Soldier's chilling testimony fuels demonstrations against Iraq war

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington

Published: 24 September 2005

Independent

A former American soldier who served in Iraq and filed for conscientious objector status has given an extraordinary insight into the war's dehumanising effects ­ an insight that helps explain why the British and American public has turned sharply against the occupation.

On the eve of large anti-war demonstrations in Washington and London, Hart Viges has told how indiscriminate fire from US troops is likely to have killed an untold number of Iraqi civilians. Mr Viges, 29, said he was still haunted by the memories of what he experienced and urged President George Bush to withdraw US troops from Iraq.

"I don't know how many innocents I killed with my mortar rounds," Mr Viges, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division, said during a presentation this week at American University in Washington. "In Baghdad, I had days that I don't want to remember. I try to forget," he added

The rare insight into the chaos of the combat ­ including an order to open fire on all taxis in the city of Samawa because it was believed Iraqi forces were using them for transport ­ comes as US support for the war in Iraq slumps to an all-time low. Polls suggest that 60 per cent now believe the war was wrong. Mr Bush's personal approval ratings are also at a record low.

British attitudes to the Iraq war have shown a nation divided over the decision to invade but by last October the balance had tilted 46 per cent to 40 per cent towards an anti-war position, according to an ICM poll published in The Guardian.

Not since August 1968, the high point of the opposition to the war in Vietnam, has there been a majority of people in America who believe that an ongoing conflict was wrong. That historic turning point in public opinion came seven months after North Vietnamese forces launched the devastating Tet Offensive, as the divided Democratic Party Convention in Chicago was choosing Hubert Humphrey rather than Eugene McCarthy as its presidential candidate and 10,000 anti-war protesters fought pitched battles with police in the streets.

Now, in September 2005, campaigners say it has reached the point where opposition to the war in Iraq has become a mainstream issue. "I certainly think this should encourage people to go to Washington and participate in the peace demos," said Kathy Kelly, a veteran campaigner with the group Voices in the Wilderness.

"The politicians are going to counter that these demonstrators just come to Washington for a day and then go back to their normal lives. But I think they are going to have to realise that when people are out in the streets saying 'Bring them home now' they are saying the same thing as what many of the voters think."

She added: "My sense is that people are having a serious disillusionment with any sense of competence with the leaders of this country and that makes many people very afraid."

Mr Bush's response to the falling public support has been a stubborn refusal to accept any error and to vow the US will remain in Iraq and will not " abandon the mission".

He has described the peace demonstrators who want him to withdraw forces as well-intentioned but wrong.

Yesterday, US forces in Iraq announced two more of its troops had been killed west of Baghdad. One was killed by a roadside bomb between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, the other by small arms fire in Ramadi.

In Baghdad, a suicide bomber riding on a small public bus set off explosives in a bustling open-air bus terminal, killing at least five people and wounding eight. Also in Baghdad, gunmen killed a member of the commission charged with ensuring that former members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime were banned from the Iraqi hierarchy.

Earlier, authorities said a second member of the 323-member Supreme National Commission for de-Baathification had also been killed but the committee's head, Ali al-Lami, said the second member had been abducted on Wednesday by insurgents and was freed on Thursday by the Iraqi army.

The latest casualties add to a total of US deaths in Iraq that stands at more than 1,900. No one knows precisely how many Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of the war but a report published last year in The Lancet suggested that up to 100,000 may have lost their lives.

Hart Viges' own journey into the chaos and violence of Iraq started on 11 September 2001. The day after he watched al- Qa'ida terrorists fly airliners into targets in New York and Washington he quit his job as a waiter in Seattle and signed up for the US Army.

Deployed to the Middle East in early 2003, he saw action in Baghdad and Fallujah, among other hot spots.

Despite his growing horror with what he was experiencing, it was only when he watched Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, that he decided to file for conscientious objector status. "I consider myself a Christian and I thought Jesus wasn't talking smack," he told the American-Statesman newspaper, in his current home of Austin, Texas.

Mr Viges visited Washington this week as part of an anti-war protest organised by Cindy Sheehan, the mother who camped outside Mr Bush's ranch at Crawford, Texas, over the summer to protest against the war in which her son was killed.