush broke his promise. No Black Hawk helicopters or F-16s swooped in to protect us from Republican Guard tanks. Thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who had just taken up arms for freedom suddenly found themselves executed in the street, tortured in actual human meat grinders, or, for the lucky few, driven into hiding.
Then, there was no national discussion. President Bush feared the instability of an Iraq without Saddam Hussein, and the American public was content with a job well done in Kuwait. Better to focus on U.N. weapons inspections than to consider the terrible impact of promising freedom in the Arab world without delivering.
Americans may forget President Bush's pledge, but Iraqis do not. The crushed intifada -- the word Iraqis use today for the 1991 uprising -- has come to represent the U.S.'s unpaid debt to the people of Iraq. Iraqis who took America seriously remain scarred and skeptical, even as the son of President Bush talks again about toppling Saddam.
Still, the Iraqi uprising did reveal how American leadership can release a repressed impulse for freedom in the Middle East. For years, Saddam Hussein tried to reinforce his rule with propaganda in schools, the media, and even the religious establishment. But when urged to rise up, the Iraqi people responded with remarkable enthusiasm, shattering the façade Saddam had created.
Americans do not understand how badly Iraqis have suffered, and how eager they are to be rid of the tyrant who rules them. I recently spoke with a peace activist who opposes U.S. action on Iraq. "Is Saddam really that bad?" she asked. "On TV, I always see Iraqis marching in the streets against the U.S."
I explained how we were forced to attend pro-Saddam marches as part of school. Those who tried to run away were beaten by the police. I also told her the story of how one of my classmates in third grade made the mistake of saying that Iran was not so bad. The girl disappeared one week later and never returned. From an early age, we learned that we were prisoners in our own country.
Recalling the terror of growing up under Saddam Hussein also reminded me of how wonderful the first days of the uprising felt. Responding to the call of President Bush, Iraqis filled the streets and began to demonstrate. I was only 20 and a woman, but I rushed to join the crowd.
I saw in people's eyes that day a joy I had never seen before. Bullets from the army whizzed by, but it was like a wedding celebration. Everyone wanted to play a part in this first step toward freedom. We were risking death but enjoying every second.
It was the only time I saw Iraqis act with happiness and pride. Our lives at that moment meant being able to live as free human beings. Little did we know that this was only a bloody dress rehearsal, that real liberation would have to wait. Little did I know that I would have to flee and live in hiding for months.
The scars of betrayal have not healed. Last time, the Iraqis started the uprising and America promised to help finish it. Today, America will have to take the first step. But the good news is that I guarantee the Iraqis will make sure the job gets finished this time.
As an American citizen and a survivor of the Iraqi uprising, I call upon the American people to remember the promise our president once made. As we continue our national debate about Iraq, the real question is not whether to liberate Iraq, but why we have not done so already.
Ms. Al-Suwaij is executive director of the American Islamic Congress.