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Activists brave cold to keep the nation’s eyes on Iraq

NCR StaffWashington

Near the U.S. Capitol, a Washington winter wind, subzero and punishing, burned the fasting protesters’ faces. “Nothing compared to what the Iraqi children are suffering,” said protester Raed Battah, an Iraqi-American who switched his college major to better help the Iraqi children’s cause.

A modern equivalent of scorched earth policy, the U.S.-demanded U.N. sanctions were put in place to punish a belligerent President Saddam Hussein for invading Kuwait in 1990. The sanctions have killed, according to U.N. accounting, more than a million Iraqis in nine years.

The United Nation’s Children Fund and the World Health Organization say of the total that at least a half-million children under the age of 5 have died, and the infant mortality rate has doubled. The country has practically no medicines or potable water.

The dozen protesters who want to turn away America’s wrath are the vanguard of a continuing Voices in the Wilderness movement aimed at persuading members of Congress to sign on to a letter urging a change in the U.S. sanctions policy. The protesters do not absolve Hussein or the Iraqi missions at the United Nations and in Washington of their responsibilities. Rather, they concentrate their month-long liquids-only fast, commenced Jan. 15, on drawing Congressional attention to the main issue: ending U.S. policies that are killing innocents (NCR, May 21, 1999).

Though the anti-Iraq sanctions are imposed by the United Nations, the United States keeps the pressure on. Two U.S. Clinton administration secretaries of state, Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, have said the sanctions will remain until Hussein is out of office.

As generations of Washington protesters know, it takes a lot to shift Congress. There is some movement on Capitol Hill, however, said Nicholas Arons, a faster and a Voices member. There are now 45 signatories to the letter, jointly sponsored by Reps. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., and John Conyers, D-Mich., up from 35 a few weeks ago. The fast’s goal is 100 members. Meanwhile, said Arons, Sens. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., “are trying to get a bill passed for lifting sanctions not only on Iraq, but on Libya and Cuba and North Korea.”

Compared to a year ago, said Arons, when Congressional staffers regularly told Voices delegates that they were “crazy” to think they could end sanctions, “more offices are signing on. Everyone has heard about the fast.”

In addition to Battah and Arons, the fasters include Kathy Kelly, Simon Harak, Bert Sacks, Mark Maguire, Ramsey Kysia, Ruthy Woodring, Phil Runkel, Erik Yandell, Anne Montgomery and Joe Morton. There are solidarity fasts in Connecticut, California and elsewhere.

Come Feb. 11, the fasters will move to New York City to recognize the anniversary of the bombing of the Amiriya Shelter in Baghdad by the U.N. coalition. Hundreds of people, possibly over a thousand, lost their lives, including women, children and the elderly.

“Mostly though,” said Arons, shoulders hunched against the wind, “the fast is a way for us to purify ourselves, both mind and soul, and show a form of solidarity with the Iraqi people.”

Battah added political science to his broadcasting major at Eastern Kentucky University in order “to attempt to work more effectively for the sanctions cause in case I ever ended up on Capitol Hill.” He said a next step would be a blood drive to commemorate those who have died in Iraq. He’ll give early. “I don’t want to be the only Iraqi who hasn’t shed any blood over this,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000