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The Killing Fields of Baghdad: The Case of Hillary, Layla, and "Little Deer"

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On June 27, 1993, just after 2 a.m. and two years after the end of the Gulf War, US Tomahawk missiles reduced the home of Layla al-Attar, the Director of the Iraqi National Museum and a leading advocate for women artists in the Middle East, to rubble and ash. "There was no warning," said her daughter, Rema. "We were sound asleep. We heard an explosion and felt the walls shake. We tried to get out but we couldn't do it. The whole house collapsed on top of us."

Rema, or "Little Deer," was blinded in one eye by the 1993 bombing. She left Baghdad soon after and underwent extensive face surgery in Los Angeles and Canada before moving to the Bay Area. She was 19 when "the bombs changed everything," she said. "I was very deep under and no one could hear me. I was dying by the time they got through. They didn't get to my parents for another two hours. It was two hours too late."

According to The New York Times, Layla al-Attar and her husband were "found dead under the debris" after one of the 23 US cruise missiles launched by former president Bill Clinton "blasted craters as deep as 30 feet in Al Manour, an exclusive residential area."

Clinton claimed he had ordered the bombing of Baghdad to foil an alleged Iraqi plot to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush, who was on his way to visit Kuwait for a gala postwar victory celebration. The death plot was a CIA ruse and was never confirmed by any named source.

Following the missile attack that killed al-Attar and her husband and housekeeper, and half-blinded Rema, a report prepared by the CIA's Counterterrorism Center suggested that Kuwait might have fabricated the alleged presidential assassination plot in order to play up the continuing Iraqi threat. All of the alleged assassins were later released in Kuwait without prosecution.

The Life of the Artist Lost

As director of the Iraqi National Art Museum, Layla al-Attar had been a powerful force in gaining recognition for women artists in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. She was also, her daughter said, "very beautiful, very well respected, and very kind."

"It was really something I will never forget," Iraqi artist Mohammed al-Sadoun told me at the time of the bombing. "I was watching CNN and suddenly I heard that a famous Iraqi artist was killed, and I tried to recognize the image as it was displayed on TV: it was Layla's house, and there was nothing left of it."

Layla al-Attar contributed to the Iraqi community in many ways, al-Sadoun said. "First as a very fine woman artist, but also as an art leader, where she was involved with art business, curating exhibitions, international exhibitions such as the 1988 exhibition," he said. "The exhibition brought thousands of artists to Iraq from many different countries, including the United States. To find a female leading an art establishment in a country like Iraq, with an Arab-Muslim culture, was really significant."

It was also quite significant in the Arab community that al-Attar's paintings contained naked women, mingling with trees and the natural environment. In al-Attar's paintings, as she wrote in introducing one of her exhibitions, Middle-Eastern women were "respected and exalted, not marginalized or excluded altogether. I am trying to bring into the society of ideal faith, the role of women, the dignity of their existence, and their humanity. My instrument to accomplish that is made of lines blended with waves."

The Leading Women's Right Campaigner Goes Silent

Enter Hillary Clinton. As First Lady, Clinton was globetrotting for women's rights, from Boston to Beijing. Indeed, she was perhaps the most high-profile campaigner for women's rights on the planet.

On September 5, 1995, a little more than two years after her husband murdered Layla al-Attar in her own home while she slept, Hillary Clinton told the U.N. 4th World Conference on Women Plenary Session in Beijing, China:

"There are some who question the reason for this conference. Let them listen to the voices of women in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. There are some who wonder whether the lives of women and girls matter to economic and political progress around the globe. Let them look at the women gathered here ... the homemakers and nurses, the teachers and lawyers, the policymakers and women who run their own businesses."

Layla al-Attar was many of the above: A mother, a teacher, a business woman, and a celebrated artist, yet Hillary Clinton could not seem to find the time or the conscience to visit with Rema to express her condolences along with the president's. To this day, there is no formal apology on record to the al-Attar family, and to the people of Iraq, who lost one of their cherished artists -- a woman -- a woman ascending against overwhelming odds in the highly male-dominated Middle East.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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