BAGHDAD - A group of American Christian leaders and specialists visiting Iraq said yesterday there was still a chance of averting war, but they expressed concern about food shortages among Iraqis.
''In the United States, we see often pictures of the leadership of Iraq and the government of Iraq in very negative terms,'' the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches (USA), said in Baghdad. ''We rarely see the picture that we saw of children and women and those that will be most severely impacted if [a] war began.''
Edgar, traveling with 12 other American religious leaders and specialists, said, ''The food rations, for example, do not provide an adequate diet, and we discovered that the failure of nutrition is a terrible and painful aspect of life here in Iraq.''
Ecumenical Bishop Melvin Talbert from the United Methodist church in the USA attends a New Year celebration with Iraqi people at the Evangelical Church in Baghdad December 31, 2002. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says there is no argument for U.S. strike against Iraq before U.N. inspectors report in late January; ordinary Iraqis hold out hope the New Year will not bring war at all. REUTERS/Akram Salih
Iraq has been under UN sanctions since its short-lived occupation of Kuwait in 1990 and 1991. Since December 1996, the United Nations has allowed Baghdad to sell oil to buy food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies for its people.
The group said in a statement that it had traveled to Iraq as ''humanitarian inspectors'' and visited hospitals and schools to get firsthand information on the effects of 12 years of UN sanctions. The group also met Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who is a Christian, during its five-day visit.
''I can tell you that my eyes have been opened by what I have seen here in Iraq in the short time I have been here,'' said Robin Hoecker of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
He said he was amazed by the ''life and happiness'' of some people but saddened ''by the tragedy and death and human suffering.''
The United States has accused Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction and has threatened war if Baghdad fails to comply with a UN inspections program. Iraq denies the accusation.
Washington has been building up forces in the Gulf region for possible war, but President Bush said Tuesday that he still hoped the standoff with Baghdad could be resolved peacefully.
James Winkler, general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, said, ''Our message to President Bush is really very simple, and that is that this war can be averted and that we appreciate his words of commitment to resolving this situation peacefully.''
''War is not inevitable ... even at this moment,'' said Edgar, a former Democratic US representative from Pennsylvania, whose council says it is the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among US Christians, involving 50 million Protestant and Orthodox members.
''Let the inspections work and while the inspections are going on, we would hope that negotiation would also be going on between the two governments,'' he said. ''The US and the Iraqi governments have worked together in the past, and they could work together in the future.'' A UN resolution adopted in November gave Iraq a last chance to come clean over its weapons programs or face ''serious consequences.''
© 2003 Reuters Ltd