Ventura resident Leah Wells was one of five Americans who flew to Baghdad on Thursday, hoping to focus attention on the effects of an economic embargo on Iraqis and ultimately to change U.S. foreign policy.

“The purpose of the trip is to try and put pressure on our government to lift the sanctions,” Wells said Thursday from Chicago before leaving the country. “People can make a difference.”

Iraq has been under United Nations sanctions since it invaded Kuwait in 1990 and was defeated by forces led by the United States seven months later.

Wells, 25, is part of a delegation representing the Chicago-based U.S. Voices in the Wilderness, a human rights group that has led dozens of missions into Iraq to deliver medical equipment and gather information.

“The World Health Organization has reported that over a half-million children and 1 million people overall have died since 1990 as a result of the sanctions,” Wells said. “Women are too malnourished to breast-feed. Children are dying of malnutrition.”

Wells said many Americans are unaware of the effect the U.N. embargo has had on Iraqis.

“The humanitarian crisis in Iraq is virtually unreported,” Wells said. “The air strikes were in the news, but the day-to-day suffering of the Iraqi people isn’t well-known.”

Although this is her first trip to Iraq, Wells said other people who have made the journey have described vast residential tracts with open sewage lines, no electricity, and schools without textbooks.

The delegation was carrying two duffel bags stuffed with medical journals and supplies, which she said would be invaluable to medical professionals starved for up-to-date information.

“It’s not just an economic embargo,” she said. “It’s an intellectual embargo as well.”

A peace activist and a teacher at St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura, Wells teaches a class on nonviolence that covers the situation in Iraq. She said many of her students support her venture.

“Once the students find out what’s going on, I don’t have to convince them,” she said. “They see it.”

Wells said she isn’t concerned about repercussions from the trip, which violates the embargo against Iraq.

“We risk up to 12 years in prison and over $1 million in fines for each delegation we send,” she said. “This is the 38th delegation we’ve sent over and it hasn’t happened yet.”

* Email Andrea Cavanaugh