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"Human Shields" In Baghdad Have Mixed Feelings

by Ferry Biedermann

Could be liability to Iraq if war starts
(IPS) BAGHDAD -- The first 'human shields' from the West have taken up their positions at the Baghdad south power plant amid a good deal of confusion.

A group of 'human shields' who arrived colorfully on two London double-decker buses were greeted by workers at the plant Sunday waving pictures of Saddam Hussein.

Surrounded by television cameras, the first group of 15 volunteers was shown into a building next to the power plant where beds decorated with streamers had been laid out for them.

"I just hope people will not smoke," said Godfrey Meynell, the gray-haired British leader of this first batch as he put his backpack down below a huge portrait of Saddam Hussein in military uniform.

Workers at the Baghdad South power plant are amused by the arrival of the foreign activists. "As long as it helps, it is fine with us," said one of them.

Unlike some of the other peace groups working in Iraq, many human shield activists seem poorly informed about the local situation. And several of them seem taken aback by government attempts to adopt them.

"We are here for the people, not the government," says Katarina Soederholm from Norway. She objects to their presence being used for "propaganda".

The human shields are the most visible among the plethora of peace groups that have pitched their tents in Baghdad. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has warned the Iraqi government that use of these activists to protect potential targets for bombing will be a war crime.

"Deploying human shields is not a military strategy, it's murder, a violation of the laws of armed conflict and a crime against humanity, and it will be treated as such," Rumsfeld said.

Many of the activists reject that notion and say the U.S. will be guilty of war crimes if it attacks Iraq. "They will be the ones dropping the bombs on us and the other people here," said a British volunteer.

Close to 200 'human shields' have arrived in Baghdad, says a peace leader. The peace leader expects thousands to follow.

The Iraqi government has given the volunteers unprecedented freedom to organize their protests. The government is paying for the hotels for many of them, and provides other services such as phone lines and Internet access.

Soederholm is not going to the power plant. "Too risky," she says. "I will go to a hospital. I don't want to be some place where my life will really be in danger."

Despite the title of 'human shield', that is how many activists see it. "I am not saying I will see this thing through to the bitter end," says Meynell. Some of them say they will leave before an attack begins.

Western diplomats say the Iraqi government may not want them around if war breaks out. They could become a publicity liability, and in the tightly controlled police state that Iraq is, they could be seen also as security risks, even Western agents.

Ken Nichols O'Keefe, the spiky-haired Gulf War veteran from the U.S. who started off the human shields movement is convinced the government will let them stay.

Accusations that his movement is being used to support the Iraqi leadership and not the people do not worry him much. "You cannot separate the two", he says. And he talks of earlier U.S. and British support for the Iraqi regime.

Preventing a war is all that counts, he says. "If this goes down, it will be the start of World War III and we have to stop that from happening."

Many in the human shield seem to have only a vague idea why they are in Iraq. "I want to contribute to the spiritual healing of the people here," says a Belgian volunteer unwilling to discuss the political situation.

Like Nichols O'Keefe, many of the 'shields' sport tattoos, piercing and very distinct hairstyles. "In the '70s we had the moral police catching people like that and forcing them to dress normally and have a haircut," said one Iraqi.

A woman caught in a traffic jam caused by a human shields procession said: "Why don't they go home; it will not help anyway."

A South African volunteer wearing his long hair bunched under a large knitted cap said he was encountering cultural differences among the volunteers, and that this had caused some tension. "But if you are trying to prevent a war, that is the least of your worries."

He rejected any parallel with Iraq because outside influence had helped bring a regime change in South Africa. "In South Africa nobody invaded us and told us how to arrange our lives afterwards," he says. "That is what the U.S. and Britain are trying to do here."

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Albion Monitor February 25, 2003 (

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