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[whitespace] Kathy Kelly and Hans von Sponeck
I Don't Think We're in New York Anymore: Kathy Kelly and Hans von Sponeck during their trip to Santa Cruz

Striking Distance

Human rights workers and other experts on Iraq are waging an 11th-hour battle against the call for war

By Sarah Phelan

TWELVE YEARS AFTER sanctions were first imposed against Iraq, Kathy Kelly is in New York on a 40-day "Break Ranks" fast that ends on Sept. 11.

Why a fast? And why now? Because Kelly and five fellow members of Voices in the Wilderness are still working to end the U.N. Security Council's economic sanctions against Iraq--and with the possibility of a U.S. invasion on the horizon, they've decided it's time for extreme measures.

"We are all feeling quite well physically and we are working to prevent a new war against Iraq and end what we believe is the present war, which is what we feel the economic sanctions are," said Kelly, reached by cell phone in New York.

Last November, when getting a new war on against Saddam was already more than a whisper, Kelly visited Santa Cruz to talk about the high cost in human life in Iraq, which she attributes to the sanctions.

Traveling with her was Hans von Sponeck, a 36-year veteran of the United Nations. Appointed U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq in October 1998, von Sponeck resigned his post in February 2000, saying, "How long must the civilian population be exposed to such punishment for something they've never done?"

Von Sponeck claimed infant mortality has more than doubled since sanctions were imposed, and that one Iraqi child in five suffers from malnutrition.

"Can anyone afford to associate himself or herself with such a reality? I cannot," von Sponeck said of resigning.

Indeed, recent reports predict that one out of every 10 Iraqi children will not live to the age of 1 year, because of high rates of cholera, typhus, dysentery and diarrhea, along with pneumonia, cancer, diabetes and kidney failure.

"Sanctions are a form of silent yet deadly warfare ... a crime against humanity because they make innocent civilians the main victims of siege enforced by military might," says Kelly, adding that "Iraq is not able to produce adequate amount of drugs, or distribute them, because of sanctions imposed by the U.N. in 1990, four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait."

Behind U.S. Policy

Sanctions were imposed on Iraq in the hope it would withdraw from Kuwait, which it did. But thereafter, Iraq was told sanctions would not be lifted until it could prove it had eliminated all weapons of mass destruction.

Kelly says her group was shut out of the recent government hearings on Iraq. "We tried to make ourselves available to the government at the grassroots level. But Hans von Sponeck, who has just returned from Iraq, never got one phone call. We also told them Scott Ritter, a chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, was available for interviews, but we heard nothing."

Recently, Iraq invited members of the U.S. Congress to visit--an offer Ritter describes as "ludicrous" since Congress doesn't do inspections, but he tells Metro Santa Cruz he thought it positive for Congress and Iraq to engage in parliamentarian exchange.

"U.N. weapons inspectors need to go back in, that's the only way to determine if weapons of mass destruction exist," Ritter said when reached by cell phone. "Cheney and Rumsfeld keep talking about war, but how about talking about peace? And it's ludicrous to bring up the Chamberlain/Nazi Germany analogy. Iraq is a defeated nation, wrecked by war, sanctions and a brutal dictatorship. But you can't impose a democracy. You can only achieve that by lifting sanctions, rebuilding the economy and engaging in the Iraqi political process."

Asked why the Bush administration is so determined to pursue an attack on Iraq, Ritter puts it down to domestic politics.

"This is not a national security issue. For it to be so, you'd have to demonstrate a threat of weapons of mass destruction. Instead of which, all they've done is keep repeating their allegations. What's really going on is that the Republicans and neoconservatives in the Bush regime have invested everything into regime removal, thereby backing themselves into a political corner."

Ritter, who served 12 years in the Marines, is keen to point out that he is no pacifist.

"I hate war, it's the worst thing, but sometimes you have to fight to defend what you believe in," he said, "but not to defend the political aspirations of a former Texan governor, while losing thousands of American lives in the process."

The War Game

That said, Ritter believes war, will be inevitable, unless Bush can be convinced that he has more to lose politically by going to war with Iraq than by not going.

"The Saudis and the British aren't going to sway us. Cheney has said if you show leadership, people will follow. But if we do go to war with Iraq, we'll lose the war on terror. We'll have fundamentalists blowing up schools, neighborhoods and buses. We will become a nation paralyzed by war."

Could the fallout really have been that drastic?

"Osama said Sept. 11 was the first battle in a war between the West and Islam. By violating international law, we will reinforce what he said, thereby pushing the Muslim world towards fundamentalism, denying them hope and leaving them no recourse but terrorism. We're looking at a 20-year war, in which thousands will die, and trillions will be lost in commerce and the world will bear the burden."

Asked what people can do to prevent a U.S. war against Iraq, Ritter recommends that people first ascertain the facts for themselves by doing research and questioning everything they've been told about the situation. Then, he says, they should remember that individual opinions can still make a difference in deciding the U.S. course of action.

"Individually, it's hard to imagine you can make a difference, but it's amazing what sending a collective message to your Congress member can make," he said, "just by letting them know there's a political cost they'd be well advised not to ignore."

The Anniversary Element

Meanwhile, Kelly, who spends her mornings handing out fliers across from the U.N. building in New York, says her group hasn't experienced any hostility, but admits the atmosphere in the city as the 9/11 anniversary approaches is intense.

"Our group will be joining an all-night vigil on Sept. 10. It's important to gather and grieve, but not to cry for war," she said. "I was in New York last Sept. 11, and it's hard not to see first the suffering and the loss sustained, but I hope that doesn't mean we go to war."

Since March 1996, Kelly and Voices have broken the sanctions by organizing 39 delegations to hospitals in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. In 1996, U.S authorities sent Kelly what she calls a "very stiff letter threatening 12 years in prison and high fines for violating the State Department law regarding travel to Iraq."

But though she is personally facing a $120,000 fine for her work in Iraq, Kelly has already met four people in New York who want to join her on an Iraq peace-keeping team.

As for the fast, Kelly says it's not life-threatening because she and the five other fasters are taking liquids, nutrients and calcium. "And when you 're not using energy to break down food, you feel a curious extra level of energy, but when the weather is muggy, which it has been some days, we feel it. But I know it's not normal for Iraqi people to be experiencing child sacrifice and slaughter. So, doing something strange like this, taking a departure from what you normally have, seems almost normal by comparison."

Check out www.iraqpeaceteam.org for news and analysis.

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From the September 4-11, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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