As we continue to look back on the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we’re joined by Sami Rasouli, an Iraqi native who immigrated to the United States over 35 years ago and became a successful restaurateur and beloved member of the community in Minneapolis. After the U.S. invasion of his home country in 2003, he moved back to Iraq, where he founded the Muslim Peacemakers, a group that works to promote and practice nonviolent conflict resolution and intervention. Rasouli also founded the American Institute for English in Najaf, which was destroyed by a 2020 bombing. He is working on starting a new organization called the American-Iraqi Peace Initiative and currently resides in the U.S. with his family. The war in Iraq has “left scars and a visible legacy” among Iraqis, says Rasouli, who calls for “a just compensation” in the aftermath of the U.S. occupation.
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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
As we continue to look back at the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we’re joined by Sami Rasouli, who we’ve spoken to numerous times over the past 20 years. He was an Iraqi native who immigrated to the United States over 35 years ago. He became a successful restaurateur and beloved member of the community in Minneapolis. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, his home country, in 2003, he moved back to Iraq, where he founded Muslim Peacemakers.
In a moment, Sami will join us live from Minneapolis, but first I want to go back to 2004, where Sami appeared on Democracy Now! to discuss his plan to move back to Iraq in the midst of the U.S. war.
SAMI RASOULI: I would do anything. Anything. Probably I’ll start cleaning the streets where my sister lives, and get those kids, who like to listen to their uncle, to come and help me. And probably we do a lots of things and get the people influenced by rebuilding their country again.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Sami Rasouli in 2004, when I visited him in Minneapolis. In 2008, I interviewed Sami during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Sami was back from Iraq at that point. He criticized then-vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden’s proposal to partition Iraq.
SAMI RASOULI: As you and the audience, the viewers, and many Iraqis still remember, Mr. Biden, when he introduced the bill to the Congress last year to partition Iraq, now he came back on the ticket. So, that was not a surprise for me, at least, because the surge has accomplished one of its objectives, that Iraq is ready to be partitioned, by expelling or displacing more than 5 million Iraqis within the country and outside of the country.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, that was five days after I was arrested in St. Paul as we were covering a protest, along with my Democracy Now! colleagues Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar. The police went after us — them for filming and me for asking for them to be released. Well, in 2011, Democracy Now! spoke to Sami again on the phone from his home, at that point, in Najaf, Iraq. The interview took place just after President Obama declared an end to the war in Iraq.
SAMI RASOULI: In terms of destroying Iraq, it’s really “mission accomplished.” … The healthcare system has been really destroyed. As you mentioned, the infrastructure is a total catastrophe that began not only since 2003, and, actually, it’s more than 20 years, since 1991. You know, we should not forget the effect of the sanction before the invasion. The Iraqi people have suffered a lot, and many of them have died.
AMY GOODMAN: While President Obama pledged to remove all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, today, more than a decade later, there are still more than 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, and violence has continued in Iraq, as well. In 2020, in just one example, a bomb destroyed the American Institute for English in Najaf, Iraq, the school that was founded by our guest, Sami Rasouli. At the time of the bombing, Sami was visiting the United States. Since then, he has remained here with his family, which was finally reunited at the end of last year, his wife and son returning to be with him and their kids. He’s now working on starting a new organization called the American-Iraqi Peace Initiative.
Sami Rasouli, it’s great to have you back with us, as I talk to you from New York and you’re sitting in a studio in Minneapolis. It’s amazing to go back on that journey. As we met you in Minneapolis, the antiwar movement so warmly supported you, the whole community at your restaurant in Minneapolis. But then you said, “I’m closing it all up, and I don’t care if I have to just sweep the streets of Najaf, I’m going to improve my country in any small way I can,” as the U.S. bombs were falling. Take us on that journey 20 years later and how you ended up back in the United States. But talk about that first decision you made, from your comfortable abode in Minneapolis, to say, “I’m going back to Iraq.”
SAMI RASOULI: Hello, Amy. Thank you for having me. And thank you for reviewing our past meetings. It has been a while since we met.
Anyway, I’m back now. And regarding your question, I always tell my listeners that — and friends, of course, that Sami and salmon, the fish, has something in common: that they go upstream. But they also have no income, and that salmon doesn’t come back, but Sami keeps coming back, because my good friend Jeremy Iggers here from Minneapolis said, “Sami, remember, you always wanted to build a bridge for peace between the two countries, your country of birth and your country of choice. So remember that bridge has two ends. You have to maintain both ends.” That meant to come back again and go back. So, wherever I go, that’s my home, and I am privileged to have that.
As you mentioned, eventually, I got reunited with my wife and my stepson. My family and I survived. My dreams and school has been destroyed in Najaf back in September 2020, after killing General — the Iranian General Soleimani by Mr. Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: At the Iraq airport.
SAMI RASOULI: Correct, in Baghdad, Baghdad airport, yes.
Well, it looks like my wife, my kids and I are safe now here, but the war in Iraq, 20 years ago, have left scars and visible legacy. And this is the babies, the babies in Fallujah and Najaf and Basra. And the rise of the incidence of cancer, if we speak in general, fourfolds went up, but among the kids, 12 times went up. And that’s catastrophic. The gruesome deformality of newborn babies, whether in Najaf or in Fallujah, keeps happening as a witness for the crimes committed against peaceful nation in 2003.
