BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 26 -- The turnout was anemic, the signs trite and the passersby nonplussed. But for a small group of American pacifists who wanted to protest the Bush administration's threat to go to war with Iraq, all that mattered was location.
In one of the more quixotic displays of anti-war activism anywhere in the world in recent weeks, a half-dozen members of an American peace organization staged a public demonstration today at the entrance to the U.N. offices here. This evening, the same group held a candlelight vigil in front of the former U.S. Embassy building.
American peace activist Joe Quandt, center, from Albany, NY, holds a sign during
a vigil protest in front of the Polish Embassy, which houses the U.S. interest
section, in Baghdad Saturday Oct. 26, 2002. A group of mostly American activists
opposing the Bush administration's policy towards Iraq held the vigil. At left
is Suzan Mackley, from Chicago, and second left is Michael Birmingham, from Dublin,
Ireland. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Outnumbered by a throng of foreign journalists, the protesters held up large signs calling for "No Attack on Iraq" and "No U.N. Blank Check for Bush." The protesters urged the U.S. government and the United Nations to lift economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which have been blamed by Iraq for a steep increase in infant mortality, disease and malnutrition.
Although the demonstration was minuscule compared with similar events elsewhere, it illustrated how some peace activists have tried to bring their anti-war campaign to what could be Ground Zero, using the backdrop of Baghdad, with the enthusiastic backing of President Saddam Hussein's government, to highlight the possible consequences of a conflict on Iraq's civilian population.
Earlier this year, a few dozen Americans walked through 100 miles of desert to Baghdad to urge both nations to resolve their differences peacefully. And now, a handful of U.S. activists have arrived here -- their leader says more are on the way -- with the intention of becoming voluntary human shields in the event of a war.
"As long as we're allowed to stay, I'll be here," said Eric Edgin, 20, an Indianapolis resident who arrived in Baghdad two weeks ago and participated in today's rally. "I can't deal with the fact that the country I'm from is the country that is causing so much suffering here."
Most of the anti-war events that have occurred here, including today's demonstrations, were organized by a Chicago-based advocacy group called Voices in the Wilderness, which has been waging a lonely campaign to lift the U.N. economic sanctions. Its president, Kathy Kelly, a 49-year-old former high-school English teacher, said the group has helped bring more than 400 sympathetic Americans here since the group's inception in 1996.
"Iraq doesn't pose a threat to the United States or to neighboring states in the region," she said to a crowd of reporters outside the U.N. offices. "Iraq only poses a threat to the United States' ability to control its oil."
Kelly, who said she was once accused by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of "living in an Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy," has become a minor folk hero here. She has spent weeks living with Iraqi families, including one couple in the southern port city of Basra whose son was killed during a U.S. airstrike.
Kelly said the group has come into the cross hairs of the U.S. government, which earlier this year slapped $10,000 fines on two members for traveling to Iraq, which is a violation of U.S. law for anyone who is not a journalist or on official government business. The two members raised the money through donations, but then used the funds to buy medicine, which they distributed in Basra, she said.
The Iraqi government appears more than happy to play host to Kelly and her group. Officials have generously doled out hard-to-get visas, and they allow the group to stay in hotels at the same rate ordinary Iraqis pay, though Kelly said the organization accepts no funds from the government.
In other ways, however, the government has kept the group at arm's length. Today's events were not covered by the state-controlled media and a dozen uniformed soldiers surrounded the demonstrators, dissuading any ordinary Iraqis from participating.
There was no immediate reaction from U.N. staff here or the Polish diplomats who have been babysitting the U.S. Embassy since the early 1990s. Both buildings were closed today. But the events were clearly designed for the dozens of foreign journalists in Iraq, whose presence at the protest in front of the U.N. offices outnumbered the participants by more than four-to-one.
Asked how she can justify the continued tenure of Hussein, who has been accused of ordering the torture and killing of thousands of political dissidents as well as ethnic Kurds and Shiite Muslims, Kelly said she has raised the issue of human-rights abuses with government leaders during meetings. But she insisted that the possible impact of a war was far more dangerous to the Iraqi people than that of political repression.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company