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The Leon White Brigade

Veterans for Peace sent its third delegation to Iraq on May 8th, 2002. As mentioned above, this particular team took the name Leon White Brigade in honor of the recently deceased son of Candy Lovett, Gulf War veteran, VFP member, and participant in the water project's second delegation in March 2001. read more

Delegation 3 comprised only 6 people, uncharacteristically small by previous standards. The cause of this shrinkage cannot be laid at the feet of indifference or lack of interest -- we had plenty of applicants, and regrettably some had to be turned away. At a very late stage in the planning for this trip, LIFE for relief and Development, our project partner and facilitator for the previous delegations, suddenly received a message from US Treasury that they (and hence we) were not permitted to send American citizens to Iraq without special government license -- in every practical sense unobtainable. IWP therefore had to find some other way to get team members into Iraq; not, it goes without saying, altogether legally. Readers of this article are probably familiar with Voices in the Wilderness, an Iraq peace group that has been challenging American policy on Iraq and the US Treasury for years. Voices got us to Baghdad. But they also screened our applicants and cut our size down to the 6 lucky winners.

In the end we were four Americans: Tom Sager, Missouri, trip leader; Art Dorland, Ohio, Trish Kanous, Minnesota, and Robin Wagar, Texas. Michael Lessard of Quebec Province, Canada, was number five. The sixth member was Amira Matsuda, a woman born in Iraq, a Japanese citizen, and living in Dallas. Amira's participation alone lent us representation of a good part of the earth. Both Robin and Amira came our way courtesy of CISPI, Citizens in Solidarity with the People of Iraq, a Dallas based peace group that has, among many things, raised serious money for the Iraq Water Project.

We were also accompanied by Jon Sawyer, chief Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, who published in his paper a series of articles about his experience in Iraq and about the Iraq Water Project.

Those of us who are US citizens traveled without government permission and on our own responsibility. Whatever the inconvenience, or even risk, the trip proved well worth it, and we can only hope we added some tiny grain of weight in the balances that decide the future of luckless Iraq.

After a couple of days in Baghdad, which we reached overland as the other delegations had done, we flew together with the Voices representatives aboard an Iraqi commercial 727 to Basrah. This air route passes through the heart of the US imposed no fly zone, but apparently civilian flights are not being currently interdicted, and no one on the crowded plane seemed to be anxiously peering out the window in search of hostile aircraft.

In Basrah we managed to get a look at two of the water plants previously repaired by VFP, Labanni and Hamden Bridge. While water from these plants would probably fail US standards (much of this to do with inadequate supply of chlorine and other essentials due to sanctions), nevertheless they are producing a much improved product, and the Labanni plant in particular is a vast improvement over the baleful wreck it once was, before VfP and LIFE commenced renovations. Another day in Basrah was spent visiting the neighborhood called Jumhuria, where in 1998 a US missile exploded, causing a large number of deaths and other casualties. Yet among the very big crowd that gathered around us, there was no sign whatever of hostility on anyone's part toward us, citizens and representatives of the country that sent that missile. Wherever we went in Iraq, we were invariably greeted with politeness and generosity, even friendship. One can't help wondering what sort of reception a delegation of Iraqi veterans would receive in this country.

It was of course de rigeur while in Basrah to browse at the famous and fabled market, one of the least attractive fascinations of which is a villainous looking black ooze of sewage trickling down the middle of all the market streets. The sewers are almost completely inoperable, so that sewage is siphoned up by tanker trucks and disposed of somewhere, hopefully not in the river. If sanctions came off today, Iraq would still be faced with a staggering cost even to begin repairing infrastructure like this. How much worse can it get before the world decides this population has been impoverished and insulted enough?

Returning to Baghdad, we traveled north and west to visit the sites of IWP's next rebuilds, one on the Euphrates, one on the Tigris. Our pitch-in work at these places was pretty limited, as the Iraqi government had not yet issued final permits for the repairs, and hence no building materials were at hand. But we got a pretty good taste of what it's like trying to dig in hard earth with shovels with broken handles and blades worn out and thin as tin cans. We did what we could.

We also made visits to several other water plant sites, among them a place called Old Hudaidah. Here we were shown about this pitiful wreck of a facility by its custodian, a Mr. Adnan Fadhil Tarhur. Now Mr. Tarhur, who is an aging Iraqi military veteran, also does some small farming and owns an acre or two of date palms. There sure can't be much income from any of these activities, as the man's house, right next to the broken down plant, is a mud brick, tin roofed affair with one door and one tiny window. Poor even by the standards of rural Iraq. Apart from a piece or two of squalid furniture, Mr. Tarhur's only visible possession was a beautiful singing bird in a wicker cage hanging by the door. Yet when our inspection of the water plant was over, and we were climbing back onto the bus, this humble and impoverished man came up to us with the wicker cage in his hand, and wanted us to have the songbird as a present. Possibly the only touch of cheerfulness in his drab life, and he wanted to give it to us. There are defining moments that sometimes encapsulate a much larger experience, and for some of us, at least, this was just such a moment.

The Leon White Brigade also made time for cultural and educational events, including trips to famous shrines at Karbala and Samarra, and a tour of Babylon, an absolute essential if one wants to acquire a sense of this country's preeminent place in history.

I must not fail to tell about the aforementioned Amira Matsuda, the sixth member of our delegation and a native of Iraq. Amira's generous assistance, together with the special attention we were given by LIFE's Baghdad engineer, Adil Nuami, made this third IWP delegation an unusually rewarding experience, for they each made it possible for us to get out and meet the regular people of Iraq -- people like ourselves, not officials, not bigwigs, not the ones who have to be professionally polite. Amira even invited the entire Voices delegation together with us VFP people to the Euphrates river home of her mother for afternoon tea and clotted cream. This was almost like English four o'clock tea without the stiffness. There was some pleasurable event like that almost every day.

And so it went for ten days in the month of May, an excellent trip, as you see. Everyone returned home safely, though some of us were astonished---even shocked---that nobody returning from this technically illegal trip to a supposedly hostile Middle East country had the slightest difficulty at US immigration, or was even questioned. So much for increased border surveillance.

The next phase of the Iraq Water Project is currently under discussion. We certainly hope to send other delegations to Baghdad, perhaps even fully legal ones next time. Anyone so inclined is encouraged to donate to the project, as our current financial commitment has not yet been met.

Prospective delegates should also make contact with us: Veterans for Peace Iraq Water Project, World Community Center, 438 North Skinker, St. Louis, MO 63130; 314-725-6005; email Veteransfp@sbcglobal.net.