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Thursday, March 20

A friendly conversation from Baghdad, then ... boom!

By Greg Barrett

WASHINGTON - Moments before television viewers saw a huge plume of smoke rise from the west bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad, U.S. peace activist Kathy Kelly was in the Iraqi capital, on the phone and sounding chipper, all things considered.

Suddenly, there was a wave of static on the phone line.

"Oh, it's coming now," Kelly said, her soft voice clearly strained. "The bombing is beginning in earnest. There are huge explosions. People here are running to the shelter."

It was 9 p.m. Thursday in Baghdad. Kelly and several other peace activists from the Chicago-based Iraq Peace and Christian Peacemaker teams were staying at cheap hotels on the east bank of the Tigris.

"It was nice of you to call," Kelly said, ending the conversation to rush to the basement of the Hotel Al-Fanar. "Keep us in your prayers."

To know the Iraqis is to love them, and to even risk dying alongside them, say these peace activists voluntarily residing in the world's newest war zone.

When the bombs fell, Vietnam veteran Charlie Liteky, 72, a retired Roman Catholic priest from San Francisco, was camping outside the Al-Wathba water treatment plant. The building is two or three blocks from the Al-Mansur Children's Hospital and the Al-Ghendi trauma hospital.

The peace teams have erected two tents there so members can record any damage U.S. bombs might cause to the water plant - a violation of international law - and can rush to help at the hospitals.

Liteky was camping with Cliff Kindy, a farmer from North Manchester, Ind.; Martin Edwards, a retiree from Healdsburg, Calif.; Peggy Gish, a farmer from Athens, Ohio; and Shane Claiborne, an activist from Philadelphia.

"The people inspire me" to be brave, Scott Kerr, 27, said of the Iraqis. "I've never experienced such graciousness in people in my life."

Kerr, of Downers Grove, Ill., is a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams staying in Baghdad. He said he left the Hotel Al-Dar to buy food Wednesday, a few hours after Baghdad awoke to the thunder of U.S. bombs. Almost everything was closed. Baghdad's streets, usually clogged like those of Washington, were quiet. There was some foot traffic, a few cabs, lots of Iraqi soldiers.

Kerr found a small grocery store and bought canisters of Pringles potato chips and bottles of 7Up. But when he counted out his 250-denomination Iraqi dinars, he discovered he was short by four bills - about 45 cents.

"No problem," the Iraqi grocer said. "You can pay me next time."

Kerr thanked him and turned to leave.

"Wait," the grocer said, handing him about 15,500 Iraqi dinars, roughly $7. "Keep your money. You shouldn't walk around without money. Just pay me later."

Recalling this, Kerr said, "I can't imagine how we would be treating the Iraqis in America if the tables were reversed."

Kerr recalled that when Liteky left the Hotel Al-Dar on Wednesday, he forgot his U.S. passport and the "magic letter" that the Iraq Peace Team activists carry with them. The letter explains in English and Arabic that these particular foreigners are in Iraq on a goodwill mission.

Liteky, a slender, grandfatherly type with gray hair and beard, was alone and walking a mile to the Hotel Al-Fanar when a group of Iraqi soldiers stopped him. Even without a passport or the letter, the soldiers let him go without a hassle.

The prospect of wartime Iraq had long been a concern for the activists.

In whispered conversations during the weeks before Wednesday's bombing, they had wondered how their Iraqi hosts would treat them once the bombing began. They also worried that Baghdad, where the people are war-hardened and almost every family owns a rifle, could become a shooting gallery.

The reaction so far has been anything but threatening, said Kelly, 50, an Irish Catholic pacifist who has weathered bombs and dodged bullets in Iraq, Sarajevo and the Palestinian territories.

Sensing that the Pentagon's threats of "shock and awe" had rattled her, two Iraqi friends approached Kelly at different times on Wednesday. One friend serves hot tea at the Al-Fanar; the other is a systems analyst in an Internet cafe at Baghdad's Hotel Palestine.

Don't worry, each said in his own way, giving Kelly a hug, "We've committed you to God."

By Thursday night, Kelly said, six Iraqi families had phoned the Al-Fanar to make sure none of the Iraqi Peace Team members had been hurt.

Meanwhile, the $9-per-night Al-Fanar has cleared its basement of supplies and placed cots there. The lobby, usually bustling with foreigners and the hotel mascot - a caged monkey called Coffee - teemed on Thursday with mothers and children.

Family members of the hotel's employees feel safer staying within a dash of the Al-Fanar's cramped basement than they do at home.

"We're all bracing ourselves," Kelly said Thursday before hanging up. "Tonight or tomorrow we expect the shock and awe."