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An eyewitness report from Baghdad
"People have endured a nightmare"

December 6, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

THE CORPORATE media have spent hours of airtime furiously speculating about every last detail of the looming U.S. assault on Iraq. Every detail but one--the terrible human toll of this latest stage in Washington's war on the Iraqi people.

Well over 1 million Iraqis died in the 1991 Gulf War on Iraq and the decade of economic sanctions that followed. A country that was once one of the most advanced in the Middle East has been reduced to one of the poorest places on Earth. But as far as Bush is concerned, Iraq is a "threat"--and no terror against ordinary Iraqis is too horrible to tolerate in stamping out that "threat."

KATHY KELLY is a founding member of Voices in the Wilderness, an anti-sanctions group that has sent numerous delegations to Iraq to bear witness to the catastrophic impact of Washington's war. Kelly is in Baghdad now as part of the group's Iraq Peace Team initiative. She talked to Socialist Worker's ALAN MAASS about what a decade of U.S. war has meant in Iraq.

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WHAT ARE conditions like today?

IN A sense, you could say that the Gulf War never ended, inasmuch as it turned into an economic war that has cost the lives--according to United Nations statistics--of over half a million children since the imposition of economic sanctions.

The infrastructure slid downward severely from 1991 until 1996. In December of 1996, what's called the Memorandum of Understanding was put in place, and the situation began to inch toward stabilization. But it's still nowhere near the kind of infrastructure that would be needed to meet the needs of 23 million people in this country.

And throughout the period from 1998 to the present, there's been regular bombardment of the "no-fly zones" by the United States, in a unilateral decision to bomb Iraq that has never been authorized by the United Nations.

So you have the combination of economic sanctions and military bombardment, having lethally and brutally punished the civilian population. And very few people in the mainstream media are really questioning whether or not it's right to punish a civilian population that has no control over what's being done by it's own government.

I READ that you had seen on CNN a depiction of how the U.S. would attack Baghdad, and you recognized the street where you were staying.

I WAS really startled when I saw that. It was a three-dimensional simulation of a Baghdad neighborhood, and all of a sudden, it was whizzing along, and I said, 'Wait a minute, there's the hotel where we stay.'

It was a very, very exact rendition of the neighborhood. And I could immediately identify a stunning disparity--that the armed forces in the United States can proceed with an extraordinary amount of certainty that's been unavailable to war makers in the past with regard to pinpointing targets.

But people here are dwelling on the agonizing uncertainty. They don't know if there's going to be a war. And if there is a war, they don't know how they can possibly protect themselves. They don't know what kind of catastrophic consequences will take place.

The older ones have a clear memory of what happened after the Gulf War, when they were without fuel and petrol--stranded on their streets with loved ones in emergency situations, where many would literally have to carry them to hospitals.

When the water turns off, the plumbing doesn't work, and you can't eliminate your own foul wastes. When there's no electricity, you can't preserve food, so food was spoiled. When the bridges are gone, even if do get petrol and benzene and can get in a car, you very often can't get from one spot to the other.

People endured a terrible, terrible nightmare of tons of explosives bursting over their homes during the Gulf War. They remember that, and some women say that when they hear a plane go overhead now, they have a kind of post-traumatic stress response, where they experience what they call psychological collapse. But they have to go on. They've got children to care for and households to maintain, and people have jobs to go to.

When I think about that, I'm really amazed at the dignity and the fortitude of people in the midst of all of this uncertainty. One coping mechanism has been that some just stop staying in touch with day-to-day news as this story evolves--because, they tell us, it's too disturbing and too unnerving.

Today, the air raid signals went off in Baghdad twice, and I haven't heard that before. In Basra in the south of Iraq, you get used to it. But here, it hasn't been so familiar. I was in a government office, going through considerable red tape to try to get visas extended for our group.

It's not true that visas are showered on us. That's a perception that some of the mainstream media have, but it's not the case. Here I am in a country where planes are flying overhead, practicing in the event that there is be a decision to bomb the country. And I'm seeking a visa.

