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Unger comes to grips with Iraq trip

August 15, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - West Virginia Sen. John Unger may have received some criticism this summer for missing a special legislative session to deal with the debt-ridden Workers' Compensation program, but he figures that pales in comparison to what could be facing state residents.

Unger, D-Berkeley, returned from Iraq in late July. While in that country working for a humanitarian aid organization, he got a close-up view of what is at stake in the Middle East, and how it could affect people in this country.

To boil it down, Unger said, peace must be established quickly in Iraq.

The advice comes from someone with more than an armchair's view of foreign politics.

Unger once worked with Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa and went to Iraq after the Persian Gulf War to help set up refugee camps for Kurds.

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Unger moved forward in his chair as if to emphasize what he was saying.

If peace is not established quickly in Iraq, Unger said, there is a fear that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida members could move into Saudi Arabia and point to the Iraqi crisis as an example of failed U.S. foreign policy toward Islamic countries, Unger said.

Unger said he fears the United States could unleash its military on Saudi Arabia if bin Laden were to end up there.

Any attack on Saudi Arabia certainly would spark a worldwide "jihad," or holy war, against the United States because Saudi Arabia is the home of Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, Unger said.

"That's going to be a mess. If that happens, that's your World War III," Unger said in an interview Thursday.

It's a scenario some foreign policy observers are starting to fear, he said.

For four months beginning in April, Unger was in Iraq working for Save the Children, one of a number of organizations helping to rebuild Iraq after the recent war.

Unger oversaw communications operations for Save the Children, and estimates he helped restore order to about 20 Iraqi facilities that cared for children and the mentally ill.

Unger said he still is coming to grips with things he saw.

Unger worked in mostly southern areas of Iraq such as Basra, Najaf and Karbala. He recalled a visit he made to AlHillah, a city about an hour's drive south of Baghdad.

It was discovered that about 80,000 people were put to death in a field near AlHillah while Saddam still was in power, Unger said.

Unger said he spoke to farmers in the area who saw women, men and children being driven to the field in buses. The buses came back empty, Unger said.

The people were lined up along a ditch, shot and pushed into a mass grave, the farmer told Unger.

Unger said when he arrived there, relatives of the people were digging through the graves trying to find the remains of loved ones.

"When you look out over the field, you see the bags where they were digging up remains," Unger said. "Looking at that, I asked myself, is the world better off without Saddam Hussein? And I said yes."

Unger said he saw an orphanage where children ages 5 to 14 had been fending for themselves ever since the facility's staff fled during the bombing. The children survived because the oldest ones begged for food, he said.

He recalled going to a home for the mentally ill where some patients were so poor they had no clothes.

"What I saw over there was the most brutal acts of humanity," Unger said.

While some have praised Unger for his humanitarian work, others have said he should have stayed home to represent his constituents, said Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley.

Unger was gone when the Legislature went into special session in June to deal with Workers' Compensation woes, and he got some heat in return, Overington said.

Workers' Compensation helps workers pay for medical expenses when they are injured on the job. Workers in the Eastern Panhandle have complained about such things as slow claims payments and the inability to get assistance from workers.

Overington declined to comment on Unger's absence from the special session. Those are the issues voters take into consideration when they go to the polls to decide whether to return someone to office, Overington said.

Overington said juggling the duties of the part-time lawmaker's job and other interests are decisions legislators often face.

"It's a judgment call all of us have to make," he said.

Unger said he worked hard drafting a Workers' Compensation bill before he left. He said he did research for the bill, helped write it and voted on the proposal several times as it was crafted.

Unger said he was assured the vote on the Senate Workers' Compensation bill that was passed would not be a close vote. Had it been shaping up as a close vote, Unger said he would have tried to return home for the vote.

"There's probably not a legislator in the Eastern Panhandle that worked longer on it than I did," Unger said.

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