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EDITIONS
 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 08:36 GMT
Human shield protest in Iraq: Ask campaign leader
Kenneth Nichols O'Keefe

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  • Click here to read the transcript

    An anti-war group is seeking volunteers from across the world to act as "human shields" in Iraq, should military action go ahead.

    The group is hoping to recruit protesters during a trek across Europe and Middle Eastern capitals on the way to Iraq.

    Once in Iraq, members of the convoy will identify targets for bombing, such as power stations, key bridges and roads, and deploy themselves as human shields in the glare of the international media.

    The campaign is being led by Kenneth Nichols O'Keefe, a former US marine who fought in the 1991 Gulf War with the Second Battallion, Fourth Marines.

    Is the campaign misguided? What will the 'human shields' really achieve?

    You put your questions to Kenneth Nichols O'Keefe in a LIVE interactive forum.


    Transcript:


    Peter Gould:

    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Online interactive forum, I'm Peter Gould. Tony Blair has again been defending his tough stand on Iraq in the face of widespread criticism. In his weekly parliamentary question time he's refused to rule out Britain supporting an American led attack, even if it hasn't got the backing of the United Nations. As war seems to be edging ever closer many anti-war groups are making their voices heard.

    Our guest today is one campaigner who says he wants to be a human shield in Iraq if war does go ahead. Kenneth Nichols O'Keefe is a former US marine who fought in the 1991 Gulf War and he's here to answer your many e-mails.

    Kenneth, thank you for joining us. I can tell you that we have received literally hundreds and hundreds of e-mails on this issue, it is clearly very emotive. A lot on both sides of the argument - we can't possibly get through them all but I will give you a representative selection.

    Let's start with one from Dr Samir Yousif who's e-mailing us from Tripoli in Libya. He says: "President Saddam Hussein has massacred millions of my Iraqi countrymen and he's still massacring the rest, I had to run away to save my life, how can an educated person, like yourself, defend such a mass murderer?


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    Well it's absolutely ludicrous to accuse me of defending Saddam Hussein and the fact is that it's our governments - the US government and the British government - that supported Saddam Hussein through all of his worst crimes, it's our government that supplied him with the chemical and biological weapons to be able to use these weapons on his own people. And I think it behoves those of us who live in the United States and Britain to take responsibility for the actions of our own governments.

    I cannot really control what Saddam Hussein does, I certainly do not endorse it, but wouldn't it be wise, for us in the West, to stop pointing fingers at others and actually take responsibility for our own governments? I don't disagree with this man Hussein but to say that I shouldn't do something because Saddam has violated his own people - would he argue that bombs dropping on the Iraqi people is going to make it a better place? I think not.


    Peter Gould:

    So you're saying you're against your government and perhaps Britain as well, if we join in, not supporting Iraq and Saddam Hussein?


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    I think the record is clear - the US has supported the most sadistic and nasty tyrants around the world - Pinochet, Noriega, Suharto - they called Mandela a terrorist when he was with the ANC in South Africa fighting apartheid. They've supported the most sadistic people, they've conducted terror wars in Central and South America, the biggest bombing campaign of the 20th Century in South East Asia. The US has no interest in protecting people, it's all about oil and global domination and I think this gentleman is forgetting that.


    Peter Gould:

    Mohamed in Cairo sent us this e-mail. "You took part in the war in 1991, what's changed in your life that makes you want to act as a human shield in Iraq?" He's saying basically why did you go to war in '91 and why are you now so much against it?


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    Well I like to think that as we grow older we grow wiser and I certainly have evolved over the years. I was a different person when I was 19 and joined the Marine Corps, na´ve in certain senses. Over the years I've learned of the true US policies and I've become ashamed and disgusted with what I've seen my nation do and where our tax dollars go, to the point that I felt compelled to renounce my US citizenship.

    I've paid a heavy price for taking that view. I had a life that most anybody would kill for - I lived in paradise in Hawaii, had my own business doing something that I loved and felt passionate about but I left it because I feel so disturbed with the way I see the world going and I really understand that if we continue on this path we will destroy ourselves. So I've been pushed to the point where I feel I have to take this sort of action.


