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Visit to Iraq turns up some surprises

Bill Rose says the Iraqi people received him with warmth and dignity. As Rose and a small delegation of Christian peace-seekers toured the countryside, visiting schools, hospitals and mosques, they smiled and praised America.

Then they asked why the American government was punishing them.

Rose and 16 other Americans paid $2,000 to be part of the two-week trip organized by human rights organizations Christian Peacemaker Teams and Voices in the Wilderness. The goal was not to change history, Rose said. It was to observe daily life under Saddam Hussein and to share goodwill with those he rules.

"No matter how this thing plays out," said Rose, referring to the prospect of war between the U.S. and Iraq, "we're going to have to relate to the Iraqi people."

None of the Americans spoke Arabic and so they explained their presence with a flyer protesting the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States after the Persian Gulf War.

Doctors lamented the critical shortage of medical supplies and vaccinations. According to the sanctions, anything that might have a military application must be approved by a U.N. committee before it is allowed into the country. Water filtering plants cannot be repaired because of a lack of spare parts.

"The impression we got was that the people felt they were victimized," said Rose, 69.

Throughout the visit, the Iraqi government kept a close eye on Rose and his team. It controlled all contact with citizens and the team could not stay with families. Instead they slept in hotel rooms that they assumed were bugged.

Group leaders advised the group not to take photos outside. An escort - called a "minder" - traveled with the Americans at all times.

One team member used a pair of binoculars for bird watching. But when he unknowingly pointed the lenses in the direction of a presidential palace, officials pulled him aside for questioning.

No one criticized Saddam Hussein, Rose said, and the government minder's presence was always evident.

The term police state is an overstatement, Rose said, "but it's sort of on track."

The delegation flew into Imam in Iran, then onto Baghdad before splitting up into two teams and driving by bus to Basra, a seaport in the south, and Mosul, on the fringe of Kurdish territory in the north.

One site where the group could snap photos was a civilian bomb shelter that was hit twice during the Persian Gulf war.

Rose did not see widespread poverty, which surprised him. The housing appeared substantive, beggars were rare, gas sold for pennies a liter. Portraits and statues of Saddam were everywhere.

While talk of military preparations fills up television news in America, Rose did not sense panic among the Iraqi people. They were apprehensive, he said, with their memories of the last U.S. bombing campaign still "warm."

"They had a tremendous pride in their country and their heritage," said Rose. "They were offended at the thought they were facing an invasion."