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Gulf Standoff Rivets Americans' Attention

MAIN Street America is turning into a megaphone on foreign policy as events in the Persian Gulf hurtle toward a decisive climax. In town halls and coffee shops, living rooms and church pews, college dorms and radio forums, Americans are sounding off in one last cacophony of passion about what the United States should or shouldn't do in the Gulf now that Congress has spoken and diplomacy is reaching its denouement.

Opinion runs from bellicose to pacifist. There are parents of sons and daughters in Saudi Arabia who support going to war and other parents who don't want a shot fired under any circumstances.

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There are conservatives who sound like doves and liberals who sound like hawks.

``I have never known a mass populace to be as involved in a subject of national significance as this one,'' says popular Los Angeles radio talk show host Michael Jackson. ``It is an all-consuming, burning issue, with people not only concerned but confused.''

The emotion is understandable for a nation that stands on the possible brink of war. With more troops committed to an area than at any time since Vietnam, the consequences of conflict would be directly felt in households across the country, not to mention at the local gasoline pump.

The crisis, too, has gripped the nation because it is being played out in an era when the omnipresent eye of the media captures every nuance, and the whole event seems rushing toward one grand epiphany - the Jan. 15 deadline by which Iraq is supposed to be out of Kuwait.

``All of a sudden the public is really attuned to the issue - and fearful of it,'' says Mervin Field, director of the California Poll.

Two weeks ago, a Gallup poll indicated that only 27 percent of Americans considered the Gulf crisis the most important problem facing the country. The economy ranked higher. Today, those findings would be different.

``People can't avoid it,'' says Larry Hugic, Gallup Organization vice president.

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Surveys show Americans sharply divided on what the US should do, with nearly the same number supporting the idea of going to war now to remove Iraq from Kuwait as those who want to give sanctions more time to work.

Behind the statistics lie complex emotions that vary from family to family and even within families. In 24 years of taking calls from listeners, Mr. Jackson says, he has rarely heard such a ``thoughtful series of calls on a serious subject.''

War would be ``totally unnecessary and wasteful,'' said one listener, Hal, who has two sons in the Gulf. But he thinks the US should try to capture Saddam Hussein and bring him to justice.

Rodney says ``we don't need to go to war'' but thinks Sassam should be dealt with ``severely and quickly.'' He doesn't reconcile the two.

Elsewhere, people have been sounding off in town meetings. In the clapboard town hall in Cummington, Mass., residents read their constitutions, debated patriotism and principle, and decided (53 to 47) to urge President Bush to go slow on war.

In liberal Berkeley, Calif., the city council unanimously condemns armed conflict. The not-so-liberal Montana House urges a peaceful resolution to the crisis - and expresses support for local men and women serving in the Gulf arena.

The antiwar movement has become rejuvenated in recent days. Rallies are being staged across the country. The movement is diverse: churches, unions, young, old, libertarians, liberals.

``Given that we haven't gone to war yet, the movement is far wider and deeper than it was at a comparable time during Vietnam,'' says Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at the University of California in Berkeley.

Over the weekend, several thousand demonstrators gathered in front of the federal building in Westwood here. Placards proclaimed: ``We won't fight for Texaco,'' ``Yankee come home,'' and ``Coffins are neither kind nor gentle.''

``War is never productive,'' says Jeannie Dimter. She is from Beverly Hills and dressed, elegantly, in black. She says she dressed up to show that the antiwar movement is more than denim-clad youth.

``I'm not underestimating the importance of oil,'' she says. ``But it isn't worth a person's life.''

Julius Kovner fought in World War II. ``I know what war is,'' he says. ``I not convinced sanctions won't work. I want to give them more time.''

Nearby, two counter demonstrators stand with bullhorns on top a bus stop. They tout the need to support President Bush and use force to oust Saddam if he doesn't withdraw.

They chant ``Stop the rape of Kuwait.''

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