WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in cities and towns across America over the weekend to mark the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and to demand that U.S. troops stationed there be brought home.
The protests on the anniversary Saturday as well as on Sunday reflected the U.S. anti-war movement's growing diversity. But they also highlighted the challenges of sustaining growth in new areas like suburban America and maintaining unity of purpose as the movement grapples with issues that elude consensus.
Holding torches, some 2,000 people form the sign of peace during an antiwar and anti-violence rally in the Heroes Square in central Budapest, Hungary, on Sunday evening, March 20, 2005. The rally was organized by the Humanist Movement of Hungary to mark the second anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. In the background the Millenium Memorial, left, and the Gallery of Arts, right, are seen. (AP Photo/MTI, Zsolt Szigetvary)
President George W. Bush, in a weekend radio address, said the war was launched ''to disarm a brutal regime, free its people, and defend the world'' and had inspired ''democratic reformers from Beirut to Tehran.''
''Today, women can vote in Afghanistan, Palestinians are breaking the old patterns of violence, and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese are rising up to demand their sovereignty and democratic rights,'' Bush said.
Others seemed unconvinced.
Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against The War, and Gold Star Families for Peace, whose members have lost relatives in Iraq, rallied the local community and supporters from around the country in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.
''More than 50 people from our community are dead. Our government continues to kill Americans and Iraqis alike in a war based on lies,'' said Fayetteville organizer Lou Plummer. ''Too many in Fayetteville, across the country, and in Iraq have suffered from a war that should never have happened.''
Plummer said the rally was meant to support U.S. troops by demanding that Washington bring them home now, take care of them, and ''end the policies that allowed this illegal and immoral war to happen in the first place.''
In New York, thousands gathered in Central Park and across historically black and working class neighborhoods throughout the city. Police arrested some three dozen activists, including some who lay down alongside flag-draped cardboard coffins near the landmark armed forces recruiting station at Times Square.
In Chicago, thousands marched on the city center's Federal Plaza. More than 1,000 people turned out in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and organizers there said their ranks were filled with people who had soured to the war, once supporting it but now regarding it as unjustified.
In all, more than 800 events were scheduled in 600-plus towns including San Francisco; Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky; Cottage Grove, Oregon; and in front of the New Mexico National Guard Armory in Albuquerque.
Scores of community groups, military families, and veterans' groups organized events alongside national coalitions including ANSWER (or Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), United for Peace and Justice, and Troops Out Now.
Overseas, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in a number of countries including some that have sent troops to support the U.S.-led invasion or occupation. These included Australia, Britain, Italy, and Japan.
U.S. anti-war groups have made alliances with black, immigrant, faith-based, and business groups in major metropolitan areas and smaller towns across the country. Two years ago, in the run up to and immediately after the invasion, the San Francisco crowds that produced some of the country's angriest protests included suit-clad executives. News photographs at the time showed police dragging away a handcuffed former president of the Pacific Exchange stock market. And in New York this past weekend, black groups led the marches that had top billing.
Diversity has brought dilemmas, however. While a broad spectrum of organizations came together to protest the rising death toll in Iraq--currently estimated by human rights groups at 100,000 Iraqis and tallied by U.S. news organizations at 1,519 or more Americans--the larger movement stands at a crossroads.
Individual groups have taken divergent positions on Iraqi resistance to the U.S.-led occupation, for example, and on when and on what terms to demand that American troops be withdrawn.
In meetings that have spilled over into online exchanges at Web sites such as Indymedia.org and in open letters and public gatherings, campaigners at United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and from the International Action Center and ANSWER have fallen out over whether to support the Iraqi resistance. Many UFPJ member organizations strongly reject any such support.
Likewise, activists eager to shield U.S. troops from harm are grappling over the content of a good exit strategy. Would simply withdrawing the 150,000-odd American soldiers in Iraq leave a thoroughly destabilized country even more vulnerable to sectarian extremists who have harnessed religious zeal to ensure a steady supply of recruits? Would it come across as a victory for the violent tactics of, and clear the way for more killings of civilian and repression of Iraqi women by such groups?
So intense has some of the debate been that the New York affiliate of Indymedia, a loose collaborative of community activists and chroniclers, asked in a recent headline, ''has the broad-based local anti-war movement reached its breaking point?''
Additionally, organizers are finding it difficult to make inroads in suburbia after enjoying success in making common cause with urban communities that long have sent their children into the armed forces to escape inner city poverty and garner skills and money for future education and employment.
Few groups have resources and experience to work with widely dispersed populations of relatively affluent Americans. They complain of insufficient support from the Democratic Party, which remains split over the occupation and U.S. withdrawal. Groups that once provided an online hub for organizing drives--chiefly, MoveOn.org--appear to have moved on, embracing fights to preserve Social Security and oppose Bush's nominees for the federal courts.
In the long run, the anti-war movement is unlikely to influence Congress or the White House without support from Republicans, veteran political organizers and analysts said. That support would be easier to garner, they added, if protesters could win allies in key suburban districts.
Anti-war groups will have their next opportunity to test the movement's durability and coalition-building strategies later this month. Troops Out Now and other groups said they plan to launch on Mar. 31 a campaign to oppose pressures on the Bush administration to institute an involuntary draft to reinforce the military's ranks.
Some Republicans and a few Democrats have come out in support of a draft, urged by groups and think tanks close to defense circles concerned that traditional recruitment efforts have begun to fall short of their targets and thus imperil the armed forces' preparedness to fight two wars at a time. Bush and some senior administration officials have said they oppose a draft.
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