War Debate, and Emotions, Spill Over in Texas

The General

Another Day, Another Dollar
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Pent-up fervor fueling both sides of the national debate over President Bush's Iraq policies erupted Saturday near his vacation home, with thousands of protesters venting frustrations and using parents of fallen soldiers as icons of their dueling movements.

Both the president's supporters and critics endured 100degree temperatures to rally in separate locations miles apart, and several hundred engaged in an emotional standoff at the fork in a road on the fringe of the Bush property ? singing, chanting and yelling epithets.

Separated by at least nine sheriff's deputies and a traffic island guarded by authorities as "no man's land," the scene served as a microcosm for the state of the national debate.

On one side of the street sat the original Camp Casey, set up three weeks ago by Cindy Sheehan, whose son Army Spc. Casey Sheehan was killed in Iraq in 2004. She has since emerged as the leader of the antiwar movement. There, dozens cheered and belted out anti-Bush lyrics to the tune of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." A banner branded Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld "war pigs."

On the other side stood flag-waving Bush backers chanting, "Cindy, go home." One sign read: "Repent, you treasonous scum."

The debate has intensified in recent weeks, while the president has vacationed and Sheehan's once-tiny encampment has expanded. Sheehan and her supporters are demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and they have vowed to mount a national bus tour next month to end at the steps of Congress. But their first stop, Sheehan said Saturday, would be the nearby congressional district of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

A series of recent polls show Bush's approval ratings diminishing and public anxiety growing over the rising U.S. death toll in Iraq. More than 1,860 soldiers have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, and support for the president's handling of the war has dipped below 40%.

"I know that the Camp Casey movement is going to end the war in Iraq," Sheehan told more than 1,000 cheering activists crammed into the shade under a circus tent. "When you read about the Camp Casey movement in the history books, you can say, 'I met Casey's mom.'

"This is America standing up and saying, 'We've had enough of you,' " Sheehan said, directing her words to the president, who was spending the weekend at his property next door.

Folk singer Joan Baez, an icon of the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, made a return appearance to the Crawford encampment, leading the crowd in rounds of "Amazing Grace." One Iraq veteran, Sean O'Neill, called Sheehan "every soldier's mother."

But Sheehan has drawn the ire of Bush's backers for her protest and for what they describe as her shifting accounts of a meeting she and other relatives of slain troops had with Bush in 2004.

Emotions ran high at the competing rally, where thousands of the president's supporters filled a football stadium to praise efforts in Iraq and chastise Sheehan as an opportunist exploiting her dead son. The crowd chanted slogans against those who oppose the war, at one point turning against a member of the media. One reporter was grabbed by a protester who accused the media of propping up the antiwar movement.

Several parents of dead soldiers who attended the pro-Bush rally said Sheehan's backers were aiding the enemy.

"Her supporters have said she lost a son in this war so she has the moral authority to say whatever she wants," said Mike Broomhead of Phoenix, whose brother died in 2003 in Fallouja. Broomhead joined pro-Bush families in Crawford on Saturday. "Well, if she has moral authority, then these families have the same authority she has."

Bush remained on his property Saturday, back from a trip last week in which he reacted to the antiwar movement. In Utah and Idaho, Bush sought to portray Sheehan's supporters as opponents of his broader war on terrorism, suggesting they would have the U.S. pull out of the entire Middle East.

On Saturday, Bush reiterated in his radio address his reasons for keeping U.S. troops in the region.

"Our efforts in Iraq and the broader Middle East will require more time, more sacrifice and continued resolve," he said, citing Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank and Iraq's ongoing deliberations over a constitution as examples of progress.

Saturday's events underscored the extent to which both sides are tapping into raw emotion in the battle for public opinion. Last week in Idaho, the White House found a military mom to illustrate the president's case. Tammy Pruett of Pocatello, Idaho, whose husband and five sons have served in Iraq, was cited as an example of a mother who wanted to honor their sacrifice by letting U.S. troops complete their mission in Iraq.

In Texas, the two sides of the debate are being underwritten by well-funded liberal and conservative organizations. MoveOn.org and True Majority, for instance, are bankrolling Sheehan's efforts ? complete with an array of public relations consultants who advise the 48-year-old Vacaville, Calif., woman on tactics.

The other side is tied closely to Move America Forward, a conservative group affiliated with political strategists who helped plan the 2003 recall of California Gov. Gray Davis.

But some in Crawford on Saturday didn't fit neatly into the opposing protesters' camps.

Mark Crowley, a sheet metal worker from San Ramon, Calif., stood with pro-Bush activists under a tent called "Camp Reality." Though surrounded by people wearing "I'm 4 W" pins and shirts, Crowley said he was a union member and a Democrat who did not vote for Bush or support the invasion of Iraq. His son, Kyle, was an 18-year-old Marine who died last year when his unarmored Humvee was ambushed ? and Crowley objects to Sheehan.

"What she's doing is not right, and it's setting a dangerous precedent for our troops in the field," said Crowley, who joined several other parents in asking Sheehan's supporters to remove their children's names from small white crosses at the antiwar protest sites.

Local police said Saturday's influx of activists marked the biggest day of protests in the area since Bush took office and began spending much of every summer near Crawford.

One local homeowner near downtown Crawford said he was ready to be rid of the circus.

"We don't like it," he said, spitting in his yard near the school where the White House press corps works whenever Bush is in town. "But we put up with it."

latimes.com
 
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