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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Last year, the American high school students attending the annual conference of The Hague International Model United Nations met with overwhelming sympathy because of the terrorists attacks in New York and Washington.

This time around the mood is different, given the U.S. government’s stated desire to overthrow the government of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

One student from Ecuador called it imperialism, while others spoke of hidden agendas and heavy-handed tactics by the United States.

“As soon as I say I’m an American, they will ask me: ‘How do you feel about Bush?’” said Jenna Slagter, a junior from Wiesbaden High School in Germany, “which is OK. I like debating.”

Debate and deliberation are certainly parts of what this international exercise — now in its 35th year — is all about.

Every year since 1968, high schools students from different lands have congregated in The Hague for a week of work intended to simulate the art of diplomacy, per the United Nations.

Participating schools are assigned a nation to represent, with the teen delegates given subject areas to research and resolve to the best of their abilities.

“They have to put themselves in the shoes of another country, not the U.S.,” said Millie Harris, a history teacher, who is the Wiesbaden High School director for the model U.N. “They really try hard, though some get it more than others.”

Often it comes down to experience. Like Slagter, many of the delegates who attend a Department of Defense Dependents Schools facility have been here before. That can go a long way when one is trying to propose resolutions and build alliances with students from other countries.

This year, there are 3,109 students from 106 countries taking part. The United States has 777 high school participants, of which 243 attend DOD schools in Europe. Some of the students come from as far away as Turkey and Iceland, though most go to school in Germany.

“It’s just a blessing to be here,” Slagter said, “especially during this time.”

In particular, Slagter was referring to the current crisis over Iraq. On Monday, the first day of the conference, most students were keenly aware of the progress report by U.N. inspectors that was delivered to the Security Council concerning Iraq and the search for weapons of mass destruction.

Terrorism is one of the most popular subjects of discussion among the delegates, according to Harris. Other issues run the gamut from deforestation and economic development to hunger and arms control.

She added that some DODDS students “are surprised that people feel so strongly against America and its policies.”

“We love the people, but not the government,” Nina Pakar, a 17-year-old male student from Ecuador, later acknowledged.

Rachel Lucken, a Wiesbaden senior, said she and other American students know they have to separate their conference work, and the points they argue for as representatives of a foreign country, from their personal views. She described it as sometimes “walking on egg shells.”

At midday, outside the Netherlands Congress Centre, where the event is being held, a group of students from Ecuador, Germany and France were discussing some of their resolutions. When the topic of Iraq and the United States came up, they quickly shifted gears.

All spoke well of the American people, but they drew a distinction between the governed and the government.

“The United States is setting a terrible example for the rest of the world,” said 16-year-old Andrea Estefano from Ecuador. “They are losing what they have gained through the years.”

“Of course there’s a problem with Iraq, with Saddam,” said Alexandre Gros of France. “It’s a very complicated issue, but does that justify military intervention?”

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