Members of the first congressional delegation to visit Iraq since the Persian Gulf War inspected medical and food storage facilities this week, turning aside a warning from the State Department that the mission could put them in jeopardy.
Aides to liberal lawmakers, including three Democrats and one independent, arrived in Baghdad on Sunday on a privately sponsored fact-finding mission.
The staff members, who are inspecting the humanitarian effect of United Nations sanctions, are scheduled to return to the United States this weekend.
An aide to Rep. Cynthia McKinney (Ga.), the top Democrat on the International Relations subcommittee on international operations and human rights, said the congresswoman decided to send a staff member to Iraq to obtain a firsthand account of the suffering there.
According to UNICEF estimates, as many as 1 million Iraqis have died since the imposition of sanctions in 1991.
"This is really the forgotten war," said McKinney aide Scott Southward.
"People aren't paying attention to what's going on there and there are thousands of children and civilians dying."
A State Department official said the department refused to validate the staff members' passports for travel to Iraq because of concerns over their safety but made no other effort to restrict the trip.
In a recent meeting, officials warned the aides that the department could not "guarantee your safety from friendly fire," according to a participant.
The group--which includes a Democratic staff member of the International Relations Committee and aides to Reps. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and McKinney--is accompanied by Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Erik Leaver, a project associate at the institute, said he spoke yesterday with Bennis, who said the delegation had a "very positive meeting" with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and was able to tour all the sites on their itinerary, including Baghdad's Ameriyah Shelter and the Saddam Children's Hospital.
The group inspected grain silos and warehouses as well, Leaver said, and left for the southern port of Basra yesterday.
That region falls under one of two "no-fly" zones imposed by the U.S. and British governments, whose aircraft have regularly bombed targets since Iraq has increased its confrontation over the air restrictions.
Forty private groups, including the American Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee, joined forces to provide the roughly $18,000 in funding for the trip.
Peter Lews of American Friends Service Committee said his group had initially hoped to have lawmakers themselves travel to the region but were pleased with the staff delegation.
"It's a breakthrough that they're willing to take the heat and really see for themselves what this is all about," Lews said, adding that his group opposes economic sanctions on Iraq.