Anti-war parents of American soldiers brave hostility at home to see the real story in Iraq

By Phil Reeves in Baghdad

08 December 2003

Independent

It must be strange to be Anthony Lopercio of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

The 23-year-old private has been dispatched to Fallujah to stand in the front line on what is, for any American, one of the most hostile places in the world. Yet, as he gazes across the dreary Iraqi landscape, feeling the sullen resentment of its population towards foreign occupation, he will not only be wondering about the guerrillas out there. He will also be watching for the portly frame of his father.

Not long ago, Michael Lopercio, a 51-year-old restaurateur from Tempe, Arizona, decided that he was not happy with the quality of the news he was receiving about the war into which his son had been drawn. He also realised that if the conflict dragged on, so would the amount of time that his boy would have to remain in Iraq, where hundreds of young Americans have already died. So he packed his bags and set off to Baghdad to find out for himself what was happening, and to see if there was anything he could do about it.

"We haven't been getting the full story in the US," he said. "The media is covering events - shootings and bombings - but not the issues. They are not covering what is really happening to Iraqi people and to the Iraqi infrastructure and how this affects our chances of success here. It's very important to understand the frustration of the average Iraqi and how unhappy they are with their progress over the last eight months."

The news that his father was coming to join him in the conflict zone was a surprise for Private Lopercio. "He was utterly shocked when I called him," said Mr Lopercio. He has yet to gain permission to see his son but hopes it will come before he returns to the United States this weekend.

"It took five minutes to convince him I wasn't playing a practical joke. But he was pretty excited for me. I thought he might be disapproving, but he said he thought it would be an incredible experience for me." His son was right. Mr Lopercio has found it incredible. Incredible that, eight months after the invasion and occupation began, children are still dying in Iraqi hospitals through a lack of antibiotics. Incredible that schools have no lights, no heating, no books.

And incredible that, while he has been in Iraq this week, the occupation authorities have staged an expensive public relations stunt by removing the monolithic stone busts of Saddam Hussein that stood on the top of the palace in which Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator, has his headquarters.

"Why the hell are they wasting money taking down those heads of Saddam from the coalition authority's palace when they could be spending it on something more meaningful, like bringing heat and light and medicine to Iraqi hospitals?" asks Mr Lopercio. His mission required courage, not only because of the dangers of being an American in Iraq: his willingness to challenge his country's reasons for going to war, and its disastrous handling of the aftermath of the invasion, has not gone down particularly well in Arizona.

He says conservative radio talk shows have begun attacking his wife, a social worker, after she gave interviews to the newspapers about his trip. "They have been reading out the interviews on the air, and giving her a hard time. She's a little scared, and out of her element, to be sure." He is one of a delegation of nine family members of US soldiers and army veterans who have come to Iraq, led by the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange. Most of the group oppose the occupation, while others say they simply want to see the situation for themselves.

Among the group is Billy Kelly, a 60-year-old retired New York barman who fought in Vietnam in 1967. He said: "There is not a day that goes by when I don't think about what happened there 35 years ago." He had, he said, come to check out a suspicion that what is playing out in Iraq has similarities to his own grim experience in uniform. He, too, has had a hard time for his stance, not least because he is from the city that was the principal target of the 9/11 atrocities. "Some of my friends say that I'm a traitor. But I feel that people can accept me, or not. My hope is just that there will be a dialogue about what's going on. It hasn't happened yet. At the moment, we have a diatribe from one side or the other."

Anabelle Valencia, from Tucson, Arizona, had tried to visit her daughter, Giselle Valencia, who is an army truck driver stationed in Tikrit. But she was on a mission, and not at the base.

The delegation represents an increasingly organised minority that is willing to challenge the unremitting spin from the Bush administration and from Downing Street as both governments seek to justify their operations in Iraq.

Another member of the group is Fernando Suarez del Solar. His son Jesus Alberto, a US Marine, was one of the first Americans to be killed in Iraq - the victim of an American cluster bomb. He has become a vocal opponent of George Bush's policy in Iraq, denouncing the invasion as illegal and demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops. "Our mission is talking to ordinary Iraqis and US troops, figuring out why things have gone so terribly wrong and what we can do to stop the violence and bring the troops home," he said.

The delegation has been met with a resounding lack of enthusiasm from the US military and "coalition" officials. They have been warning the media of the dangers of the visit, at the same time as trying to persuade it that most of the country is free of violence.

None of that has deterred Mr Suarez del Solar. He has a mission: to visit the spot where his son died and bring home a jar of the soil into which he bled. It will be placed in a park that the boy used to visit and marked with a white rose.