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December 28, 2004

Bereaved Parents Lead Humanitarian Trip to Iraq

by Jim Lobe

Parents of three U.S. soldiers killed in the war in Iraq are on their way to that country as part of a humanitarian mission aimed at showing a different face of the United States to Iraqis displaced by fierce fighting in Fallujah.

Along with representatives of several antiwar groups, including San Francisco-based Global Exchange, CodePink, and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), the parents will be distributing some $600,000 worth of aid for the estimated 250,000 people who fled the city in advance of U.S. offensive last month in which some 2,000 Iraqis and at least 71 U.S. soldiers were killed.

The parents include Fernando and Rosa Suarez of Escondido, Calif., whose son Jesus was killed in Iraq during the early days of the invasion March 27, 2003; Amalia Avila, whose son, Lance Cpl. Victor Gonzalez of Watsonville, Calif., died in Fallujah's al-Anbar province on Oct. 13 this year; and Nadia McCaffrey, whose son, Patrick of Petaluma, Calif., was killed last June 22.

"This delegation is a way for me to express my sympathy and support for the Iraqi people," said Rosa Suarez. "The Iraq war took away my son's life, and it's taken away the lives of so many innocent Iraqis. It's time to stop the killing and to help the children of Iraq," she added.

Also traveling with the group is Adele Welty, whose son, New York City firefighter Tim Welty, died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I am trying to leave a legacy in my son's name," she said to Long Island's Newsday this weekend. Welty is one of the founders of the antiwar Sept. 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows; she was arrested and jailed briefly last March during a protest rally in Washington, D.C.

"It wasn't a hard decision to make," she said about traveling to Iraq. "I am appalled at the growing list of casualties of both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians."

The main sponsors of the delegation, which also include Women for Peace, United for Peace and Justice, Voices in the Wilderness, and Project Guerrero Azteca for Peace, launched an Internet appeal for funds at the beginning of December after U.S. Marines announced that they had taken control of Fallujah, a stronghold for the Iraqi insurgency.

One organizer, Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin, said they had hoped to raise about $20,000 but quickly received some $100,000 in contributions through the Internet. Another $500,000 in medical and humanitarian supplies was donated by the Middle East Children's Alliance and Operation USA.

They expect to arrive in Amman, Jordan, on Monday, where they will meet with humanitarian and healthcare workers to hand over the supplies. They plan to travel to the Iraq-Jordan border for a peaceful vigil on New Year's Day and visit camps of Fallujah residents who left the city in anticipation of the U.S. offensive.

To date, around 1,000 residents have been permitted to return to the city which had a population of 250,000. According to the most recent media reports, about one-third of the buildings in the city were leveled in the fighting. On Thursday, three Marines reportedly were killed in clashes there that indicated to observers that the city was still not entirely secure.

In addition, most services, including water and electricity, have been cut off as a result of the destruction, suggesting that the city will not be able to support its original population until major repairs can be completed on basic infrastructure. The only humanitarian agency that is active there at the moment is the Red Crescent Society.

"The goal really is to locate one of the refugee camps where children and mainly women are kept," McCaffrey told KCBS in San Francisco Sunday. "I know that they have nothing, no supply, nothing right now."

McCaffrey's son Patrick, a member of the 579th Engineer Battalion based in Petaluma, was killed when his patrol squad was ambushed. She came to national attention earlier this year when she protested the Pentagon 's policy banning the photographing or filming of the flag-draped coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by inviting the press to view her son's coffin when it arrived in Sacramento via commercial aircraft.

Fernando Suarez, who visited Baghdad last December, has also gained national attention by publicly challenging the Bush administration to explain why it was necessary to go to war in Iraq shortly after his son's death. He told the North County Times, a suburban San Diego newspaper that that the trip's intent "is to provide humanitarian aid to the children of Iraq that the U.S. government has not been able to provide."

"I have contact with an Iraqi doctor in Jordan, and he told me that five to 10 children die every single day only from diarrhea and respiratory problems because the doctors don't have any medicines," added Suarez, who founded Project Guerrero Azteca last year. "This war is killing children and women who are not our enemies. By bringing medicine to children in Iraq, we are not helping terrorism, we are combating it."

Avila, a travel agent and mother of three, said the decision to travel to Iraq to meet with the refugees was easy despite the risks. "It's a peace mission," she told the Register-Pajaronian, a newspaper of the Pajaro Valley north of San Francisco.

"We have the same pain, we lose our sons, and they are losing their husbands and children not in the military services. We don't want them to think we are going there to kill people," she said.

Benjamin, who also co-founded CodePink and is best known for interrupting Congressional testimony by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld earlier this year, said she felt the timing of the trip was particularly compelling.

"The holiday season is a time when many people want to express the values of compassion, love, and sharing for our fellow human beings," she said. "This humanitarian aid delegation is our show of compassion for the Iraqi people."

"At the same time," she added, "we will be showing our support for U.S. troops by calling on the U.S. government to bring them home now."

(One World)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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