Thousands of anti-war demonstrators gathered in Washington Saturday to demand an end to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. Protesters heaped scorn on President Bush for mounting the war, and blamed him for bloodshed and financial costs that have mounted since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Nearby, counter-demonstrators expressed support for U.S. action.
The anti-war demonstrators assembled near the Washington Monument on a crisp, sunny morning waving signs that read, "Impeach Bush" and "Bush lied, thousands died." Democratic Presidential candidate Al Sharpton was one of several dozen speakers who denounced U.S.-led efforts in Iraq, accusing the Bush administration of exaggerating the case for war.
"George Bush was misleading us, saying that there were weapons of mass destruction, saying that we were in imminent danger," he said. "We were right then [to oppose the war] and we are right today to say, 'End the occupation and bring our troops home!'"
Among the demonstrators was Pete Vickman, a veteran of the Vietnam War who journeyed to Washington from North Carolina. Mr. Vickman said it is not for the United States to dictate Iraq's future at the cost of U.S. servicemen's lives.
"I feel that we should help that country, but not in the way we are doing it now, not at the end of a gun," he said. "We have helped other countries to help themselves. And that is what we need to do. We do not need to impose any kind of structured government or system on a country that did not want us there to begin with. Everyday, kids [U.S. troops] are dying. And if you can tell me what the appropriate reason is for them to die, I would like to hear it."
Organizers had predicted as many as 50,000 people from all over the United States would show up for the demonstration, which was billed as the largest anti-war event in the country since the fall of the former Iraqi government in April. But most crowd estimates were far lower.
Two kilometers away, near the U.S. Capitol building, about 100 counter-demonstrators mounted a rally in support of U.S. troops and U.S.-led efforts in Iraq. Former California congressman Bob Dornan said President Bush has kept America safe since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington by fighting terrorists on their own soil. He said a reversal of that policy would be disastrous.
"If we were to pull out of Iraq, we would be fighting these terrorists in our cities," he said. "We have had no savage attack on this country for two years, one month and 14 days. And the reason is because we are fighting them in Iraq."
For Virginia resident Catherine Dickson, mother to a U.S. Marine not stationed in Iraq, anti-war demonstrators do great harm to the morale of U.S. troops serving their country. "I think that a lot of the anti-war talk is aimed at demoralizing our troops," she said. "The boys [troops] are affected by it when they see massive demonstrations by leftists. And they are putting their lives on the line for the people of Iraq, and for them to pull out now would be a defeat."
Ms. Dickson said she hopes American troops do come home, but only after their mission is accomplished.