Questioning war in Iraq

Saturday, November 04
NORTH ADAMS — On Election Day, voters in 17 Berkshire towns and one precinct in Pittsfield will have the opportunity to vote yes or no on the war in Iraq.

The idea for the referendum — which calls for nothing less than an immediate end to the war — was formulated in Boston in January at a meeting among coalitions including Military Families Speak Out, American Friends Service Committee, United for Justice with Peace and Veterans for Peace.

"The goal was to create a coordinated statewide voice against the war," said Paul Shannon of the Cambridge chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, an organization with Quaker roots that advocates for nonviolent social change.

Shannon, who believes that many Americans see the war as a distant nonevent, hopes that this public policy ballot question will wake up some citizens.

"There's very little engagement in this country," he said. "Hopefully, this will get people to ask what this war is about."

The nonbinding ballot question asks: "Shall the state Representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of a resolution calling upon the president and Congress of the United States to end the war in Iraq immediately and bring all United States military forces home from Iraq?"

The question will be on the ballot in 139 communities and 36 representative districts throughout the state.

According to the American Friends Service Committee, the statewide qualification of the referendum — close to 23 percent of the state's districts will have it on the ballot — is "unprecedented."

"It's a fair number," said Brian McNiff, press secretary to William Francis Galvin, secretary of state. "I can't say if it's the most ever."

According to Shannon, the process of getting the so-called Iraq referendum on the ballot was an arduous process; for the question to appear on the district's ballot, a minimum of 200 signatures of registered voters in the district had to be collected.

"We went town by town, district by district," Shannon said. "There was no money involved. It was a civics lesson for all of us. It was the first time trying to get something on the ballot for just about everyone, and it was complicated. Not many people know what district they're in."

The process of collecting signatures started in April; by July, the names on every petition had to be checked and approved by the state's town and city halls, and the referendum had to be approved by the secretary of state's office in August.

State representatives are not legally bound to carry out the directives in a nonbinding ballot question, but Shannon sees the Iraq referendum as something more than just a legal issue.

"It's a moral force," he said.

For Barbara Chalfonte of Easthampton, an organizer at the Western Massachusetts chapter of American Friends Service Committee, the initiative to get the American troops out of Iraq was a "huge grassroots volunteer effort."

Chalfonte, a Williams College graduate and a former resident of North Adams, believes that the referendum is causing a ripple effect, and that the waves are reaching President Bush.

"There has been a change of rhetoric in Washington," she said. "Because of the rumblings of the people, the Bush administration has dropped the 'stay the course' policy in Iraq, which was always window dressing."

"The Iraq referendum will allow Massachusetts voters to officially tell their legislators where they stand on the war," U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, wrote in an e-mail response. "We need to get our troops safely out of the middle of the developing civil war there — the planning for that withdrawal should begin immediately — and then turn our attention to fixing the mess that Afghanistan has become."


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