Humanitarian disaster in Iraq?

Relief groups are concerned a humanitarian disaster will explode if the U.S. declares war against Iraq.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | December 6, 2002

"It's difficult for people to get basic stuff, because of the sanctions and also because the economy's so bad."

—Nathan Mauger

Relief groups are concerned a humanitarian disaster will explode if the U.S. declares war against Iraq.

Relief workers will be among groups observing the 54th anniversary of International Human Rights Day, which will be commemorated in a variety of ways on Tuesday, Dec. 10.

Most visible are likely to be the hundreds of marches and protests decrying a possible U.S. war against Iraq.

Most of the Tuesday activities are being coordinated by United for Peace, which is bringing together such diverse groups as the National Council of Churches, Peace Action, the American Friends Service Committee, National Organization of Women, Black Voices for Peace, Not In Our Name, Sept. 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and Veterans for Peace.

Jennifer Carr, with Peace Action, said hundreds of town and cities will hold protest and marches Tuesday -- including protests in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as Washington, D.C.

"We're working together to spread the word," she said.

Pat Elder, a volunteer organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, said the main event in D.C. Tuesday will be a peace march, planned to begin and end at Farragut Square.

"It's going to be an older crowd, a church-affiliated type crowd, but they really want to take it to the streets," Elder said. "The idea was to bring your middle-of-the-road suburbanite church-types into the movement."

Elder expects a few hundred marchers Tuesday, and possibly more than a thousand.

Other, smaller demonstrations will take place in D.C., he said, including one at a D.C. military recruiting office Tuesday morning.

Carol Fouke, spokesperson for National Council of Churches (NCC) -- an interdenominational alliance that comprises 36 Christian denominations -- said her group is co-sponsoring the events because of a widespread opposition in many faith communities to the doctrine of "preemptive war."

"We want the UN inspectors to be able to do their job," Fouke said, "but we really want to find a way to resolve this crisis without going to war."

Fouke, however, said the views expressed by her organization can hardly be monolithic, considering the wide range of denominations represented. Some of these churches denounce war in any form, while others countenance the idea of just war.

But most agree that "a preemptive strike is a bad idea," she said.

The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, NCC general secretary, will attend Tuesday's march in D.C., she said.

Voices in the Wilderness (VitW), while not officially involved in Tuesday's events, is sympathetic to the aims of United for Peace and its affiliates.

VitW has been working since 1996 to bring humanitarian aid to impoverished Iraqis, despite UN sanctions that prohibit the group from doing so, and individual members have been fined a total of $50,000 by the U.S. Treasury Department for violating those sanctions.

Nathan Mauger, a VitW volunteer, recently returned from a two-month mission to Iraq, during which he and other workers dispensed about $30,000 in medicine.

Mauger acknowledges "going to Iraq without permission is a violation of sanctions," but said that he and his fellow volunteers will continue to provide help, whatever the legality of their actions.

"We feel that's something we don't need permission to do," he said.

During his trip, Mauger said he found doctors working without rubber gloves and hospital attendants washing floors with gasoline.

He was also shown photographs of hideously deformed babies born in southern Iraq. Mauger attributes these birth defects to radiation emitted by depleted uranium shells used by U.S. forces in the Gulf War.

"It's a scandal," he said. "It's incredible environmental damage."

Mauger found shortages of medicine and supplies wherever he went.

"In every single hospital it's like that, especially in the cancer wards," he said. Many hospital patients approached him and begged for vitamins and aspirin.

"It's difficult for people to get basic stuff, because of the sanctions and also because the economy's so bad," Mauger said. Before the Gulf War, Mauger said Iraq had a universal health care system that rivaled those of Europe.

More than a million people have died in Iraq because of sanctions, Mauger said, and he wants this humanitarian disaster to come to an end.

VitW currently has more than a dozen workers in Iraq now, and hopes to expand that number to about 30 as soon as possible.

For Mauger, a war with Iraq in the very near future is not merely probable, it is inevitable.

That, he said, is why the work of Voices in the Wilderness is especially critical now—in order to establish a substantial humanitarian presence in the country before the shooting starts.

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