Few but proud: US antiwar activists in Iraq
A Chicago-based group has set up a 'peace team' in Baghdad
BAGHDAD, IRAQ — If American bombs are going to fall on Baghdad, American peace activist Cynthia Banas intends to be alongside Iraqis in the target zone.
"Some people just can't understand how I can go to Iraq," says the retired librarian from Vernon, N.Y. "But if you can risk your life in a war [as a soldier], why can't you risk your life for peace?"
As America girds for war to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, it is a lonely business to be a Westerner unfurling the anti-war banner in Iraq. The 30 or so members of the self-declared "Iraq Peace Team," most of them Americans who have arrived in the past week, have heard it all before. Some critics charge them with treason. Some call them pawns of the Iraqi regime. But activists say their mission is neither pro- Hussein nor anti-American, but aims to avert war by showing the human face of Iraq - and what suffering a new war will bring.
"Americans all over are mothers, grandfathers, and fathers ... and who wants to send their child to go off to war and kill another marvelous human being?" asks Ms. Banas, who began her activism selling UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) cards more than half a century ago. "I think we are at a point in history - a fork in the road," Banas says. "Either we're all going to get along and live, or [end up like] all these ancient civilizations that we go to see the ruins of that were once empires like we are now."
Some of the pacifists are here to stay through any US attack. Others will rotate in for a week or two. But all see themselves as the vanguard of a growing peace movement in the US, one that has roots in the Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s.
With the exception of journalists and arms inspectors, Americans who travel to Iraq break US law, and face fines and possibly jail time.
Hollywood actor Sean Penn's visit to Baghdad over the weekend boosted television coverage of the peace team. Mr. Penn paid for a $56,000 ad in The Washington Post in October accusing President Bush of stifling debate on Iraq. More than 100 other celebrities signed an open letter last week, saying rigorous United Nations inspections were the best way to disarm Iraq, not war.
Here in Baghdad, a forlorn few staged an antiwar protest in front of UN offices last week, passing out leaflets and holding posters. Many more visited a water-treatment facility Saturday, rallying under the banner: "To bomb this site is a war crime."
The trip was organized by "Voices in the Wilderness," a joint US/United Kingdom effort to end UN sanctions that has sent more than 50 peace delegations to Iraq since the mid-1990s. The Chicago-based group argues that the 1991 Gulf War and 12 years of strict UN sanctions (and even stricter US control of potential "dual-use" items) have caused a surge in child mortality to 2.5 times the 1980s level, according to UNICEF figures.
When asked whether Mr. Hussein's prolific spending on new presidential palaces and mosques might also be responsible for child-mortality rates, David Hilfiker, a doctor on his first trip to Iraq, replies: "There are great inequalities [in every country]. What the American people are not aware of is that before sanctions, Iraq was highly successful. It had free health care, education was universally available. They had reduced the infant mortality rate."
Mr. Hilfiker and others say Americans are unaware of what is being done in their name in Iraq - much less how war will further gut the population. "People are uncertain about this war," says Hilfiker, who works with inner city shelters in Washington. "I may be naive, but I believe Americans basically want to do the right thing.... People don't want to hunt and kill innocent people."
The trauma of Sept. 11 has made some Americans lose their moorings, however, and frightened them. "The question is: Can we separate out this fear, that overrides people's compassion?" asks Hilfiker, who says that his Christian beliefs impel him to speak out. "There are lots of people trying to tell the truth about the government here, about the weapons of mass destruction, but almost nobody is trying to tell the truth about the suffering of innocent people. Can Saddam use that? Sure ... but that doesn't negate the value of the truth."
There has been a personal cost, he admits. Hilfiker's sternest critic, a friend, "told me I was a turncoat, a Hanoi Jane [a derogatory reference to Jane Fonda's visit to North Vietnam in 1972], that I did not love my country, and was giving aid and comfort to the enemy."
Still, the antiwar message has sparked large rallies in the US and far larger ones in Europe. Recent polls show that less than half of Americans now want the US to invade Iraq without UN approval.
"If you look back to Vietnam, it took six years to get where we are now, and this war hasn't even started yet," says Peter Thompson, a human rights lawyer from Minneapolis who defended Vietnam-era draft dodgers and helped shape the first Bosnia indictment handed down by The Hague war crimes tribunal. "My wife asked me why I was going, with two kids at home. My family, our friends, and public opinion will hear what I am saying much more, just because I have come here," says the bow-tied Mr. Thompson, who does not plan to be in Iraq in case of war.
The price for pursuing that goal can be high, though, says Kathy Kelly, a former English and theology teacher from Chicago who has visited Iraq 18 times and is co-coordinator for Voices in the Wilderness. Her passport was confiscated in 1998, though reissued after several months.
The US Treasury Department last month imposed a $10,000 fine on Ms. Kelly, and another $10,000 on the group. They paid the fine with the equivalent of prewar, presanctions Iraqi dinars - today worth barely $3.
"In the US, the greatest hurdle to overcome is the widespread perception that there is only one person who matters in this country," says Kelly, who visits Iraqi families regularly. During the four-day US bombing campaign of December 1998, called Operation Desert Fox, Kelly slept on the floor with one family. Iraqis gave her a 35-pound chunk of a Tomahawk cruise-missile nose cone, that she managed to get back to the US. "They said: 'Take this back to your country. Merry Christmas,' " she recalls.
"After Sept. 11, Americans thought there was going to be another [Al Qaeda] attack on July 4," Kelly says. "Here, every single day people are living under the threat there could be a new US attack" that will be more devastating than the 1991 war.