Iraqi ambassador makes first U.S. public appearance at Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG, Va., Feb. 24, 2005 – Virginia Tech hosted the first U.S. appearance of Iraqi Ambassador Haitham Rashid Wihaib, former head of protocol for Saddam Hussein, in Virginia Tech's Burruss Auditorium Feb. 22.

"I hope you all realize what an honor it is to have Ambassador Wihaib speak to us tonight," said student Mike Barnett as he introduced Wihaib.

Barnett, a junior majoring in political science and president of the International Relations Organization, is the impetus behind Wihaib's visit. This past summer, Barnett interned with the British Parliament and met Wihaib on a number of occasions while in London. "After talking to the ambassador several times and hearing what he had to say, I felt it was important for the American people to hear it also," Barnett said. "We discussed him coming to Virginia Tech, and he was very gracious and welcomed the opportunity."

Together, the Political Science Club and the International Relations Organization at Virginia Tech hosted the two-hour event.

Before his speech, students were given the opportunity to watch a portion of Dancing with the Devil, an unreleased documentary directed by Wihaib about the life of Saddam Hussein.

After the video, more than 1,000 students and local residents listened as Wihaib spoke about his experiences serving directly under Hussein for 13 years and why he finally fled the country after three assassination attempts on his life. Wihaib also made a point to thank the American people and the American government for capturing Saddam and setting up the first democratic election in Iraq's modern history.

During his trip to Virginia Tech, Wihaib said Saddam did, in fact, have ties with international terrorist organizations that dated back to the late 70's. Wihaib said while he worked for Saddam, there was a mobile hospital sent by Saddam that was smuggled through the Pakistani border and into Afghanistan to treat Osama Bin Laden with kidney dialysis.

Wihaib also said there were several well-hidden terrorist training camps in and around Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities during the 80's and 90's that trained men to hijack planes and, much like the Sept. 11 attacks, fly the planes into buildings.

During the event, Wihaib presented Virginia Tech with 13 books from Saddam's personal collection, including one written by Hussein himself. The books will be put into special collections in Newman Library.

"I am very thankful to have this opportunity to speak at Virginia Tech," Wihaib said during his speech, "You are all the backbone and future of America, and I am honored to speak at your University tonight."

"This was a truly academic event meant to open people's minds to a message often lost in popular U.S. dialogue," Barnett said. "The Virginia Tech community heard from a speaker with a significant personal investment and special connection to the current events in Iraq."

While on campus, Wihaib's Virginia Tech appearance garnered national attention. Learning of the visit through press releases, CNN held a pre-interview with Wihaib and is planning an appearance for him with Paula Zahn. Wihaib also spoke at Mary Baldwin College Feb. 23.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become among the largest universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech's eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.