    Peter Gould:

    John Levins e-mails us from Kuwait City. "As one who was held hostage by Iraq in 1990 and who has many friends and colleagues who were real human shields, held against their will by Saddam's regime at strategic sites, I ask Mr Nichols to desist from using that description, it's an insult to the suffering those people and their families went through. You are not human shields when you put yourself in harm's way voluntarily, you're tools of the Iraqi regime and nothing short of collaborators in the repression visited upon the Iraqi people." Someone there who feels very strongly against what you're doing.


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    Well I think that the term "human shields" is clearly got its faults. It can be used in a negative sense or a positive sense but the fact is that people recognise it, generally, in the positive sense and therefore I don't really have an objective to it. It's semantics really - it's a term and people take offence to it and I'm sorry for that but the bottom line is I don't really care what the term is, we're going down there to stand with the Iraqi people who clearly do not need bombs dropped on them.

    Again this is a pattern here of seeming like - what should we do? Should we just simply stand by and allow this war to go ahead, allow bombs to drop on the Iraqi people, allow a public government to be put in place? They clearly will not be representative of the Iraqi people and I can assure these people that if they look at the record of these so-called democracies or public governments that the US has installed around the world they'll find atrocious human rights violations as well. So I think they're being a bit na´ve here about me supporting Saddam Hussein.

    In fact I'm supporting the people of Iraq and I would rather stand with them and die with them than sit by and watch my government drop bombs on them and say that somehow this is going to make the world a better place.


    Peter Gould:

    But do you see why he's upset - he was held there against his will, now you're going there voluntarily and calling yourself a human shield?


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    So he would prefer that I do nothing or that those of us in the West go have our protests, say how wrong is this and sit by and watch the war? That's what he would prefer - that I do nothing? I don't understand that logic. I would rather be with the Iraqi people, I would rather - if there is bombing - that there's also the threat of white Western people being killed and if he has a problem with that then what can I say?


    Peter Gould:

    Okay a question from Peter Tweed in Northern Ireland who raises a practical issue. He says: "What are the chances Saddam Hussein will even let you into his country?"


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    Well for all things Saddam Hussein is I don't think he's stupid and clearly he doesn't want a war, it's not to his advantage and I would be the first one to agree with that. However, this has nothing to do with Saddam Hussein, as far as I'm concerned, this has to do with innocent people, who've been victimised for over 12 years, 500,000 dead children - for Christ's sake, 500,000 dead children - the last thing these people need is for bombs to be dropped on them.

    As far as Saddam Hussein I can't control him. If I had my way I would try my best to compel this man to reverse his ways - he has already disarmed, from what we can tell, which is one step better than the United States, which we do know has over 7,000 nuclear weapons and has said as recently as last month that they're willing to use them against non-nuclear states. So who's the bigger threat to world security - Saddam Hussein or George Bush? I think the answer to that is obvious.


    Peter Gould:

    A similar question from Glasgow from Seb. "Do you really think Iraq is going to thank you for doing this?"


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    I don't care whether Iraq thanks me or not. What I do care about is that I know that when I get down there, along with the other people, that I will be able to meet with Iraqi people who are just like myself - want a life of happiness, they don't want to be persecuted - and I think it will be very positive that they will see that some of us in the West will do more than protest and would rather sit down there, in Iraq, with them, as the bombs drop on us and I think that somehow, some ways, they're not going to feel negative about that. So I would rather be down there even if it just provides some sort of comfort for these people to know that many of us care deeply enough to where we would risk our own safety.


    Peter Gould:

    I said at the outset this has raised some very strong emotions. We've had e-mails not just against you but also supporting you. One from Tim Pace from the USA. "As a combat veteran from the first Gulf War I would like to know who to contact to arrange for a trip to Baghdad? I'll be happy to stand alongside in full US army dress uniform and tell the powers that be "Not in my name you don't"."

    Do you feel that there are more people like you back in the States who support what you're doing, even former military people who were in the first war?


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    Well we have Vietnam veterans that are going to come with us, there's more one Gulf War veteran, both from Britain and the US. And I'd like to say that if this is representative thus far we're finding far more people really having tremendous anger towards me, what I've seen thus far in shows similar to this and the feedback that I'm getting on e-mail and everyone has access to the newspapers and what not, is overwhelmingly positive.

