WASHINGTON - They left Crawford, Texas, three weeks ago, eager to build on the momentum created by Cindy Sheehan's antiwar vigil outside President Bush's ranch.
After passing through 51 cities on the "Bring Them Home Now Tour," three busloads of protesters arrived at the National Mall on Wednesday, the vanguard of a movement that Iraq war protesters hope will bring 100,000 people to the capital this weekend.
"We've been to a lot of red states and red cities, and we've gotten great support," said Sheehan, the Vacaville, Calif., woman who sought a meeting with Bush during his August vacation. Her son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq last year.
Family members who have lost relatives — that is a compelling voice that the nation is listening to. This policy has been a disaster
. The daily cascade of headlines and horrible images, the continued reports of bad news, have crescendoed to a tipping point that is rapidly approaching.
Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War
"We think America is not as divided as people would like it to be portrayed," Sheehan said.
Like the mothers and the Iraq war veterans traveling on the bus caravan, antiwar activists converging here over the next three days hope their activities will convince the public that it is time to bring U.S. troops home.
For two years, the antiwar movement has struggled while Bush portrayed military involvement in Iraq as an extension of the war on terrorism.
But last week's CBS/New York Times poll showed that 52% of respondents said U.S. troops should leave Iraq "as soon as possible." Protest organizers hope the massive crowds expected this weekend in the streets of Washington — and at the gates of the White House — will help cement that opinion.
"There's a code of silence in the military that extends to families," said Nancy Lessin, a co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, one of more than 1,200 organizations supporting the weekend's activities, which begin Saturday and continue through Monday. "We are breaking that silence."
But the antiwar movement will not have the stage to itself.
Concerned that the flurry of protest activities will hurt the morale of troops in Iraq, some military families who support the war are speaking out.
"My son and Casey [Sheehan] died in the same battle," Diane Ibbotson of Albion, Ill., said Thursday at a news conference on Capitol Hill. "Even a mother's grief does not excuse giving aid and support to our enemy when we are at war, nor does it excuse undermining the morale of our nation in a time of war."
Gary Qualls, whose son, Marine Reserve Lance Cpl. Louis Qualls, was killed in combat last fall, added: "I live right up the road from [Bush's] Crawford ranch, and what I saw at Camp Casey was nothing but disrespect for our fallen heroes and something that should never transpire again."
On Saturday, the antiwar forces are planning a 90-minute "Peace and Justice Rally" on the Ellipse, followed by an "Operation Cease-Fire" concert at the Washington Monument featuring Sheehan and singer Joan Baez. On Sunday, there will be an interfaith service at the Washington Monument, along with training for a lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill.
"This is not just to bring people out in the street; it's also to galvanize, energize and expand the movement," said William Dobbs, spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, an umbrella organization that is sponsoring the three-day event. "We hope people will go home to their communities and ratchet up pressure on Congress to end the war."
On Monday — in addition to lobbying their congressional representatives — activists plan to encircle the White House and then deliver antiwar petitions.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday that the administration was focusing on Hurricane Rita, but that "there are always people here" to accept packages.
Privately, organizers acknowledge that the diversity of voices within the antiwar alliance could hurt its ability to reach centrist voters.
Marching along with the antiwar activists will be advocates for a rainbow of causes — including those who want to protect redwood trees in Northern California; end the weaponization of outer space and economic globalization; and support immigrant rights. And International Answer, an activist group that says the war in Iraq is racist, will be protesting the "colonial occupation in Iraq, Palestine and Haiti."
As it struggles to embrace its more radical members without alienating the middle-of-the-road voters it hopes to attract, the antiwar movement is further constrained by its alliance with key Democratic Party figures who are loath to support a unilateral withdrawal. Even a resolution calling on Bush to fashion a plan for withdrawal from Iraq, introduced in June by Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), does not include a timetable.
"Members of Congress have been reluctant to challenge the president," said Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War, an antiwar group that formed before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in 2003.
And although the weekend's slogan is "End the War on Iraq — Bring the Troops Home Now," there is a wide array of views on how, and even when, to do that.
"There are variations within the antiwar movement of what 'now' means," Andrews said. "To some, it's as soon as you can load up the troop ships. Other say that beginning immediately, there should be a phased withdrawal of troops, with a commitment to leave no bases behind."
But Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine, says "the ice is beginning to crack" and that the political establishment will soon coalesce around an exit strategy.
"Family members who have lost relatives — that is a compelling voice that the nation is listening to," he said. "This policy has been a disaster
. The daily cascade of headlines and horrible images, the continued reports of bad news, have crescendoed to a tipping point that is rapidly approaching."
"Our existence is evidence of how much the movement has grown," said Dobbs of United for Peace and Justice. "Cindy Sheehan was riding a wave that many of us worked very hard to create. Because that vigil attracted so much attention, the wave is now bigger. What was a date on the calendar has now taken on urgency. This could be a turning point in stopping the war."
Times staff writer Emma Vaughn contributed to this report.
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