US groups mount grass-roots battle over Iraq

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Kansas City (Mo), March 12: Tomas Young was 22 years old and working as a waiter for a Kansas City-area eatery in 2001 when attacks on the World Trade Center spurred him to a patriotic act.

''I wanted to go to Afghanistan to exact some retribution on the people who attacked us,'' said Young, who joined the Army days after the September. 11 attacks.

Today, the 27-year-old is paralyzed from the chest down because of a bullet he took in Iraq, not Afghanistan. He spends his days trying to convince others not to enlist -- part of a growing movement of Iraq war veterans, military family members and others determined to stop a war they see as ill-advised and possibly illegal.

As Congress and the Bush administration wrangle over how and when to bring an end to the US war in Iraq, war supporters are also active. They describe opponents as ''leftist propagandists'' hurting military morale and undermining the US mission.

Both sides are writing letters, lobbying Congress and holding rallies. On the March 17-18 weekend they will march on Washington to mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion.

The anti-war movement has yet to reach the scale of the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and 1970s. Most fledgling Iraq war activists say they are speaking out because the war is affecting so many soldiers' family members and friends.

Growing Membership

Groups such as Military Families Speak Out and Families of the Fallen for Change, founded by parents of soldiers sent to Iraq, say they have been adding members rapidly, particularly since President George W. Bush announced in January plans to send thousands of additional troops to Iraq.

''The ongoing death and destruction and wrong direction that this war is leading in is causing more and more military families to speak out and say bring the troops home now,'' said Nancy Lessin, stepmother of a US soldier and co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, which has 3,300 members.

Rebecca Davis of Brewer, Maine, is also a military mom, with three sons who have served in Iraq. She has formed ''Military Families Voice of Victory'' with a counter view.

''Everybody in the world worries that their son or daughter needs to be safe. ... But you don't try to pull them out because their job is too hard,'' she said. ''We want to see them succeed.'' Soldiers themselves, both active-duty and veterans, are increasingly engaging in the debate.

More than 1,700 active duty, reserve, and guard service members have signed a petition to Congress called ''An Appeal for Redress,'' started last year to urge a ''prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq.'' On the flip side, at least 1,500 soldiers are supporting an ''Appeal for Courage'' asking Congress to ''fully support our mission in Iraq and halt any calls for retreat.'' Jason Nichols, a navy lieutenant stationed in Baghdad, said he started the petition last month.

''We feel premature calls for withdrawal hurt our mission and increase our risk,'' Nichols said.

Taking Stands on Both Sides

Other soldiers and former soldiers also are taking stands. One group, Iraq Veterans Against the War, has been touring US cities warning young people of the dangers of joining the military, and a group called Move America Forward launched on Thursday its own cross-country caravan in support of the war with the slogan ''These Colors Don't Run.'' Gathering of Eagles, another group supporting the war, is planning its own protests in Washington March 17.

Karen Cunningham, assistant professor of applied conflict management at Kent State University, said people who typically stay away from politics are being spurred to action as deaths, injuries and questions about the war mount.

''People are now speaking up, forming groups, getting involved ... who might not normally have been involved in these sorts of things,'' Cunningham said. ''That tends to happen as things hit closer to home.'' According to a new Zogby International poll, an estimated 45 per cent of Americans know someone affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten percent said their family has been personally affected by the death or injury of a soldier.

For Meghan Geshel, 26, the war hit home in December when her husband of five years was deployed to Iraq. She is not sure when their 2-year-old will see her father again.

''We never should have gone into Iraq,'' said Geshel, who plans to pass out anti-war buttons and pamphlets at a protest rally this month. ''The world is more dangerous today because of the mistakes we've made in Iraq. I'm trying to do my part to make things safer for my family and the world.''


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