And that brings the question how we’re going to deal with that. I always say a just compensation, a just compensation to respect that nation and leave that nation alone. That nation is rich in its resources, but, unfortunately, Bush’s administrations, represented by Paul Bremer, assigned people that’s incompetent. They have nothing to do with leading a country, such a country called the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. They are just selling each part of the country out to others. And we, as the people of Iraq, living an unsecure country, and actually it’s not state, a lawless state. So, there is no security. There is no respected economic system, social system, health system, education system.
And when I say just compensation, I mean to build a new culture here, the backyard of the rest of the world, the United States of America, the new culture that’s based on justice and peace, that deal with, for example, local, domestic, severely affected all of us. It’s a school mass shooting. Since Columbine in April 20th, 1999, we haven’t done yet anything to prevent that, because since that shooting in 1999 up to date, there are about 366 school mass shootings happened already. And those disturbed kids, that receiving very bad education system — by their political leaders, I should emphasize — because at school they teach them how to be kind and nice to their neighbors, to their friends, and teach them not to be racist against any colors or other people that they meet, to be diversified. But again —
AMY GOODMAN: Sami, I wanted to —
SAMI RASOULI: — they are told the same thing by their parents —
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to interrupt for one second —
SAMI RASOULI: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — because you’re making an extremely interesting point, as you talk about, you know, this country being really the only place in the world that has this level of mass shootings day after day. And you go back to Columbine. As you said, Columbine was April 20th, 1999. And I’ll never forget President Clinton’s comments at the time. What was it? Four — three days later that the U.S.-backed NATO forces, for example, bombed RTS, the Radio Television studio in Belgrade, Serbia, and we saw the body parts of makeup artists and technicians being taken out of this civilian structure. That was just one example. But Columbine happening in the midst of the bombing of Yugoslavia, and President Clinton saying, “How do we teach our children that violence is not the answer to resolving conflict?” And the irony of this with the backdrop of war, then Yugoslavia. In your case, we’re talking about Iraq, and now talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
SAMI RASOULI: Right. I mean, kids, the lessons. I mean, they were like 12 years old or 17 years old, the perpetrators. Those kids — and they come as a challenge for their surrounding world. They would like to make some changes in this stage of age. So, to tell them at school and at home, “Violence is bad, and we should not do it,” but yet we are doing it by our political leaders in Iraq and Syria and other places, and we tell them, “That’s good, but the violence, for example, or attacking Ukraine today is not OK.” So, we are — what we are doing, we are contributing to disturb their minds, their psyche, and eventually they end up with a conclusion that human life has no value, whether it’s their friends, their classmates or their enemies.
And bullying their classmates if they are bigger or stronger, just they’ve seen it when the U.S., as a superpower, goes and march in Iraq, with no reason, and destroy the country and come back, and go, after that, to Syria, destroy it, to Libya, and the saga will continue. So, that should be ended. And as I said, a new culture of peace and justice should lead our mind and hearts, not only at home and at school, but also in the Pentagon and the White House and the Congress.
AMY GOODMAN: Sami —
SAMI RASOULI: So, one — yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about 2015. President Trump was running — Donald Trump was running for president on a fiercely anti-Muslim platform. We know, you know, right after he came into office, the Muslim ban, etc. But you invited him to Iraq as part of a cultural exchange program for Muslim Peacemaker Team. If you could talk about establishing the Muslim Peacemakers, working with Christian Peacemakers and the antiwar movement, and why you wanted Trump to come to Iraq?
SAMI RASOULI: Well, Amy, you remember when we met in Minneapolis back, I think, in 2004, you visited Minneapolis, and you interviewed me, and you asked me — you brought part of that meeting earlier in the show. So, I told you I am going with no clue what I’m going to do, but at least I’m going to go and sweep the sister — my sister, where she lives, the house or the street where she lives in. So, accidentally, with no previous plans, I met the Christian Peacemaker Teams there, and they were a great guidance for me to establish the Muslim Peacemaker Teams. So, I am still thankful for them to create all the roots and the initial movement that Muslim Peacemaker Teams followed their footsteps to work together in many projects.
So, one of them, when Mr. [Trump] banned Muslim countries, among them Iraq, not to enter the U.S., then excluded Iraq, I remember, but still what I did — Somalia, because it was also excluded, so I flew to Somalia to bring Somalia and Iraq together, and we signed an agreement with the authority in Bosaso, and that’s in Puntland area, way in the north, to make Najaf and Bosaso sister cities, since both of them are sister cities of Minneapolis. So, we built that triangle as a reaction for Mr. Trump.
But at the same time, I sent a letter inviting Mr. Trump to come and learn about the facts, how a Muslim family operates and how the Muslim family conduct its business with the neighbors, with the kids, with the school teachers and with their guest, him, if he come and stay with us at home, to watch us rather than to listen to the mainstream media, because, you know, the mainstream media in the U.S., they picture the Muslims as terrorists. And the mainstream media in the Middle East, they picture the European and the Western, among them, the Americans, as infidels.
So, here comes the duty of Muslim Peacemaker Teams, when the Muslim Peacemaker Teams bring both together, the infidel and the terrorist, halfway, have them sit in a roundtable, look in the eyes, break that piece of bread, share it, and they find out all that nonsense of terrorism or infidels has no values, but they are nothing but brothers and sisters in humanity, and they should pursue this concept, that peaceful concept, to respect each other and share what they have together.
AMY GOODMAN: Sami Rasouli, I want to thank you so much for being with us, beloved Iraqi American restaurateur in Minneapolis, who moved back to Iraq after the U.S. invasion, founded the Muslim Peacemaker Team, and now is back in Minneapolis 20 years later. Someday soon, I hope to come to Minneapolis and share a meal with you, break bread with you and your community. Thank you so much, Sami.
That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.
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