'Human Shields' Head for Iraq
by Andrew Cawthorne
LONDON (Jan. 25) - Waving goodbye to families and denouncing "imperialist" warmongering, the first convoy of Western volunteers set out from London on double-decker buses on Saturday to act as "human shields" against any attack on Iraq.
About 50 volunteers, ranging from a 19-year-old factory worker to a 60-year-old former diplomat, formed the first in a series of convoys organisers say will take hundreds of anti-war activists to Iraq.
Dismissed by critics as naively playing into Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's hands, the volunteers plan to fan out to heavily populated areas of Baghdad and other parts of the country as a deterrent to Western bombing.
"Our strategy is potentially dangerous but that is the risk we must take in standing beside our brothers and sisters in Iraq," said former U.S. marine Ken Nichols, whose Human Shield Action Iraq group is coordinating the London departures.
"We have been inundated by volunteers. This is just the first wave. I am calling for 10,000 to get down there and stop this war," he told Reuters.
Saturday's convoy -- like others being planned for early February -- will travel across Europe, picking up more people on the way, loading provisions and stopping to promote their cause.
Nichols' group is one of several around the world whose aim is to mobilise peace activists as human shields in Iraq and show solidarity with Iraqi people in the face of a possible U.S.-led war against Saddam.
The campaign has upset some among the thousands of Westerners detained by Saddam to act as shields against attacks after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait and during the 1991 Gulf War.
They feel the volunteers do not appreciate the seriousness of what they are doing and are unaware of their past suffering.
"The majority went through hell on wheels," said Steve Brookes, who ran a support group for British victims. "Of the 1,800 or so British hostages, most suffered from some form of post-traumatic stress."
Volunteers from Nichols' group, mainly from Western nations but including some from Turkey and China, insist they are not going to support Saddam but to try to prevent the death of innocent people.
"When we arrive, we will work out where the bombing is most likely to be, where there would be most casualties, and we will go there. Our purpose is to protect civilians," 32-year-old lecturer Uzma Bashir, from Yorkshire in northern England, told Reuters.
Many have had trouble convincing their families of the importance of their mission.
"Nine out of 10 of the people going as human shields are more scared of what their mothers say than the bombs in Iraq," said Bashir, who plans to join a second convoy from London.
In the Muslim world, the main rallying point for would-be human shields is in Jordan. There, a campaign led by leftist parties and civic bodies is seeking 100,000 volunteers.
Baghdad has said it will receive the volunteers with open arms and help them decide where to place themselves.
Washington and London are trying to garner international support for possible military strikes over Saddam's alleged programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction.
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