What the Gulf peace team saw

Issue 

By Tom Flanagan

On the night of January 16, Jack Lomax awoke at 2 a.m. to hear wave after wave of B-52 bombers pass overhead. Jack, 61, a long-time peace and environment activist (a veteran of the Vietnam moratorium and Franklin River campaigns) and a one-time conscript who had spent three years in the British Airforce, was camped with 73 others at an international peace camp a kilometre inside the Iraqi-Saudi border.

Jack returned to Tasmania two weeks ago after spending several weeks in the Gulf region as a member of the international peace team. This small group of people were probably the first civilians to learn that the US-led bombing of Iraq had begun.

The following night, 10 km from the camp, a village was bombed. Even from this distance, the explosions were loud and frightening. Later it was learned from the local Iraqi military that civilians had been evacuated before the raid.

Jack was at the peace camp continuously from January 10 until it was evacuated on January 28. Twice during that period, while waves of B-52s were flying overhead in the darkness, fighter-bombers swooped low over the camp on mock bombing runs. On the first occasion those at the camp had no way of knowing that they weren't about to be bombed.

While the peace camp experienced apparent attempts at intimidation by the US-led forces, the general reaction of the Iraqi officials was to regard the peace camp participants as their allies, as "heroes of Iraq".

In response, the peace campers made clear their opposition to the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, pointing out that it is wrong in the same way that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is wrong, and that linkage of these issues works both ways.

This view was not popular with the Iraqi officials, but it made clear that the position of the peace team was not to support either side.

Jack explained that the peace team saw the presence of a camp on only the Iraqi side as an imbalance. The team had applied for permission to have a twin camp six kilometres away on the Saudi side, but this had been ruled out by the US.

While Jack describes himself as firmly pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian and pro-PLO, he said that his participation in the peace camp was not on this basis, but simply as a neutral between opposing forces.

The Iraqi military evacuated the camp on January 28. The majority of the participants left willingly on the basis that their presence made it more difficult for the Iraqis to defend themselves. One of the principles governing the activities of the peace team was that they shouldn't do anything that would advantage one side over the other.

They were evacuated by road to Baghdad, where they found the Al Rasheed Hotel to be without water or electricity and with staff working by torchlight. The city was clearly under siege. There was little food available in the markets, and bread in particular was very scarce.

The Iraqis were keen to show the impact of the war on Baghdad. Peace team members were taken around the city by bus during the day so that they could see for themselves. Sometimes there were many kilometres between bomb sites. The damage seen by Jack in inner Baghdad appeared to be specific to government buildings and telecommunications, with some minor damage to small hotels. The destruction of civilian property was noticeably worse in the suburbs, where many shops and blocks of flats had been hit.

The team were told by the Iraqis that there was huge civilian damage on the outskirts of the city, but that it was too dangerous to travel that far.

All this convinced Jack that there hadn't been huge casualties in inner Baghdad itself up until the time he left the city. He estimated that the damage he saw may have resulted in 200 to 300 deaths. The fact that the Iraqis maintained that there was much more severe damage on the outskirts indicated that they were not interested in concealing the level of destruction in the city itself.

Bombing had been clearly aimed at industrial targets and things like water and electricity facilities. Jack explained that "accurate bombing" meant that three out of four bombs hit their targets, while the fourth strayed and often killed civilians. In addition, he pointed out that water and electricity supplies are also civilian targets and that their destruction endangers public health and civilian lives.

The team were taken to hospitals where they were confronted with the human cost of the war — a combination of horrific bomb injuries and an inability to give adequate treatment due to a US embargo on medical supplies.

Significantly, members, including Jack, were taken to the bombed so-called chemical weapons factory. The Iraqis called it a "baby milk factory".

The team were extremely suspicious and determined to get the facts

of the matter. They spent an hour in the factory examining machines, collecting labels, opening bags and even tasting the white powder inside them.

The verdict of Jack and the others was that it certainly was a milk factory. There were production lines of Austrian-made machines producing baby formula, cake mix and sugar-enriched milk.

The Iraqis decided to evacuate the team by road after three or four days. The journey was tense, especially after a few hundred kilometres, when damage to the road was so severe that it was frequently necessary to leave it in order to drive around bomb craters.

The team saw burnt-out wreckage of several private cars, four oil tankers and six or seven Jordanian semi-trailers. At one place the remains of three semi-trailers, all hit by cannon fire from a fighter-bomber, were beside the road. The last one was still ablaze. Jack's assessment was that no-one could have got out alive. In Amman, the capital of Jordan, Jack later learned that these Jordanian semi-trailers had UN permission to bring oil out of Iraq (it had already been paid for) and to send in dried milk and medical supplies, since these were not part of the embargo. This UN permission proved to be no protection against US-led attacks.

The US justifies these attacks by claiming that the semi-trailer convoys shield mobile Scud missile launchers — one Scud launcher between two semis. With reference to the three semis mentioned above, however, Jack described such claims as "obvious total bullshit": there was no sign of a mobile launcher and no gaps in the burnt-out wreckage.

Another time the buses passed the wreckage of two oil tankers together in the desert with the road bombed out around them. Again, these clearly could not have been involved in the shielding of a Scud launcher since the only tracks were those of vehicles skirting the wreckage, with no sign of anything having been removed.

On reaching the Iraq-Jordan border, the peace team saw hundreds of refugees who were unable to cross. Some were camped under makeshift corrugated iron shelters, some had died — a result of below-zero temperatures at night combined with a chill wind.

After briefly thinking that they too might become refugees on the border, the team found that the queen of Jordan had intervened and sent two buses to take them to Amman. Here they set about investigating the possibility of setting up further peace camps and also a peace escort to travel with Jordanian vehicles carrying medical supplies to Baghdad. Jack and another Tasmanian member of the team, Tom Lynch, began trying to organise an air route out of

the Gulf region. Four days after leaving Amman, Jack arrived home.

When asked whether he had seen any sign of support for Saddam Hussein being eroded in Iraq, Jack responded that the opposite was happening — all the blame for the suffering caused by the war is being put squarely at the door of the United States.

"Wearing down support for Saddam Hussein is likely to take years, not months", Jack said. "Unless they [the US] agree to Saddam Hussein's formula of 'linkage' they've got a long war ahead of them".