BY GREG GITTRICH DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER WITH NEWS WIRE SERVICES
Thursday, January 9th 2003, 7:35AM
As U.S. troops massed in the region, relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks visited a Baghdad shelter bombed during the Gulf War and sang songs of peace with Iraqi children yesterday.
"Suffering is universal," said Kristina Olsen, 44, a nurse from Massachusetts whose sister was aboard one of the hijacked jets that exploded into the World Trade Center. "It connects us, and we've bonded together in that suffering."
Olsen was one of four victims' relatives, including New Yorker Colleen Kelly, who sat on the steps of the wrecked al-Amiriyah shelter, where Iraq says 403 civilians - including 52 children - burned to death Feb. 13, 1991.
"I've found immediately an understanding of what we have gone through, which is something that you do not always find in America," said Kelly, who like the women with her belongs to Peaceful Tomorrows, an anti-war group founded by families of Sept. 11 victims.
"We are here meeting with the Iraqi families, but we are equally concerned for service people around the world who would be involved in any kind of a military operation," she said.
Reaction to the six-day peace mission from victims' families back home was mixed, with some arguing the bombing of the Iraqi shelter and the Sept. 11 attacks should not be compared.
"The World Trade Center attack was a direct attack against this country with malice," said Vincent Ragusa, whose son Michael, a city firefighter, was killed. "We did not do that to the shelters in Iraq."
Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son, Christian, died in the Trade Center collapse, would not criticize Peaceful Tomorrows but said, "Allowing terrorism to proliferate in the world will not bring peace."
President Bush has vowed to attack Iraq unless it gives up its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Iraq denies having such weapons.
Terry Rockefeller, whose sister was on one of the hijacked jets, said the Americans don't realize how much they have in common with the Iraqi people.
"I think my job is to return and share my story," she said.
The group also visited a hospital and the home of an Iraqi family. Playing a guitar, Olsen sang about compassion and understanding.
"My heart has been ripped open and healing has taken place within me today," she said.
The activists were met with compassion and anger from Iraqis who worried that the U.S. would strike again.
"They asked us what we wanted, and we said we wanted peace," said Fikra'a Shaker, 46, who lost her parents and sister in the shelter bombing. "But if Bush attacks us, we are ready to offer more victims."