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Human Shields: A Useful Anti-War Strategy?

From Amman
22 January 2003

I have just returned from a 4 week stay in Baghdad. All the people I met there were certain of one thing: war is inevitable. Would it make their lives better? Of course not they said. Many of the more educated studied in the United States or Britain. They have fond memories from then, but they also know that the sanctions over the past twelve years and for which they blame the terrible suffering they have experienced, were driven in the UN security council by the US and Britain. And they will fight to the bitter end they said.

As part of the Iraq Peace Team, it has been encouraging to see the western Press acknowledge that the anti-war movement is gaining momentum internationally. But the inevitability of war is also at times the US administration's message. Is it? And can anything be done by the likes of you and me? Some people have gone to Iraq explicitly as a 'human shield'. Though some members of our team are intent on staying there even in the event of war, we have discouraged that image, at least for ourselves. As Charlie, a highly distinguished Vietnam war veteran put it: "I have always been on the side of the victimiser. Now I wish to be on the side of the victimised". But no illusion that that would stop a US attack.

And yet ... is this not all about stopping war? If there were to be a really substantial US peace group presence in Baghdad, say of over 3000, would that not act as a deterrent? A realistic human shield - not in a military sense, but in a moral one? Is it realistic to think that the US would never attack in those circumstances? There is a group now gathering which could number hundreds, but the logistics of staying on are enormous and the numbers are very unlikely to reach 500. There are said to be thousands of Jordanian volunteers, but do they count in the eyes of the US administration?

But then there is the much higher profile group: the UN weapons inspectors. The US administration would never dare attack whilst they are there and so long as the UN can stop the US from bullying or bribing other members of the security council, they will stay on. But they need a huge support. If and when they discover weapons of mass destruction, that will be even more argument for them staying on - to continue to do their good work.

In the meantime, Britain and the US can put a really major effort into trying to build up a government in exile. One of the weaknesses so far in the argument over regime change and democratisation has been any credible alternative to the Baathist regime currently in power. There are reasons why this will be difficult and at the end of the day, it may be only internal change which will shift things. If that is the case then the sooner the UN can give Iraq a 'clean bill of health', the quicker sanctions - other than military ones - can be lifted. It is very likely that lifting sanctions would be a major factor in shifting power to become more representative. Sanctions in Iraq for all the suffering they have caused, have done as they did in Southern Rhodesia under Smith: they have led to a huge cohesion against the enemy: the US and hence support of the regime.

All this is in a sense playing for time as in the long run what will really influence the US will be potential voters and the domestic economy. But at least the tide appears to be turning and hopefully will soon defuse this crisis. Then the world can turn its attention to where it is needed: to the real axis of evil - poverty, disease, ignorance and injustice.

John Gleisner

Messages from Iraq

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