Some 15 human shields - including Britons, Turks, and Russians - arrived at their battle stations at the Baghdad South power station yesterday, throwing down their rucksacks on rows of cots overlooked by a gilded image of Saddam Hussein,
They listened to a passage from Kipling, sang along to a guitar, unrolled their posters, and talked about painting a sign on the roof for the US bomber pilots. "This is the easy time. If the bombing starts then it is going to get hairy," said the group's unofficial guitarist and songwriter, Karl Dallas, 72, from Bradford.
Godfrey Meynell, 68, left, from England, joins other human shield peace activists as they depart downtown Baghdad on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2003 to go to the South Baghdad Power Plant where they say they will remain till the threat of war is averted. Fifteen human shields from different countries reached Baghdad Sunday aboard two red double decker London buses. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
The managing director of Baghdad South, Rihab Mehtem Yahya, and other women employees of the plant made up the beds, and began fussing over lunch. One worker smoothed the banner at the door hailing the "Mother of All Battles", or the last Gulf war. The human shields called a meeting.
Can the human shields protect the plant if the bombing starts? Ms Yahya looks startled at the idea. "God willing," she says. "Of course, I have a human feeling for them, but we will have our staff here too."
The activists' arrival at the wood-paneled conference room of the power station marks the first deployment of some 130 anti-war protesters who have reached Baghdad to offer their services as human shields.
When the protesters arrived in Baghdad, crossing a continent aboard two London double decker buses, some had imagined they would fan out to schools, orphanages and hospitals, facing the bombs together with the Iraqi people. No pilot would dare bomb sizeable contingents of western protesters, the argument ran, and the military's bland statements on collateral damage would be exposed as murder.
Others were driven by more personal concerns. "The reason I want to stay is to feel within me what it is like to be under siege," an Australian woman who was not part of the first deployment yesterday told the television cameras. "I really want to see what it feels like to feel fear."
One week, and endless meetings on, the human shields appear at least to have coalesced around a proposed course of action. The majority of them have seized on the suggestion of Iraqi officials that they would be more usefully deployed at water treatment centers, bridges and telecommunication towers, and power plants like Baghdad South.
The activists bridle at the notion that that decision has made them hostage to the Iraqi government - although Baghdad South power plant is surrounded by palaces for Saddam Hussein and his officials, and near the belching chimneys of an oil refinery.
"That is just laying a guilt trip on us," said Leo Warren, who is waiting to be sent to a water treatment center near Babylon. "We are not trying to support the government in any way."
In the calculus of war, protecting hospitals from American bombers was just dangerously naive, argued the organizer of the shields' trip to Iraq, Ken O'Keefe, because larger numbers of Iraqis would be affected by power cuts: "It's the difference between a noble gesture and truly intending to stop casualties."
He had high expectations for the 15 activists dispatched to Baghdad South, and the others awaiting their missions. "It is the best hope the Iraqi people have from being bombed and dying en masse," he told the protesters.
Baghdad South was hit by six US missiles during the Kuwait war. Ten employees were injured, and 80% of the plant destroyed. It continues to operate at less than half of its capacity, supplying 20,000 homes.
Iraqi officials fully expect the US to target the plant once more if there is an attack. But while they were happy to greet the activists, putting up streamers in the conference room, it was not certain how long they would be prepared to host them, if they were intent on being bombed.
"We will do many things to protect people if there is aggression," said Dr Ihsan al-Obeidi, director of the regional electricity authority. The power plant had a bomb shelter, he said. "When the time comes we will make arrangements."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003