Published in the Santa Barbara News Press

Following her first trip to Iraq, Leah Wells returned to Santa Barbara and described how citizens of the Middle Eastern nation fared after more than a decade of international economic sanctions and embargo.

“The people of Iraq are unable to purchase aspirin and vitamins,” she wrote shortly after the 10-day trip in July 2001. “I saw raw sewage flowing openly through the trash-lined streets and mixing with the drinking water supply. … I am convinced that if the American people know the real face of our economic and political policy toward Iraq, we would mobilize together to put an end to this.”

More than a year later, the sanctions continue. Talk of a U.S. invasion to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein tops the news.

And Ms. Wells, peace education coordinator at the Santa Barbara-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, is headed back.

During her upcoming second trip to Iraq, the 26-year-old Santa Paula resident, who teaches nonviolence classes in Ventura schools, will study how Iraqis, mostly schoolchildren and teachers, but also other citizens, are faring under threat of war.

“My guess,” she said, “is that the everyday threat of war is psychological warfare.”

As she prepared to leave, the national and international debate over Iraq continued. In recent weeks, President Bush has intensified his call for regime change. Iraq appeared to soften its stance Monday. At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that nearly four years after weapons inspectors left the country, Iraq had unconditionally accepted their return.

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has taken a firm stance against any new military action against Iraq, and has condemned sanctions against the nation.

Ms. Wells’ delegation opposes the sanctions and a new war with Iraq on moral, religious and humanitarian grounds, according to the foundation. However, polls that show most Americans support military action.

Floyd Brown, executive director of the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group founded under the Reagan Administration, said he believes most people in Santa Barbara would consider the trip to Iraq an “almost treasonous” act that “provides aid and comfort to the enemy.”

He noted that Mr. Hussein is condemned by many human rights groups, and said the criticism of the President is particularly objectionable while America stands under a threat of further terrorist strikes.

“It just shows how out of step they are with most Americans, and most of Santa Barbara,” he said.

The trip technically violates U.S. policies — the federal government officially bars Americans from traveling to Iraq, prohibitions similar to restrictions against travel to Cuba.

“We consider Iraq a supporter of state-sponsored terrorism,” said Greg Sullivan, spokesman for the U.S. State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau.Still, Americans who enter the country are unlikely to face punishment, Mr. Sullivan noted, unless it is proven that they somehow provided “material benefit” to the Iraqi government.

“Conditions throughout Iraq remain unsettled and dangerous,” according to the latest U.S. State Department travel warning, issued in July 2001. “Foreigners present in Iraq have in the past been used as ‘human shields’ by the (Hussein) regime during periods of confrontation with the international community.”

Ms. Wells will make the trip, which starts Thursday, as part of a seven-member “Iraq Peace Team” sponsored by the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness, anonprofit organization focused on ending sanctions against the nation of more than 22 million people.

The group, with members in several states, will fly to Amman, Jordan, and later enter Iraq on the ground.

Its first destination? The capital city of Baghdad.

Much of the itinerary was still being worked out Monday, Ms. Wells said.

“We’re not there to do big events,” she said. “We’re there to be quiet observers.”

On the side, Ms. Wells said she hopes to visit at least one site rarely viewed by Westerners. “I’m Catholic, and I’m really interested in seeing where St. Matthew is buried,” she said.

Once her delegation returns, “I’m hoping to publish as many articles as I can about the trip,” she said.
*News-Press City Editor Andy Rose and the Associated Press contributed to this report.