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Aid workers flee Baghdad for Jordan, citing looming war

AMMAN, Jordan—Some humanitarians who went to Baghdad to promote peace are streaming back to Jordan, saying they now feel war is imminent and Iraq is too dangerous.

In the last week, members of Human Shields and the Christian Peace Team have arrived back in Jordan, which borders Iraq's western border and is a common stopping point for those traveling to Baghdad.

Participants said they felt for the first time that the war could start any day.

Human Shields members went to Baghdad to try to guard important buildings from attack by placing their bodies in harm's way. Ken Nichols O'Keefe, 33, founded the group, which had 300 people in Iraq at peak. O'Keefe said no more than 60 remain, and that number will keep dropping.

Twenty, including O'Keefe, came back Sunday. O'Keefe said the Iraqi government forced him to leave; he spent three weeks there.

"Did we do everything we wanted? No," said O'Keefe, a Persian Gulf War veteran who renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2001. But "we played a part in the postponing of the war."

The Christian Peace Team is a Chicago-based group that sent Americans to Iraq for two weeks to meet the Iraqi people and hold a peace rally in Baghdad. On Sunday, a group of them came back a day early. CPT volunteer Scott Kerr said he is not sure if he will be able to get the next group in, which is scheduled to arrive in Iraq March 17.

"Everybody has his or her crystal ball about when the war will start," said Kerr, who is in Baghdad. "I gut check everyday about whether we should still be here."

Kerr said that in the last week, rumors have been swirling about the coming war. He said that in the last few days, he has heard that American troops began moving into the country, that all borders were closed, and that the sandstorms stopped the troops.

"People in the U.S. hear more news than we do," he said.

The work of Shields was controversial. The Iraqi government subsidized their expenses, prompting some to say they were working for the Iraqi government. While members of the Christian Peace Team each raised $2,000 to meet costs, they also faced criticism that their work was unpatriotic.

The Shields decision to return contradicts their own declarations that they would stay until the end. O'Keefe said some people returned because they did not like what the Iraqi government was asking of them.

Iraqi officials say they can win the war without the help of humanitarian groups.

"We don't need Human Shields," said Sabah Yassin, Iraq's ambassador to Jordan. "We are our own human shields."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.