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Messages from Iraq: 29 December 2002
We get a continuing series of news articles from the western media - mostly the States. Some are encouraging. But on the whole they are not. They report of the build up of troops, the US administration's determination to show that war is justified, the plans for postwar democratisation etc etc. As you go about here meeting highly educated, sophisticated and cultured people, you are shocked by the arrogance of these US reporters. At least the British press is more circumspect. But then it is really the US that counts in these days.
The team - the Iraq Peace Team - is changing with six having departed, and another group arriving today to make our numbers up to 31. Next week yet another group will arrive. And then we hear are a number of 'VIP's' coming. I can't say more at this stage. In part because anyone travelling from the US risks a large fine or imprisonment as coming here is illegal. The team is made up of people of a wide variety of backgrounds. As you would expect there is some connection by everyone to peace activities. For example today there was a talk given by Damachio, originally a professional golfer, who has for the past 17 years made a study of the effects of depleted uranium (more of this later), and he is from New Mexico and is half Native American. We have a farmer, lawyer, teachers - both school and university - artists, writers, psychologist, human rights activist and a number of full time peace workers. We range in age from 24 to 77.
Here life on the surface appears - at least to an outsider - to be going on as normal. People are extraordinarily welcoming and friendly. Out and about meeting strangers is easy as there are so few of us. Two of us were out for an evening walk yesterday and called in at a musical instrument shop we were passing. Omar who owns it is a professional musician and was delighted to show us the different instruments. He played one of the lutes and explained the Arabic scale. I am sure had we had the time we would have been invited for coffee! You rarely see a European face. Very occasionally you pass people who I think are Russian or from eastern Europe or from Byelorussia. But in shops or cafe's everyone speaks some English and wants to talk and practice their language.
Where we are in Baghdad, the city is bustling with life (which has been the same when we have been to other towns and to other parts of the city for that matter). Unlike in Lusaka, Zambia, where I was for some months last year, there are masses of cars about, although they are all old. Similarly there is a very run down state of the fabric - the roads, pavements, building are all looking very shabby and in need of repair. (Except, so far as I have seen, in the one fairly large richer central area.) It is very easy to see the effects of the sanctions on the physical fabric, but the fact that less than half of people in rural areas have running water (compared with three quarters in 1990), the poor sewerage treatment, and the rationing of food are all 'hidden' to the eye of a visitor like me.
But is life going on as normal? How can it be - most people here have experienced bombing twice and they are now facing a huge military threat and they are absolutely sure, regardless of UN inspectors, that war is inevitable. Fatalism? It's hard to know. I find it really hard to put myself in their shoes. If my family and I were all here and couldn't escape? If we had suffered the deprivations of the sanctions over the last 12 years? It certainly feels a charade to have here in Baghdad the UN presence [photo] - the UN Development Program which is rapidly assembling plans and materials to deal with a catastrophe and a few hundred miles away a 'UN' force developing a plan to cause that very catastrophe. Crazy. But I haven't yet felt any imminent danger, though yesterday when there was huge bang and a shaking of the building I certainly got up gingerly and went to look out of the window to see, what? a tank? a building destroyed under a cloud of smoke?
I have just met a delegation of 40 people from Italy, Belgium and Germany and I understand that a peace group of over 150 have arrived from Spain.
The day after tomorrow is New Years eve. It is a time of resolutions and we in the Iraq Peace Team are stressing a resolution for peace, for no attack on Iraq and for the UN not to bow to US pressure. It would be wonderful if New Zealand could dissociate itself from any kind of support of the US. Is that a pipe dream? If the US can attack - or even threaten to attack - this country on the basis of such limited grounds, using weapons of mass destruction itself, can we as New Zealanders be associated with it and continue to feel good about ourselves?
Good wishes, John