Activists Bring War Protests to Baghdad

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Posted by Tony from ( on Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 12:53PM :

Activists Bring War Protests to Baghdad

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 14, 2003; Page A15

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 13 -- With tens of
thousands of U.S. troops mobilizing for a
possible invasion, waves of anti-war activists
have descended on Baghdad in recent days to
plead for a peaceful solution to the showdown
between the Bush administration and
President Saddam Hussein's government.

They include Italian legislators, South African
Muslims, German musicians and a flurry of
Americans, from church leaders and
professors to four women who lost relatives
in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. They
have reasoned that the backdrop of Baghdad,
where scars are still visible from the 1991
confrontation with the United States, will give
added currency to their appeals for peace.

Although most said they plan to leave by this
weekend, others claiming to represent several
hundred protesters from Europe, the United
States and neighboring Arab nations said they
intend to arrive later in the month to engage in
a far riskier form of activism: They plan to act
as human shields, hunkering down in
hospitals, water-treatment plants and other
civilian installations to dissuade U.S.
commanders from targeting those facilities.

The peace delegations and the impending
influx of human shields have delighted Iraqi
officials, who have given some of the visitors
VIP treatment, including arranging
conversations with senior government
officials, banquet meals and trips to hospitals
and schools. The government even helped the
South Africans organize a brief demonstration
in front of the local U.N. headquarters.

"Not in Hanoi or Panama or Baghdad last
time, or anywhere else for that matter, has
there been this many people coming to a city
that probably will be bombed to bits saying,
'Don't do it. It doesn't make sense. There are
other ways to resolve this disagreement,' "
said James Jennings, the president of
Conscience International, an anti-war group
based in Atlanta.

For all the trouble and expense involved in
traveling here, the activists appear split on
whether their trips will help prevent a war.
Jennings said that a U.S. invasion seems inevitable, while others expressed
hope that there is still time for a change of heart in Washington.

"We wouldn't be here if we didn't think there would be a point to it," said
Keith Watenpaugh, a history professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.,
who came here Sunday night with a 35-person delegation of American
academics and activists that is led by Jennings and includes Bianca Jagger, the
longtime human rights advocate and former wife of Mick Jagger of the Rolling

"We're going to go back to our schools and our communities to tell them what's
happening here," Watenpaugh said. "People in America need to see people
who think it's okay to oppose this war."

Most of the activists have not waited to return before beginning their lobbying
efforts. With the encouragement and sometimes the assistance of their Iraqi
hosts, they have sought out foreign journalists through news conferences and
photo opportunities.

Several activists said that even if they fail to sway the White House, they hope
their efforts will complicate the Pentagon's war plans and lead European
nations to sit out the action, spoiling the Bush administration's hope for an
international coalition against Hussein. In most West European nations,
including Britain, France and Germany, a majority of people questioned in
opinion surveys oppose participation in an attack.

That is also the logic behind the Iraqi government's decision to welcome the
activists. "It helps us to strengthen public opinion in Europe," said Abdelrazak
Hashimi, director of the Organization for Friendship, Peace and Solidarity, a
quasi-governmental group that coordinates visiting delegations. "It proves we
are not alone . . . and it has an effect."

Although the Iraqi government has offered to pay for hotels, food and, in some
cases, airline tickets, the leaders of each of the large peace groups here over
the past week said they financed their trips independently. But unlike
journalists and many others who want to visit Iraq, the activists had no
problems getting visas, sometimes receiving them in just a day or two.

Hashimi said his government also will eagerly admit people who want to
serve as human shields. "If we can prevent the war any way we can, we have
the privilege and the right to do it," he said.

One group of human shields is being organized by Ken Nichols O'Keefe, a
former U.S. Marine living in the Netherlands who fought in the 1991 Persian
Gulf War but subsequently relinquished his American citizenship. Islamic
groups in neighboring Jordan are assembling another group.

During the Gulf War, the Iraqi government placed Westerners captured in
Kuwait next to sensitive installations in an effort to keep the structures from
being bombed by U.S. warplanes.

Despite President Bush's persistent call for Hussein to relinquish weapons of
mass destruction, the activists did not appear overly worried about U.S.
allegations that the Iraqi government is holding onto biological and chemical
arms. Some said they did not think Hussein would use them against the United
States if unprovoked. Others said dialogue, despite nearly 12 years of attempts
by the United Nations to persuade Iraq to disarm, still is the best way to
resolve the issue.

"The inspections seem to be working," said Terry Kay Rockefeller of
Arlington, Mass., a member of Peaceful Tomorrows, an anti-war advocacy
group made up of relatives of Sept. 11 victims.

"Why not let them continue?" said Rockefeller, whose sister, Laura
Rockefeller, died in the attack on the World Trade Center. "Why are we
rushing into a war?"

She and three other members of Peaceful Tomorrows, like many of the peace
groups who have traveled here, were taken by government escorts on tours
intended to highlight the devastation of the Gulf War and the economic
sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. They saw a Baghdad
bomb shelter that was incinerated by a U.S. cruise missile. They visited the
cancer ward of a children's hospital where doctors say they lack adequate
chemotherapy drugs. And they saw a school that lacks electricity and running

"I truly believe if people understood the actual conditions and the extent of the
suffering, people would want to see something different than what they are
proposing to do," said Kristina Olsen, a singer from Newburyport, Mass.,
whose sister, Laurie Neira, was aboard the American Airlines plane that
crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower.

None of the activists said they support Hussein's authoritarian government, and
several said they were troubled by an inability to ask political questions to
ordinary people they met.

"We're here out of no love for the current regime," Watenpaugh said. "But
we're also opposed to the arrogant American position that we know what's
best for the Iraqi people."

2003 The Washington Post Company

-- Tony
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