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Iraq: 'Human Shields' Hunker Down In Baghdad

Two red double-decker buses rolled into Baghdad earlier this month and unloaded the first batch of "human shields" ahead of a possible war in Iraq. They're foreigners who have volunteered to park themselves in buildings needed by Iraqi civilians in the hope they'll protect them from bombing if a war starts.

Prague, 28 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Baghdad isn't the destination of choice for many ordinary American or British citizens these days. But Karl Gorczynski, a roof builder from Chicago, expects to be there in a few days. He's volunteered to be a "human shield" in the Iraqi capital in the hope he'll be able to prevent -- or at least delay -- a war.

He spoke on the phone from the Jordanian capital Amman about his reasons for going. "I can't anticipate sitting and watching that on television, seeing and knowing so many women and children will be killed and it would just be a television show from the U.S. So I came here to go to Iraq and hopefully cause a pause before the bombing and with any great luck cause a situation where the bombing wouldn't happen. If I could be at a hospital or an orphanage that would be best for me, I would feel very good about that, if I could be in a populated place. I expect to die. I expect that the [U.S. President George W.] Bush and British missiles will fly as heavily as they threatened to and the smart weapons were never in the past as smart as they wish and civilians have died and will die again. If there's going to be a lot of civilians dying, I won't mind at all being among them."

Gorczynski's action may be extreme, but he's not alone. A couple of hundred "human shields" have already arrived in Baghdad and more are on the way. They plan to spread out and deploy themselves in hospitals, water-treatment plants, and power stations, and other buildings needed by civilians.

That's despite warnings by the U.S. that deploying human shields is a war crime, and that it won't be able to guarantee their safety if military action begins.

So far the shields have come mainly from the U.S., Britain, Italy, and Germany. But Torben Franck said his group, the awkwardly named "Truth Justice Peace Human Shields Action Iraq," has received calls from Czechs, Romanians, Turks, and Bosnians, among others. And he said they're from all walks of life. "We've got vicars -- not priests -- we've got professionals who've given up their jobs to come across. We've got people who made their commitments to come and have obviously made arrangements to cover for them. We've got housewives, students, unemployed people, we've got peace activists -- all sorts, a big demographic -- [and] bus drivers of course. There's a huge demographic, you can't tie it down to one particular group. It really is a broad action."

Franck said his group hopes to field as many as 18,000 shields, but adds that 1,000 is a more realistic figure. Their numbers could soon be bolstered by other human shields -- if recent statements coming out of Kyiv, Minsk, and Moscow are to be believed.

Nataliya Vitrenko, a one-time presidential candidate and the leader of Ukraine's Progressive Socialist Party, said this week she'd be willing to go and become a "human wall" in Iraq, "if necessary."

Iraq's ambassador to Belarus said the first planeload of Belarusian "volunteers" will head to Baghdad next week. And the Iraqi ambassador to Russia says he's been inundated with applications from thousands of eager Russians.

But it's unclear if these claims will translate into action -- and what exactly they plan to do in Baghdad. Russia's ORT television interviewed one Russian volunteer who said he was going chiefly to defend Russia's economic interests. And one volunteer on Belarusian television said he might as well go and fight in Iraq, as he doesn't get paid much on his collective farm.

By contrast, the American and European shields say they are not there to support Saddam Hussein's regime, only to protect civilians. "No, I don't support Saddam Hussein in any way. I do support the right of Iraqi women and children to live without getting these tremendous bombs that Bush and the British regime promise to rain on them," Gorczynski said.

Human shields have been used in conflict before, and with some success. In the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century, the British loaded enemy prisoners onto trains and so deterred the Boers from blowing up the railways. More recently, civilians took to the bridges in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo war -- and saved them from NATO bombs.

Saddam Hussein too had earlier plans for human shields. In 1990 he took more than 2,000 foreigners hostage and put them in strategic positions -- but then let them go before the Gulf War began.

The shields now converging on Baghdad may well pose a problem for U.S. and British military planners. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned last week that deploying human shields is a war crime.

But the U.S. and U.K. must avoid attacking targets protected by shields unless there's an overwhelming military necessity. So said Michael McGinty of Britain's Royal United Services Institute. "[It] is a straightforward battle between military necessity and noncombatant immunity, but there is this third factor of voluntarism. So if you're fighting a war which claims in some way to be moral or such as in Kosovo -- where if you recall the bridges with voluntary shields on weren't bombed -- you'd perhaps be more restrained. If it's perhaps a more unrestrained war overall then the voluntary human shields might find themselves swept aside and killed anyway. [But] the prejudice has to be against going into action against them," McGinty said.

Certainly there's plenty for the shields to worry about. U.S. officials say the Baghdad regime has often placed military equipment in and around civilian areas. And agencies quoted an unnamed senior U.S. defense official yesterday as saying the shields may have "crossed the line" from being innocent civilians to being combatants.

(RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this report)