    There are people who are very angry about what I'm doing, I can understand this, I can understand completely how people would misinterpret what little they see in the news from the person that I am. I can assure them that if they knew me it is only because I genuinely care, I genuinely care and I know that this war is not going to make the world a better place and that is why I do what I do. There are many people, most people, feel similarly whether they act out the same way I do or not is individual to them.


    Peter Gould:

    Well as I say there are e-mails on both sides of the argument here. Mr Pong e-mailing from Hong Kong: "I'm interested in joining your movement. What should I do, how much money will it cost?"

    Sabiha from Austin in the USA, Texas I presume: "I think it's a wonderful idea. Can a 60 year old woman, like myself, do something to stop the war - can I become a human shield?"

    Do you think there are more people in the USA, or elsewhere, who are against the war and who feel - they feel powerless in effect and they want to have a way of expressing their anger as you do?


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    Yeah, I will answer that next. Let me get back to the people clearly would like to support this. Yes, go to www.humanshields.org you'll get all the information you need, whether you want to join us or whether you want to support it financially. On that note, as far as financial support, I am a volunteer, everyone is a volunteer, no one will make any money for this, that's absolutely imperative, I feel that the integrity of this necessitates that no one makes any money. So any money that anybody wants to give is not going to go into my pocket, it's clearly going to be to transport people down to Iraq.

    As far as US people - I do feel, yes, that polls are misleading generally, the way you phrase a poll question can get an answer that you want and that's done regularly, but I do absolutely believe that the majority of people in the US, even with the propaganda system that exists in America which is the greatest propaganda system that's ever existed, even with that they're still against this war - the majority of them, I definitely believe that.


    Peter Gould:

    Raymond from Honiara in the Solomon Islands: "If the allied forces bombed your location is there any guarantee of your safety and what sort of risks do you run if you're able to do this?"


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    Well I'm the first one to admit that war is not a safe environment. There's always the possibility that we could be hurt by our own side - the US and Britain - that's a risk you take but that's a risk that we take voluntarily whereas the Iraqi people have no choice in the matter.


    Peter Gould:

    Justin Cunningham from Santa Barbara, California: "If the coalition blows up the installation the protestors are at what exactly do the protestors accomplish, would your death achieve anything?"


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    Well my goal is to stop this war and the bottom line is we can stop this war and I'd like to get into that if we don't get a question that gets directly to it. But what will we accomplish? I don't know. The reality is, you know, what it'll accomplish - the sad fact is that white lives, white Western lives, are worth more than dark skinned lives - that's the world we live in, that is a tragedy beyond all tragedies but it's a fact. We can have 3,000 white people or 3,000 Americans and nationals die in the World Trade Centre, yet when the worst of atrocities are committed in other parts of the world where dark skinned people die it doesn't seem to matter.


    Peter Gould:

    A question from Piers Zvegintzov in Nairobi Kenya: "Mr O'Keefe, if once the war has started Saddam Hussein lobs a chemical missile into Tel Aviv proving that he'd lied all along will you and your colleagues not feel left in a rather awkward position - chained to a baby milk factory Baghdad?" Certainly a pointed question there. You could be proved wrong couldn't you?


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    No because we still are going down there to support the Iraqi people because bombing the Iraqi people does not change the fact that Saddam is who is. And replacing him with a puppet government that won't represent the people, which is clearly shown over time, historically, that the US will put in puppets. These people could be equally sadistic, we just don't know but the bottom line is the record of the US does not warrant any trust and they do not have the Iraqi people's interests at heart and dropping bombs on them is not going to make it a better place.

    If Saddam has one or two scud missiles, well okay, that's definitely not a very good thing but the US has 7,000 plus nuclear weapons and it said as recently as last month that they will use them. So how is it possible that we focus this amount of attention on Iraq and Saddam Hussein with the second largest oil reserves in the world and then forget the US and its position and $369 billion a year that it spends on its military budget - I think this is ludicrous that we would be focusing this kind of attention on Iraq. Clearly the United States is the most dangerous nation on the planet, clearly George W. Bush is a serious threat to the safety and security of this planet, we should be focusing proportional concern on him, in fact it should be mainly focused on the US and Bush.


