Baghdad Countdown

The afternoon sky over Baghdad browned ominously as the sandstorm swirled in from the surrounding desert. Suddenly, the dirt was flying everywhere, filling the mouth with grit, a choking blast of hot, stifling air that would not abate until near midnight. Some taxi drivers cursed, fearing the worst for their already damaged vehicles, while others were enthusiastic. "God is Great!" rejoiced the ferret-faced, bearded driver who carried me home from a crosstown meeting.

Indeed, the storm was a portent of weather to come as the desert heats up to 100 plus degrees. Here the spring and summer sandstorms blow like the Russian snow that snatched victory from Napoleon and the Nazis back in history's frozen museum. The heat here, they say, will fry the brains of the invading army, and because the brains of the U.S. barbarians are now embodied by killer computers, their machines of war will slow and discalibrate, and the 3,000 missiles Bush brags he will drill down upon us in an unprecedented 48-hour blitzkrieg are not guaranteed to kiss their targets with any precision. Above all, this is not good news for my new neighbors here.

Everywhere I travel, the war is in the air. In Mosul 200 miles to the north where the desert climbs into the cold mountain rain, if the experience of 1991 is any teacher, a bloodbath seems inevitable as U.S. proxy Kurds and Turkish troops (if their Parliament greenlights their participation) will go at it with the Iraqi army, trapping the civilian population in a deadly squeeze.

A delegation of Human Shields who have come to Iraq to interpose their bodies between the Bush bombs and the people of this unlucky land visit the edge of town and pause before one of this ancient city's 15 crumbling gates, each embossed with the emblem of the eagle king Asyripanipani, who protected Mosul from other barbarian hordes long centuries ago, much as the Human Shields dream of doing now although such a defense we know in our open secret hearts is a mere symbol, a kind of metaphor before the coming slaughter.

Mosul still bears the unmistakable scars of 1991. We visit sites blasted by the U.S. "smart" bombs a dozen years back -- the telephone company smashed to smithereens, a Christian church where the roof literally blew in, killing four worshipers at prayer, we are told by the young house priest. Mosul is the site of some of Christiandom's earliest crusades, a multicultural oasis where 8,000 orthodox Catholic families still reside. We bus down the valley to a fourth-century monastery hewn from the surrounding mountains -- the ruins of a church built in 150 AD are said to be nearby, such relics being in spitting distance of Jesus Christ himself, as an erudite fellow Shield observes.

This particular monastery, whose chambers breathe a musty antiquity, was damaged in a firefight between Kurds and Iraqi troops after the U.S. assault, and such engagements are a certainty once the American death machine has done its dirtiest work here.

The sinister Moloch, with its head of a snake and fearsome eagle talons, will greet the invading army when it descends upon Babylon, now a dusty, sparsely attended tract an hour south of Baghdad whose reconstructed walls will surely fall when Bush's missiles zero in on the presidential guest house here in their painstaking search and destroy for Saddam Hussein -- erasing his ubiquitous portraiture from public buildings alone may take a thousand times the number of heat-seeking rockets in the Yanqui arsenal.

We stroll through the ruins, a world heritage site, with a friendly posse of schoolkids, the only visitors this late February morning, trailing behind us chanting "Down Down Bush!," practicing their rudimentary English and slapping fives. "How are you?" and "Hi, my name is Muhammad" are particular favorites.

The Shields have come to Babylon hoping to set up shop here, but the Iraqi authorities build roadblocks. The Minders want us to install at what they consider to be priority infrastructure sites -- refineries, power plants, water treatment facilities that are sure to be bombed -- but not hospitals, schools, or the ancient ruins that define this place. We send our volunteers into the facilities the government insists we man and woman in pursuit of a quid pro quo that would hopefully grant us access to the humanitarian sites we have come here to protect, but there is no real dialogue with the authorities and the push and pull of where the Shields now in Baghdad will be deployed seems destined for a dark end. Spanish and Turkish comrades have already threatened to return to their home countries unless they are allowed to pitch their tents in front of local hospitals, but how easily their exit will be accomplished is still anyone's guess. No, we are not yet unwelcome guests, but the writing is indeed on the wall, and the choices narrow as the war draws near.

But settling in at the Daura Oil Refinery and the Seventh of April Water Treatment Facility is only half the business we are about. The international volunteers are resolved to maintain a steady drumbeat of street protest, and almost daily we parade along the boulevards of Baghdad, yelling at both Bush and Blair to get off the Iraqi peoples' backs. On Sunday the 23rd we strung up a 17-meter-long banner on one of the eight bridges that connect the banks of the Tigris River (all were blown the last time around), strumming guitars and shouting poems to the joyous honking of horns. "Bush -- The Whole World Is Watching You!" the banner reads, but whether it can be seen 10,000 miles away in Tampa, Florida, from whence the missiles will be triggered, is not assured.

That same morning, we marched on the United Nations headquarters here, our hands tied together by thick rope, to ask that international tribunals be convened to try us for the war crime of being human shields, as suggested by U.S. "defense" secretary Donald Rumsfield. Should we be declared innocent, we demand that Rumsfeld be tried instead for the potential million murders his grotesque weaponry could mow down in the coming days.

The day before, the Turkish comrades had danced through Martyrs' Square, pounding drums and tambourines in an exuberant effort to drown out the dirges of death that Bush and Blair duet. Earlier that morning, we had descended upon the International Press Center, hollaring 'No More Lies!' into the cubicles of corporate media which just loves this "war" (more likely a massacre) because it means booming ratings and bigger budgets, billions in expanded advertising revenues, and extravagant overtime for the all-star correspondents and their crews. "No More Lies!" we shouted at a CNN flunky, Ingrid Kormanack, who stomped out of her cardboard-walled cave muttering "I ask the questions around here."

But for all our fury, in the still of the soon-to-be-exploding, we know it is all a pantomine. The missiles will whistle in very soon, possibly as early as the new moon (February 28th) -- historically, the U.S. has always bombed the world by that small light. Many here would just as soon get it over with as quickly as possible because the waiting is killing their souls. "We eat America for breakfast," says Bassam, an ex-army man who invented a way to feed sheep chicken-shit (32% protein) in the aftermath of the last war, and now works as a driver at the swank Palestine Hotel. "Every morning, we listen to the news. If it is good our day will be good but if it is bad we cannot eat..."

Bassam and I have agreed to celebrate our birthdays together -- my 65th is March 11th, when we may still be alive, but his is April 19th, by which date our fate will surely be sealed. Only an impossible miracle -- the apparition of the Pope in Baghdad or a transplant of George W. Bush's evil heart -- can save us now.

John Ross is a journalist, poet, activist and author. In early February, Ross travelled to Iraq with hundreds of international anti-war activists on the Human Shield Action Caravan. He's one of the few remaining human shields from the U.S. and he's committed to staying.

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