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Wednesday, 19 February, 2003, 17:55 GMT
'I'm an ex-marine recruiting human shields'
As war with Iraq seems to edge ever closer, former US Marine Kenneth Nichols O'Keefe - who fought in the Gulf War - is leading a group of Westerners to be human shields.

I'm hoping to recruit hundreds of volunteers en route to Iraq and my goal is thousands. After leaving London on 25 January, we go to France, then Holland, Germany and Switzerland before heading towards Baghdad.

US Marines help an injured colleague in 1991
I left the Marines after the Gulf War - I'd had an altercation with my superiors

In the UK and the US, there's little appetite for war but the authorities don't expect many people to go to such extremes to stop it. That would be true if there was only 20 to 50 of us, but if there's 500 or more, it becomes easier and easier to recruit people.

The bandwagon is already formed. The first two or three people were the most difficult - it was myself and one other person who said 'we're going', and it was another fortnight before we got a third. Based on that sort of progress, we'd only have a dozen by now, but it's grown exponentially since then.

Not one of the volunteers has said that they want to go to Iraq to support Saddam Hussein. The theme I'm getting is that this is a criminal war, that it's going to victimise an already victimised population. Many also regard the US as the greatest threat to world security.

Battle scars

I was in the Gulf War in 1991 for six months with the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines.

Iraqi children act as human shields
Expats and Iraqi children were placed at key instillations in 1991
The first few months we sat on the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and when the ground war kicked off we had to secure the road that runs between Kuwait City and Baghdad - the Highway of Death, where thousands of Iraqi troops died.

I was in a supporting role in that massacre; although I didn't kill anyone personally, I still take responsibility for the deaths of others.

I left the Marines seven or eight months later - essentially I was fired when they were downsizing after the war.

Torched oil fields in 1991
It is not Kenneth's war experience that turned him to peace
I'd had an altercation with my immediate superiors, having reported them for an abuse of power. It might seem quite trivial, but we were living on board a ship in the Mediterranean in summer and it was very hot.

My superiors had shut a passage so as to keep what little air conditioning there was in their area. They had no authority to do that, and it forced us in the lower ranks to go three times as far to get to routine areas.

The whole platoon was punished for what I did, and I had to look over my shoulder after that. A lot of marines would no doubt describe me a provocateur or a "bad apple" but to my mind I did the right thing.

War and peace

While my experience in the Gulf helped shape me, it's not my time there that's prompted me to return. I'm going to protest against my country's policies.

I do all this because I want to see a peaceful world

I've also renounced my citizenship. I've handed over my passport, put my hand up and sworn the oath - and added a statement condemning the US's criminal acts at home and abroad, and its destruction of the natural environment - and left the country.

I'm now based in Holland, where I came in November 2001 to seek political asylum. I no longer have a passport but I managed to get into the UK with a copy of my old US one - no doubt because I'm white and speak with an American accent.

Kurd refugees in 1991
Thousands have died or been displaced as a result
I do all this because I want to see a peaceful world.

I grew up in a prosperous place in southern California, I went to the beach and surfed, I played soccer. I had a loving family, a safe neighbourhood. Before I left the US, I lived in paradise in Hawaii, had my own dive business and was involved in a lot of marine conservation work.

I've had a life most people would kill for. It makes me very sad to know that the majority of people don't have such opportunities.

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