    Peter Gould:

    So you would say then that if it was proved - for the sake of the argument - that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that would not, in your view, negate your argument against military action?


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    I would argue that if he did have those weapons that we should establish a dialogue. We, in the West, should stop allowing our tax dollars to be used to rape and plunder the rest of the world, creating the hatred and the bitterness, such as in Israel for instance, supporting the Israeli government, which is actively committing genocide against the Palestinians, breeding hatred and anger and violence, which of course is used in retaliation against the West, which further justifies these insane policies that increase the hatred and the violence and the bitterness.

    This is a very predictable cycle. And this policy of war in Iraq will only perpetuate the status quo, which will make this world a more dangerous place, not a safer one.


    Peter Gould:

    It could be argued though that without Mr Bush the weapons inspectors might not even be in Baghdad.


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    Yeah and without his father Saddam Hussein wouldn't have had all the weapons that he used against his own people. His father was acting sitting Vice President when the world court found the United States guilty of the crime of aggression against Nicaragua - the only state that has been found guilty of the crime of aggression in an international court and the US stepped up its terror war in Nicaragua after that judgement had been rendered. So George Bush is not a - his father, his grandfather - Prescott Bush - supported the Nazis and was a financier of the Nazis, the Bush family's not a friend of safety and security and peace in this world.


    Peter Gould:

    Can I move on to one or two other e-mails now which raise the question of - basically saying why are you concentrating on Iraq, what about some of the problems elsewhere. Ahmad Hmoud in Jordan: "Having seen the destruction in Palestine I believe in the injustice delivered by the West to the Arab and third world. What are your motives to protect Iraq only?"

    Dr Jack Chivo, West Vancouver: "Would Mr O'Keefe also act as a human shield to protect the Christians in Nigeria or in Southern Sudan? While war in Iraq might start soon there are people in Nigeria and Sudan killed as we speak?"

    And Mark e-mails us: "Are you willing to stand as human shields for the Kuwaitis or the Kurds or the Marsh Arabs who are continuously gassed, shot and bombed by Saddam Hussein?"


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    I'm not 50 million people, I'm one person. I've done the best that I can in my personal life to stand up against oppression, to speak honestly and work with those who want a better world. Now all of these accusations that are being levied at me seem to ignore the fact that I cannot be everything, every place, every time a crime is committed, I am completely committed to justice in this world and in order for justice to be served we must speak honestly about what we, in the West, have been responsible for, through our democratically elected representatives.

    All of these crimes that are being committed around the world I want them to stop, I definitely want them to stop. Now these people are really misguiding their anger at me, they should be guiding their anger at people who have been committing these crimes, not people like myself who feel compelled to actually do something about it. But I cannot be everywhere every time something horrible happens. Sorry that I haven't done more but I've done my best.


    Peter Gould:

    Okay well we'll end with a positive e-mail, a person that supports what you're doing, in case you think it's all negative from the e-mails we're getting. Gavin Wilkinson from Sheffield here in the UK who says: "This is a great example of human compassion but why do you feel confident your mission will have a positive backing and an impact?"


    Kenneth Nicols O'Keefe:

    Well the way I look at it is this - in the West we have hundreds and hundreds of millions of people, most of them are against this war, most of them have governments that they democratically elected that are leading them into this war anyway. Now out of those hundreds of millions of people no one can convince me that we cannot get thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people who are willing to pick up their bags and head down to Iraq and stand with the Iraqi people.

    Now if we get down there in the thousands or the tens of thousands we will stop this war and if we stop this war we can stop any war and after this war I want to go to Palestine and after Palestine I'd like to go to every other place where there's these crimes being committed. And if enough people will join this movement then we can spread out and go to all these areas that people are talking about and we can make a fair and just world. But as long as we trust our governments that's not going to happen. So please get up, stand up, let's get together, let's stop this madness but I cannot do it alone.


    Peter Gould:

    Okay on that point thank you very much indeed for joining us. I'm afraid we have indeed run out of time and will have to leave it there. My thanks to our guest and to you for your many, many questions on this very emotive issue. From me Peter Gould thanks and goodbye.


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