NEW YORK, NOV. 27 -- The Army has begun to enforce a rule requiring potential conscientious objectors to wait until they are shipped to the Persian Gulf before they can apply for such status.

Word of the change, which the Army has not publicized, first surfaced at Fort Riley, Kan., where Sgts. George Morse and John Pruner tried to submit conscientious-objector, or "CO," claims earlier this month. The two were told that they could not apply until they are deployed to Saudi Arabia in about four to six weeks.

Louis Font, a Boston-based attorney and a specialist in military law, described the process as "highly irregular" and said established military law makes it illegal to send a person "into a war zone before they can file for discharge as a CO."

The military has long had provisions for those who join and later decide that they do not want to fight because of religious, moral or pacifist beliefs. Some are released from duty, while others continue to serve in noncombat positions.

Until recently, members of the Army had the right to begin the typically laborious CO application process by submitting paperwork wherever they were currently stationed, as long as their unit had not been reassigned to a combat area.

However, a copy of an Oct. 25 Army memorandum obtained by The Washington Post states, "As a result of Operation Desert Shield, HQDA {Headquarters Department of the Army} has issued further guidance on the submission of conscientious objector applications. . . . Soldiers may not submit a conscientious objector application until after arrival at the deployment site."

Capt. Barbara Goodno of the Army's public affairs office at the Pentagon said the memo was not a change in rules but a "clarification . . . to help redefine the term 'reassignment.' "

Decisions on applications such as those of Morse and Pruner may hinge on this broad redefinition.

Previously, Army personnel "reassigned" or on their way to a new duty station have had to wait until arrival to submit CO claims. The new rule includes soldiers who have not received deployment orders but whose units have simply been put on alert, perhaps to wait months before being sent abroad.

"It's a gross expansion of the numbers that are going to be affected," said Tod Ensign, director of Citizen Soldier, a soldiers' advocacy group based in New York. In Saudi Arabia, he said, CO applicants will not have access to their attorneys, witnesses who could testify on behalf of the CO claims, or ministers, family or friends who support them.

"It's an ominous development, and it reflects their concern over the growing number of CO applications," Ensign said.

Font added that "it's ridiculous to think they will process CO claims in the middle of the Saudi desert. Are they planning to have a battalion of COs out there waiting to hear what will happen with their claims?"

Goodno denied that the Army is trying to discourage CO applicants and said the rules are designed to keep together the applicant and the unit commander, who rules on the CO claim. "The command can't be making decisions when they are separated from the soldier," she said.

Martin Binkin, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the Army is "trying hard to make it difficult, and they should. You don't want to give the signal that all you have to do to avoid duty in Saudi Arabia is indicate that you're a CO. You probably would have a flood of applications for CO status. In the Army, every last one is not Rambo."

On Monday, four Marine reservists based at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx announced at a news conference that they have refused orders to go to Saudi Arabia. They were supposed to be on their way that day to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for training.

The number of enlisted CO applicants since the start of Operation Desert Shield is disputed. Maj. Doug Hart, a Pentagon spokesman, said only 10 people in all branches of the service have applied for CO status.

Four people have applied at Fort Riley, public affairs specialist Mike Zucca said. Goodno said that 77 Army personnel have been granted CO status this year but that she did not know how many had applied since Operation Desert Shield began.

Staff members at the American Friends Service Committee, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors and the War Resisters League, all of which counsel military personnel, said they have helped more than 300 people to file CO claims in the last four months.

Morse, 25, of Lansing, Mich., said he is "just an ordinary Joe who didn't get off the fence until his life was affected. . . . The thought of someone standing over my grave saying that I died for an honorable cause, a defender of freedom, what a bunch of garbage. I think I'd be spinning in my grave the next thousand years. The thought of that makes me sick, for my death to be a lie."

Pruner, 24, who grew up in Lebanon, Va., said, "They wanted me to sit around for four to six weeks in the U.S. and present the appearance that everyone in the Army is marching in lock step on their way to Saudi Arabia. I think the Army wants to move everyone out of the states with as little dissent as possible."