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Pope set for Iraq despite U.S. pleas

NCR Staff

The Clinton administration has been trying hard, apparently with little success, to persuade Pope John Paul II and, separately, a delegation of Congressional aides to abandon plans to visit Iraq.

The Congressional delegation, which will include four congressional aides and a scholar for a Washington think tank, was scheduled to leave for Baghdad Aug. 27, even though the State Department has argued strongly against the trip.

The pope reportedly was not dissuaded from continuing plans for his trip despite pleas from veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering and a senior White House aide. According to an Aug. 20 item in The Wall Street Journal, the two made separate visits to Rome this spring and met with Vatican officials to argue against the trip by the pope, who has been a consistent and outspoken critic of the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq since 1991.

Chaldean Catholic patriarch Raphael Bidawid said Aug. 26 that the pope’s visit will take place between Dec. 2 and Dec. 5. Bidawid said the Vatican is working with the United Nations to get approval for the pope’s flight, according to Agence France Presse.

John Paul will land in Baghdad and meet with Saddam Hussein, Bidawid said. He also plans to take a helicopter 220 miles to the south to visit Ur, the ancient city where the Bible says Abraham was born. The helicopter flight also needs U.N. approval as it would break the southern “no fly” zone established after the Gulf War.

John Paul also hopes to take in the Monastery of St. Catherine in Egypt, as well as visiting Damascus, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, with a stop in Athens, on his Middle Eastern swing. It would be the first papal visit to the region since 1964.

In an interview with NCR earlier this year, Archbishop Djibrail Kassab of Basra, in southern Iraq, condemned the sanctions. He and the papal nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Laszarotto, in a separate interview, pleaded for visits by U.S. and European bishops.

“What has happened to Iraq with the sanctions is wrong,” said Kassab. We don’t need help. We want to sell our oil.”

A recent U.N. study confirmed what critics of the sanctions have argued for years -- that thousands of children under the age of 5 die each month as a direct result of the sanctions. The report estimated that 500,000 children under the age of 5 (more than 4,000 per month) have died since 1991, when the sanctions, the most comprehensive and prolonged boycott imposed against a state in modern times, were first imposed. (See NCR cover story, May 21.)

According to the Journal, Pickering and the White House aide “argued that no head of state has visited Iraq since the Gulf War.” They “presented evidence of Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses. They also warned of the security risk.”

The Vatican was undeterred. Officials there said the trip is “part of a series of visits to holy sites around the Mideast to celebrate Christianity’s third millennium.”

The Journal reported that Iraq so far has not issued an invitation to the pope.

However, members of a recent delegation to Iraq, sponsored by the group Voices in the Wilderness, reported that some civil and church officials in Iraq were anticipating the pope’s visit and even said that it has been scheduled for Dec. 4.

Voices in the Wilderness is a Chicago-based group that has campaigned against the sanctions, claiming the measures affect only the most vulnerable in society. The group regularly sponsors delegations from the United States to Iraq for a firsthand look at the effects of sanctions. Beyond the harm to children, the sanctions have caused a deep erosion of other aspects of Iraqi society, according to U.N. personnel and other observers. Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq was widely considered one of the most progressive and secular Arab cultures in the Middle East. Its once model education and health care delivery systems are now in shambles. Simple infrastructure that delivered power and clean water has been destroyed, and the Iraqis are unable to repair the systems because sanctions prohibit the country from receiving repair parts and other equipment.

The four congressional aides traveling to Iraq are Brian Sims, for U.S. Rep Danny Davis, D-Ill.; Peter Hickey for U.S. Rep Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga.; Jack Zylman for U.S. Rep. Earl Hilliard, D-Ala.; and Danielle LeClair for U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, Ind.- Vt. Accompanying the delegation will be Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Studies in Washington, who specializes in the Middle East.

Sims confirmed Aug. 26 that the four were leaving the next day and would be in Iraq at least through Sept. 4. He said the group would visit hospitals and other public facilities and planned to meet with U.N. personnel. The delegation is endorsed by about 40 individuals and religious and relief groups.

According to news reports, the State Department has been trying for weeks to block the trip, warning that the venture could be dangerous. It is illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Iraq, although hundreds of Americans have traveled to the country during the past several years -- many with relief groups or delegations opposed to the sanctions. While the State Department has threatened some with fines for violating the sanctions, no one has so far been prosecuted.

According to one news report, a state department official said, “Safety is the only consideration in our determination whether to validate travel to Iraq.”

That argument, however, was not very convincing to the congressional aides, who met Aug. 16 with representatives of the State Department and the CIA, according to Jon Alterman, a program officer covering the Middle East for the U.S. Peace Institute. The institute is a non-partisan agency funded by the government.

Alterman, an Arabic speaker who has lived and traveled in the Middle East, also wanted to join the delegation but was prohibited by the Peace Institute because of Clinton administration objections to the trip.

Alterman, who attended the Aug. 16 meeting, said the CIA and State Department personnel “didn’t convince anybody that security was the reason not to go. … Basically there is no refuting the fact that individuals who have gone have not been harmed.”

Rick McDowell, a co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness, who has traveled to Iraq a number of times and has strongly advocated a congressional visit, said, “I am convinced this delegation was denied permission to travel because the administration is afraid of the valid information it would bring back.”

The delegation will be the first Congressional representatives to investigate the effect of the sanctions since 1991.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999