1990, September 30. Ephrata doctor wages one-man Mideast peace drive

By Ross Anderson
Times political reporter
The Seattle Times / Seattle Post-Intelligencer


As the war of world degenerates in the Persian Gulf, a small-town doctor in Eastern Washington plans his next peace-making mission.

“I must talk to Saddam Hussein,” said Dr. Mohammad Said, his voice ringing with tension as three patients wait outside his examination room in rural Ephrata.

“I think I could help him to understand.”

Ambitious as it sounds, Said’s crusade might not be completely quixotic.

Said knows the turf; the bilingual, Palestinian-born doctor recently returned form a 15-day, self-financed trip to crisis-torn Iraq and Kuwait. He is increasingly frightened that a war of words is teetering toward a tragic blood-letting and is rooted in nothing more than two cultures’ refusal to understand the other.

“There is too much misinformation,” Said says. “President Bush doesn’t understand. Hussein doesn’t understand. Their positions are hardened. There needs to be some kind of compromise.”

Said believes he can help find it.

Said, a family physician and Democratic Party activist in Ephrata for eight years, set out a month ago on his self-appointed diplomatic mission. He spent 10 days in Baghdad, meeting with high-placed Iraqi officials, then five days in occupied Kuwait, where he shot videotape for Cable News Network.

On his way home, he stopped in Washington, D.C., and tried, with little success, to get U.S. decision-makers to listen to his Arab-American perspective on the deteriorating crisis.

This was not his first such attempt at personal diplomacy. Two years ago, Said traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to help draft and promote a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He traveled to Tehran to plead for an end to the Iraq-Iran war.

On many counts, Said’s personal report from the Persian Gulf conflicts with news reports that have filtered out of that country. While Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was “an unfortunate incident,” he says, the Iraqis have a valid claim to Kuwaiti territory, based on centuries of history.

In this and other cases, the Western powers have consistently played Arab nations against each other – all with the purpose of perpetuating control over Mideast oil, he says.

The Kuwaiti government, which the Bush administration is defending, has been an authoritarian regime under which 300,000 ethnic Kuwaitis have mistreated, even enslaved, more than 1 million non-Kuwaiti residents – including fellow Arabs, Said says.

“There was so much discrimination. Non-Kuwaitis could not get a driver’s license. They could not own a business; it had to be registered under a Kuwaiti name, so everything they gain, they had to give it back to the Kuwaitis,” he said. The looting of Kuwait City since the invasion has been overstated, and the Iraqi troops are only partially to blame, he says. “It was mostly non-Kuwaiti nationals, who are embittered by years of discrimination,” he says.

“It is not true that the Iraqis took incubators and other equipment from the Kuwaiti hospitals. I went to the hospitals myself. There was some destruction to the palaces and in the industrial areas, but in the business district, everything was intact except the Kuwait airline offices.”

Said says he was not able to talk with Americans or other foreigners, because most are in hiding. He declined to speculate on whether Americans and others are being held as hostages.

But the U.S. position as “policeman” for United Nations sanctions is undermined by U.S. refusals to support U.N. resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and other occupied territories, he says.

“I’m not here to judge right from wrong. But there are many exaggerations.”

Americans continue largely to ignore the history and culture of the Mideast, he says, but Saddam and other Arab leaders have little understanding of democratic traditions and other aspects of Western culture.

“I want to go back to Iraq in a few weeks and talk to Hussein – person to person. I want to persuade him to be more flexible, to tell him how Americans feel about the invasion. When Hussein addresses the American people, he thinks everybody is going to listen. He doesn’t see that Americans see the world in a very different way.”

Said’s life has been split between the two cultures. Born and raised on the Palestinian West Bank, he studied medicine in Spain and Canada before taking a job in rural North Dakota. Eight years ago, he found his way to Ephrata, whose irrigated farmlands reminded him of his native Jordan Valley.

Over time he has become an active voice for Arab Americans in the state Democratic Party, arguing for tough planks in the 1988 and 1990 state platforms. Those debates have left him at odds with the state’s Jewish community, which judges his pro-Arab stances to be anti-Semitic.

Said denies this. He says his concern is simply t o prevent the U.S. from lurching into a war in a region that most Americans see only as a source for cheap oil.

But his activism also has created some tensions with his neighbors in the small farming town that has become his family home.

“People feel that if you criticize American intervention, you are un-American. We got some telephone calls from people who don’t like what I am saying.

“But when you talk to people, one-on-one, they understand that I am not anti-American; I am just anti-war.”