WASHINGTON – Crowds opposed to the war in Iraq surged past the White House on Saturday, shouting “Peace now” in the largest anti-war protest in the nation’s capital since the U.S. invasion.
The rally stretched through the day and into the night, a marathon of music, speechmaking and dissent on the National Mall. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, noting that organizers had hoped to draw 100,000 people, said, “I think they probably hit that.”
Speakers from the stage attacked President Bush’s policies, but he was not at the White House to hear it. He spent the day in Colorado and Texas, monitoring hurricane recovery.
In the crowd: young activists, nuns whose anti-war activism dates to the Vietnam War, parents mourning their children in uniform killed in Iraq, and uncountable families motivated for the first time to protest.
Connie McCroskey, 58, came from Des Moines, Iowa, with two of her daughters, both in their 20s, for the family’s first demonstration. McCroskey, whose father fought in World War II, said she never would have dared protest during the Vietnam War.
“Today, I had some courage,” she said.
While united against the war, political beliefs varied. Paul Rutherford, 60, of Vandalia, Mich., said he is a Republican who supported Bush in the last election and still does – except for the war.
“President Bush needs to admit he made a mistake in the war and bring the troops home, and let’s move on,” Rutherford said. His wife, Judy, 58, called the removal of Saddam Hussein “a noble mission” but said U.S. troops should have left when claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction proved unfounded.
“We found that there were none, and yet we still stay there and innocent people are dying daily,” she said.
“Bush Lied, Thousands Died,” said one sign. “End the Occupation,” said another. More than 1,900 members of the U.S. armed forces have died since the beginning of the war in March 2003.
Thousands of people attended smaller rallies in cities on the West Coast, including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
In Washington, D.C., a few hundred people in a counter-demonstration in support of Bush’s Iraq policy lined the protest route near the FBI building. The two groups shouted at each other, a police line keeping them apart. Organizers of a pro-military rally today hoped for 10,000 people.
Ramsey said the day’s protest unfolded peacefully under the heavy police presence. “They’re vocal but not violent,” he said.
Arthur Pollock, 47, of Cecil County, Md., said he opposed the war from the beginning. He wants the soldiers to come home, but gradually.
“They’ve got to leave slowly,” said Pollock, attending his first protest. “It will be utter chaos in that country if we pull them out all at once.”
Folk singer Joan Baez marched with the protesters and later serenaded them at a concert at the foot of the Washington Monument. An icon of the 1960s Vietnam War protests, she said Iraq is already a mess and the troops need to come home immediately. “There is chaos. There’s bloodshed. There’s carnage.”
The protest in the capital showcased a series of demonstrations in foreign and other U.S. cities. A crowd in London, estimated by police at 10,000, marched in support of withdrawing British troops from Iraq. Highlighting the need to get out, protesters said, were violent clashes between insurgents and British troops in the southern Iraq city of Basra.
In Rome, dozens of protesters held up banners and peace flags outside the U.S. Embassy and covered a sidewalk with messages and flowers in honor of those killed in Iraq.
Cindy Sheehan, the California mother who drew thousands of demonstrators to her 26-day vigil outside Bush’s Texas ranch last month, won a roar of approval when she took the stage in Washington. Her 24-year-old son, Casey, was killed in Iraq last year.
“Shame on you,” Sheehan admonished, directing that portion of her remarks to members of Congress who backed Bush on the war. “How many more of other people’s children are you willing to sacrifice?
She led the crowd in chanting, “Not one more.”
Separately, hundreds of opponents of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund danced to the beat of drums in the Dupont Circle part of the city before marching toward the White House to join the anti-war protesters.
Supporters of Bush’s policy in Iraq assembled in smaller numbers to make their voices heard in the day’s anti-war din. About 150 of them rallied at the U.S. Navy Memorial.