An Iraqi's best bodyguard?

Observations on human shields

Ken Nichols O'Keefe has burnt his American passport. He has also tattooed "USA expatriate" on to his fist. The 33-year-old ex-US marine says he is ashamed of his actions in the 1991 Gulf war and wants to apologise to the Iraqi people.

So this month, O'Keefe will arrive in Baghdad with 50 other human shields who have travelled from London through Europe in a convoy of black double-decker buses. They are part of the Truth, Justice, Peace action group, founded by O'Keefe this year. In Baghdad, they will stand among the most vulnerable Iraqis, hoping their presence will stop military action against the civilian population.

Truth, Justice, Peace expects hundreds of supporters to join the group in Iraq over the coming weeks, and the American-based human shields organisation Voices in the Wilderness promises to have 60 students, professionals and full-time campaigners in Iraq in a few days.

The American government has taken a firm stance against human shields. Last year, Voices in the Wilderness, which took medicines to Iraq, was fined $50,000 for travelling there without a permit. Here in Britain, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said that people acting as human shields had "every right to go and protest", but that all decisions relating to military action, including decisions which could harm or kill the foreign civilians in Iraq, would be taken by the UN.

Although the 38 expatriate Red Cross workers and 51 Unicef employees now working in Iraq intend to stay if war breaks out, Oxfam says that no international agency is likely to remain if there is a significant threat of chemical, nuclear or biological weapons being used. But the Truth, Justice, Peace group is dedicated to stay for the duration of the conflict.

In the West Bank, human shields have helped to protect the Palestinian civilians from Israeli militia. David Cockburn, who worked as a human shield in the West Bank, says their presence has helped curb the killing of Palestinians and the demolition of their homes by Israelis wanting to settle in Palestinian areas.

Human shields earlier played a critical role in Central America, Cockburn says. "If contras killed a local, no one cared, but if they killed a US citizen, their funding would be cut."

Close to 60 per cent of the population in Iraq are fully dependent on the government for distribution of their monthly food rations. Unicef predicts that the conflict could leave 18 million Iraqis without access to food. It also estimates that close to 20 per cent of the population will suffer from contaminated water.