President Bush will end his vacation at his ranch near Crawford, Texas later this week. Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, and other anti-war demonstrators who have been camped out near the ranch, say they will now to take their protest to Washington. For the past few weeks, Mrs. Sheehan and her supporters have been the target of counter protests from groups supporting Mr. Bush and the Iraq war. The gulf that divides the two camps will likely grow as the protests move to Washington.
Since she came to a lonely bend on a country road near the Bush ranch on August 6 to demand a meeting with the president, Cindy Sheehan has become a national celebrity, cheered by many who share her opposition to the war, but despised by many who see her actions as undermining support for U.S. troops overseas.
The Sheehan encampment is called "Camp Casey," named after her son, U.S. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, who was killed in Iraq last year. On Crawford's main street, there is another tent set in a vacant lot that some call "Fort Qualls." The principal organizer here is Gary Qualls, whose son, Louis, died in Iraq while serving with the U.S. Marines. Mr. Qualls has asked for a public meeting with Mrs. Sheehan, but she tells VOA that he and others who support the war already had their chance. "We invited them to come meet with us last Saturday and they declined our invitation," she said.
But in a separate VOA interview, Gary Qualls, who met Mrs. Sheehan sometime before her vigil began, questions her sincerity. "The first time I had a meeting with her, she requested that and her first request was on her ground, her way or no way and no [news] media. She did not want any media. Now I see on a web site that she had made some kind of public announcement. I never received an invitation or anything. She was calling for other fallen-hero parents to come have a meeting with her," he said. "Since when did this ever happen?"
Mrs. Sheehan contends that she is open to dialogue, but that Mr. Qualls and others are not open to her view that the time has come to end the U.S. involvement in Iraq. "Even the anti-Sheehan, Gary Qualls, one day he told me he loved me and there are several pictures of us hugging on the internet," she said. "Then he became the 'anti-Sheehan.' I do not know what that is all about. But I always find common ground with people and we talk and just sit down and dialogue like this."
Mr. Qualls says he shares Mrs. Sheehan's pain, being the parent of what he calls "a fallen hero," but he accuses her of using her loss to foster the agenda of leftwing, anti-Bush political groups. "I believe that she is being used for somebody else's purpose. Michael Moore [the filmmaker] and MoveOn.org, he is involved in this and there are other anti-war activists, professional protesters, and it is my understanding that she is also a member or used to be a member of Code Pink," he said.
Code Pink is a California-based women's peace movement that holds vigils and protests around the nation, including Camp Casey.
Mrs. Sheehan says there are a number of political groups who have come to support her, but she says she is not their tool and throws the same charge back at her detractors. "It is my message and my vision and I want to say the same thing to them. They are being funded by the GOP (Republican party) and one of their main strategists is a good friend of Karl Rove, so they are tools of the right, just as I am a tool of the left, and I am not," she said.
Mrs. Sheehan says she has found common ground with a wide range of organizations and individuals who oppose President Bush and who believe the lives of soldiers like her son are being wasted.
Mr. Qualls disagrees and defends President Bush as a great moral leader who has led the country down a difficult, but necessary path. "President Bush has brought back the utmost respect and honor and dignity back to the office of president of the United States. Sometimes even a president can make a mistake because he is human just like the rest of us, but this is a good man, he is just a man."
Gary Qualls and Cindy Sheehan represent thousands of other parents across the nation who have lost sons and daughters in Iraq. Although united by their grief, they remain divided by their views on the war and their political views in general.
On Thursday, Mrs. Sheehan will join a bus tour to Houston, where she hopes to confront Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader. Later that same day, she plans to fly to Washington to carry on her protest. Counter-demonstrators are likely, and if the past weeks are any indication, the gap between the two sides will widen.