And relative to the process of trying to get visas for Arab people who want to enter the United States, the inconveniences here are like a tea party. I think of the people who are lined up for years outside the U.S. embassy in Jordan, trying to reconnect with their loved ones and come to the United States. Or for that matter, I think about the borders of the U.S., where people are sometimes shot trying to cross in from Mexico.

The other thing that's very much on my mind is that people know we're Americans. But we have yet to hear a severe word of hostility uttered toward us. It isn't that people wouldn't have the opportunity. But as soon as we produce a sheet that tells who we are and what we're about, we're welcomed. And even without that, people say a friendly hello.

THE CLAIM of the Bush administration is that Iraqis will celebrate when a new U.S. war takes place. What's your reaction to that?

I HAVE to admit that I don't speak the language in any way adequate to be able to make a general statement, so I'm conjecturing--as I think whoever it was that said that there would be dancing in the streets was launching conjecture.

This is my 17th trip over here. And since 1996, I've simply lost count of the number of bedsides where I've sat with mothers and fathers, cradling infants that aren't going to make it--that were dying in their arms.

I don't think those memories just evaporate. I think that the parents and the doctors who saw those little lives snuffed out by economic sanctions would perhaps feel that they were betraying their own children if they danced in the streets and greeted as liberators the people who insisted on measures that have been so deliberately punitive.

What are they being freed from? They'll never be freed from the memories of those loved ones that they've lost.

When I look at schools that have deteriorated so badly and see parents agonizing because they can't give their children what they themselves received in terms of education I don't know that they'll feel that people coming from the U.S. with weapons and coercion and threat are their liberators.

I certainly clearly see that people are longing to change their situation. I think of people in Nicaragua who, after long years of contra warfare and of their own sons being sent to the front, wanted that situation to change. I think of people in Haiti who dwelt under siege, and they certainly wanted the situation to change.

But I think it's a bit presumptuous of Bush administration to bank on people dancing in the streets. Sure, there may be some. But it's hard for me to imagine that an entire population will feel that way.

And if by any chance what the United States has in mind would involve Iraqi oil revenue paying for their own occupation by foreign troops--again, it stretches my imagination to see how people would feel great about that.

I think that people are very savvy here. They're aware that there's a huge debt which could be imposed on Iraq--so that even if the oilfields were up and running, it's not an automatic given that the economic punishment would be lifted.

Because all the United States has to do is insist that Iraq must repay its debt--or refuse to allow an impartial group to make decisions about which debts should be maintained and which should be forgiven. And Iraq would never be able to restore itself to a strong and vibrant economic and social situation.

So there's an awful lot for people to think about. You can well imagine that people have felt trapped by their current situation for a long time and they want to see it change--they want something better for their children, and they want to hope on the goodwill of people who really have ignored their needs and participated in this punishment.

But I think that this would require a huge change of heart on the part of the people in the U.S. administration, who have maintained this status quo of bombardment and economic warfare over these long years.

I'm very impressed by clerics who got together while I was in Basra one day last week. Their prayer, I think, was an honest prayer--they prayed for the people who want to make war, and they were praying for a change of heart.

Feds target activists

DELEGATIONS FROM Voices in the Wilderness have delivered desperately needed medical supplies to Iraq. But the U.S. government says that's against the law. Bringing medical supplies to Iraq breaks the UN embargo on so-called "dual-use" items that supposedly could be used for military purposes.

Among the banned items are cardiac machines (the computers inside could be converted to run weapons systems) and vaccines to treat infant hepatitis, tetanus and diphtheria (they could be used to make biological weapons).

Kelly says that the Feds recently levied a $10,000 fine against Voices--and another $10,000 penalty against her personally. "We certainly won't be paying penalties to the U.S. government," she says. "The money that we might have access to is far more needed to try to relieve the misery here."

Look for Voices in the Wilderness on the Web at and

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