Sept 11 victims share grief with Iraqis
An American who became a peace activist after her sister was killed in one of the planes hijacked on September 11 is in Baghdad to meet Iraqis who lost loved ones in the 1991 Gulf War.
Kristina Olsen and three other American relatives of September 11 victims said they made the trip to protest against a possible US war and to promote peace through personal contacts with Iraqis.
They met people like 46-year-old Fikra'a Shaker, who said she was terrified America would attack again – she lost her parents and a sister in a US air strike on a bomb shelter in 1991.
"They asked us what we wanted, and we said we wanted peace," Shaker said after meeting the Americans. "But if (President George) Bush attacks us, we are ready to offer more victims."
The United States accuses Iraq of hiding weapons of mass destruction, and has threatened war to topple President Saddam Hussein.
Olsen and the other activists met Iraqis amid the blackened walls, tangled wires and twisted steel rods of the wrecked bomb shelter, which Saddam's government preserves as a monument.
Iraq says 403 civilians, including 52 children, died when two US missiles hit the Amariya shelter on February 13, 1991.
US officials said at the time that they believed the structure was an Iraqi military command centre.
"It is devastating. The concrete and the wires reminded me of Ground Zero," said Olsen, a nurse from Massachusetts whose sister Laurie Neira died in one of the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre.
She and the other visitors – Colleen Kelly of New York, Terry Rockefeller of Massachusetts and Kathleen Tinley, a math and chemistry student from Nebraska - belong to Peaceful Tomorrows, a group founded by relatives of September 11 victims.
Peaceful Tomorrows members made similar trips last year to Afghanistan, where the Taliban government collapsed under a US military campaign launched because it harboured terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
"Suffering is universal and it connects us all," Olsen said. "I hope some sort of healing has come about as a result of us listening to the people here."
The Americans and Iraqis spoke through interpreters, holding hands and hugging as some wept. While Olsen said the Americans were made to feel welcome, there were signs of the tensions between their governments.
Americans "want war, we want peace. If it's war, we are ready for it," said Joweida Kazem, 70, in tears after meeting the September 11 families. Kazem lost her three teenage daughters in the shelter bombing.
US forces bombed the shelter during the Gulf War that drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Iraq, which invaded Kuwait in 1990, remains under UN sanctions.
It blames the sanctions on the United States, and says sanctions are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly children and infants.
Getting the sanctions lifted is contingent on Iraq proving it does not have weapons of mass destruction or the programmes to make them. Iraq denies possessing banned weapons and says it is giving full cooperation to UN inspectors who have been in the country since November.
A sceptical Washington has stepped up preparations for war, with weapons and thousands of troops pouring into the Gulf region.
After talking with the Iraqis, the visiting Americans held a candlelit anti-war vigil outside the shelter with another group of American and German peace activists.
Olsen, standing with fellow activists around a banner declaring "Peaceful Tomorrow For All," performed a song she wrote in memory of her sister. "Being kind is all that the sad world needs," she sang as she strummed a guitar.
Tinley, whose uncle Michael Tinley died in the World Trade Centre, said the experience of meeting the Iraqis had touched her.
"People don't have to die like this," she said.
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