AMMAN, Jordan - Some Americans demonstrate their opposition to President Bush's talk of war against Iraq by picketing or signing petitions. But Sheila Provencher of Norwood, Mass., chose a more far-reaching protest tactic: She has traveled to Iraq.
''I see this as fulfilling my duty as an American,'' said Provencher, 30, who left Amman earlier this week for Baghdad with a group of religious leaders called the Iraq Peace Journey. ''There are so many Americans who oppose this war, and I don't think our government is giving us all the information. I'm going to get the truth from the Iraqi people - and bring it back home.''
As Washington girds for war with an ongoing troop buildup in the Persian Gulf, Provencher's pilgrimage seems to fly in the face of American public opinion and US policy.
Recent polls show that most Americans favor military action against Iraq, even though the number of those opposed to sending US ground troops there has increased to 37 percent. And while antiwar protests took place in 120 cities around the United States this week, they have yet to reach the size and fervor of those that marked America's involvement in Vietnam.
Provencher's trip is, in part, an act of civil disobedience. She and her fellow peace activists must defy US government prohibitions against Americans traveling to Iraq; the United States has no diplomatic relations with Baghdad. Each member of the group who enters Iraq could face up to 12 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.
Yet the members of the group of Catholic nuns, priests, and lay workers who hail from California to Illinois to Massachusetts say they feel compelled to make the visit to Iraq because of their deep-seated belief in peace rather than war.
''I am being absolutely the best American I can be,'' said Simone Campbell, a 57-year-old nun, lawyer, and social activist. ''I believe if our country takes this action, goes to war, we are becoming the aggressor, and that corrupts who we are as a nation.''
Their trip is intended to be a gesture of solidarity as much as protest, the activists said. The group's mission statement reads: ''We go to our family in Iraq to listen to their stories, to create relationships between our peoples, and to witness the fact that if we face our fears together, new opportunities for peace will unfold.''
Home to both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Iraq also has an estimated 800,000 Catholics, the majority of whom belong to the Chaldean Church.
The Catholic group is not the first peace group to travel to Iraq. Since the 1991 cease-fire, activists protesting economic sanctions levied against Iraq have voyaged there repeatedly to smuggle in banned goods. An American and British group opposed to sanctions, called Voices in the Wilderness, has sent 50 groups to Iraq since March 1996, according to the group's Web site.
United Nations economic sanctions, imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, cannot be suspended until the UN certifies that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction. But UN arms inspectors, who withdrew from the country in 1998 in the face of Allied bombings, recently returned to resume that task.
Many specialists argue that 12 years of sanctions have contributed to high rates of illness, death, and disease in Iraq. In 1999, UNICEF reported that the death rate for small children had doubled in the last decade. Sanctions have been modified twice to allow for more food and aid.
Another group, the Canadian Network to End Sanctions in Iraq, is also a repeat visitor. ''I hope to put pressure on our government not to back the US,'' said one member, Minda Morgan of Vancouver, who was interviewed as she waited in the chilly, damp waiting room of the Iraqi Embassy for her visa to Baghdad.
The Iraq Peace Journey is led by Rick McDowell of Wendell, Mass., a veteran campaigner against sanctions. He said he is as opposed to war as he is to sanctions.
''It is the Iraqi people, not Saddam, who have paid for the last 12 years,'' argues McDowell, a soft-spoken, bearded 47-year-old who is returning to Iraq for his 14th visit. ''And in this war, it is the Iraqi people who will suffer again.''
Many in Amman's Iraqi exile community are skeptical that American peace groups ever see the true Iraq during their visits. Saddam Hussein's grip on his country is so tyrannical, they said, that the truth is spoken only outside Iraq's borders.
''If you speak to Iraqis outside Iraq, they are angry with Saddam Hussein,'' said one leading Iraqi exile, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because of security concerns. ''But inside Iraq, they are not. The fear is so intense there, no one dares complain, no one dares move.''
The American peace activists insist that they are allowed to travel freely in Baghdad, although they are accompanied by government representatives outside Iraq's capital. They also argue that much of their information is drawn from Iraq's Catholic community.
Many of the activists' first exposure to Iraq's problems came even before they left Amman.
Several encountered an Iraqi woman in their hotel, who told of her two sons trapped in Baghdad. ''Her question was: `When do you think the war will happen? How long do I have to get my sons out of harm's way?''' recalled Mary Trotochaud.
Upon their return to the United States, the activists plan to give speeches, lobby members of Congress, hold vigils, and talk to anyone who will listen about what they learned. They say they hope to stir public opinion and stop a war they say their faith will not let them embrace.
''We will come back and tell our stories of Iraq,'' said Kathy Thornton, a 59-year-old nun who also heads NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobbying group. ''We need to continue to speak loudly, and try to stop the war. ''
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company