Almost all of the first British "human shields" to go to Iraq were on their way home last night after deciding that their much-heralded task was now too dangerous.
Godfrey Meynell [centre] with other human shields at Baghdad South power station
Two red double-decker buses, which symbolised the hopes of anti-war activists when they arrived to a fanfare of publicity a fortnight ago, slipped quietly out of Baghdad on the long journey back to Britain.
Nine of the original 11 activists decided to pull out after being given an ultimatum by Iraqi officials to station themselves at targets likely to be bombed in a war or leave the country. Among those departing last night was 68-year-old Godfrey Meynell, a former High Sheriff of Derbyshire, who admitted that 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 organisation that is hosting the protesters, told the shields to choose between nine so-called "strategic sites" by today or quit the country.
The Iraqi warning follows frustration among Saddam Hussein's officials that only about 65 of the shields 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 it stood immediately next to an army base and the strategically crucial main road south to Basra. Iraqi officials said there was little point in guarding what they considered to be low-risk targets.
Iraq's decision to force the pace was welcomed by some of the 20 Britons remaining in Baghdad. "It's only fair," said Uzma Bashir, 32, a college lecturer 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."