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Peace groups open Baghdad office http://www.msnbc.com/news/941541.asp?0dm=N14PN ‘Occupation Watch’ may counsel troops on claiming conscientious objector status WASHINGTON, July 21 — A coalition of anti-war groups has opened an “Occupation Watch Center” in Baghdad to monitor alleged human rights violations by U.S. troops and the actions of corporations such as Halliburton in rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure. The coalition is also exploring the idea of advising U.S. soldiers in Iraq on how they can claim conscientious objector status so that they could be discharged and shipped home. “THEY (AMERICAN soldiers) say ‘why are we here? The Iraqis hate us. They don’t want us here. We don’t want to be here,’” said Medea Benjamin, a leading anti-war advocate, who returned from a two-week stay in Baghdad last week. Benjamin spoke to reporters over the weekend at a gathering of Green Party leaders in Washington. She was the Green Party Senate candidate in California in 2000. ‘BRING THEM HOME’ “When the Green Party says, ‘Bring them home,’ the troops are right on with us,” Benjamin said. She told MSNBC.com that the anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice is consulting with Quaker groups and with an organization called Veterans for Peace to see what the options are for “counseling the troops.” Benjamin said the Occupation Watch Baghdad office — currently with a staff of four — will “provide information and access to allow (U.S. troops) to make decisions for themselves.” The idea of counseling soldiers on how to claim conscientious objector (CO) status is something that only occurred to her delegation after it had returned from its tour of Iraq on July 14, she said. “It became obvious that it was something we had to look into because of the low morale,” Benjamin told MSNBC.com Sunday. “If we decide it is important to do, we will test it out on the ground,” she added. “How the military reacts to it is something we don’t know.” Neither the Defense Department nor the U.S. military command in Iraq had an immediate comment on Benjamin and her group’s activities in Baghdad. CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR STATUS Under Defense Department rules, military personnel can apply for discharge based on conscientious objection to war. They can also seek reassignment to noncombatant service. But the threshold to attain CO status is high. Soldiers must prove they have a “firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms,” based on religious faith or a “deeply held moral or ethical belief.” One can not win CO status based “solely upon considerations of policy, pragmatism, expediency, or political views.” The rules also specify that “an individual who desires to choose the war in which he will participate is not a Conscientious Objector under the law. His objection must be to all wars rather than a specific war.” A soldier applying for CO status must file an application and be interviewed by a chaplain and a military psychiatrist. An investigating officer conducts a hearing to give the applicant an opportunity to present evidence and witnesses in support of his application. Some U.S. soldiers based in Iraq have been quoted in recent news stories making remarks critical of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and expressing frustration with their deployment in Iraq. Last week Gen. John Abizaid the new chief of the U.S. Central Command, said remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime were waging “a classical guerrilla-type campaign against us. It’s low-intensity conflict... but it’s war, however you describe it.” Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who toured Iraq earlier this month reported that American forces in Iraq were tired and eager to find out when they’ll return home, but they were also determined and had good morale. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was part of the delegation that toured Iraq, said a soldier told her he could accept being in Iraq for another six months, “but I just need to know” when his tour of duty would end. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere “are dangerously stretched thin” and has urged the Bush administration to expand the size of armed forces so that some personnel could be rotated out of Iraq. In addition to possibly counseling U.S. soldiers, Benjamin said, “We will be testing occupation forces in many ways.” TRACKING HALLIBURTON The group will keep an eye on the activities of U.S. firms Halliburton, Bechtel and their subcontractors in rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure. Critics of the Bush administration have complained that both Halliburton and Bechtel have Republican connections. Vice President Dick Cheney is the former chairman of Halliburton, while former Secretary of State George Shultz is the former president of Bechtel and serves on the firm’s board of directors. On its Web site, Occupation Watch said its Baghdad office will “act as a watchdog regarding the military occupation and U.S.-appointed government, including possible violations of human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.” “I’m wondering where they were when they could have been monitoring Saddam Hussein’s human rights violations,” said Harald Stavenas, a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee. “Mass graves continue to be unearthed in Iraq and it is estimated that up to one million corpses will be found. Millions of people have been liberated from that threat. In contrast, this group’s efforts seem ludicrous.” _______________________________________________ Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. 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