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.
Dr. James E. Jennings of Atlanta, Ga., head of a U.S. academic delegation to Baghdad and former history professor at Illinois University, speaks to parents of sick children at Saddam Children's Hospital in Baghdad, Iraq, on Monday, Jan. 13, 2003. 35 U.S. academics arrived in Baghdad Monday on a peace and fact-finding mission and also to open channels of dialogue with their Iraqi counterparts at Baghdad University. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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 Stones.
"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 water.
"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