Almost all the first British "human shields" to go to Iraq were on their way home yesterday after deciding that their much-heralded task is now too dangerous.
Two red double-decker buses, which symbolized the hopes of anti-war activists when they arrived to a fanfare of publicity two weeks ago, slipped quietly out of Baghdad on the long journey back to Britain, carrying most of the 11 protesters with them.
Nine out of the 11 activists decided to pull out after being given an ultimatum by Iraqi officials yesterday to station themselves at targets likely to be bombed in a war or leave the country. Two left immediately by taxi, and six more were on the buses last night, bound initially for Syria.
Among those departing yesterday was 68-year-old Godfrey Meynell, who received an emotional farewell from workers at the Baghdad power plant where he has slept for the past week.
Mr. Meynell, a former high sheriff of Derbyshire,said he was leaving out of "cold fear." He had been summoned, along with 200 other shields from all over the world, to a meeting at a Baghdad hotel yesterday morning. Abdul Hashimi, the head of the Friendship, Peace and Solidarity organization that is officially host to the protesters, told the shields to choose between nine so-called "strategic sites" by today or leave the country.
The Iraqi warning follows frustration among Saddam's officials that about 65 of the volunteers had so far agreed to take up positions at the oil refineries, power plants and water-purification sites selected by their hosts.
It heightened fears among some peace activists that they could be stationed at non-civilian sites. Mr. Meynell and fellow protesters who moved into the power station in south Baghdad last weekend were dismayed to find that it stood next to an army base and the strategically crucial road south to Basra.
Many shields had earlier asked to be stationed at sites such as schools, hospitals or orphanages, but Iraqi officials said there was little point in guarding low-risk targets in any aerial assault.
Iraq's decision to force the pace was welcomed by some of those remaining in Baghdad. "It's only fair," said Uzma Bashir, 32, a British college teacher who is one of the team leaders. "We've come here as shields to defend sites, and now the Iraqis are asking us to make our choice."
Pentagon officials have said that in the event of war the United States could not be deterred from attacking militarily significant sites by the presence of human shields. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday that the deliberate use of human shields by Iraqi officials would be grounds for war-crimes prosecution.