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Antiwar protesters create disruptions, e-mail support to U.S. troops

WASHINGTON—Antiwar activists lighted candles in dozens of cities Thursday, created major disruptions in Philadelphia and San Francisco, blocked a bridge in Washington and tried a new tactic by e-mailing their support to American troops who are heading into battle.

During the first full day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, peace groups had mixed success in grabbing public attention to protest a war they couldn't prevent. There was an ongoing debate within their ranks: how to disrupt normal activity without creating resentment.

"There is a fine line, and we're not looking to create a backlash," Joe Flood, a 21-year-old Harvard University student, said as he marched across a bridge into downtown Boston. "We have to speak out. Maybe we can't stop this war, but we could prevent a long line of pre-emptive wars."

Around him, some motorists ignored the march, while others honked their support or, on occasion, yelled epithets.

A large coalition of war opponents, Win Without War, decided against civil disobedience while planning several campaigns to attract mainstream support, including candlelight vigils Thursday evening.

The coalition also urged its members to support U.S. troops by sending them encouragement using Operation Dear Abby, an online message service.

One such message to Army personnel came from Melissa Farris of Washington, D.C.: "I just wanted to let you know that even though there are many of us here who are not happy with the president's reasons for sending you off to war, that we support you and wish you nothing but the best of luck. Come home safely and take care of each other."

In San Francisco, thousands of protesters swarmed through downtown streets, blocking businesses and snarling traffic. At least 350 were arrested.

Police used bolt cutters and hacksaws to separate protesters who had locked themselves together with links of metal pipe.

In Philadelphia, hundreds of activists shut down the city's federal building for several hours in the morning. Police reported that 107 were arrested in a cold rain when they refused to leave areas along Sixth Street.

"We're carefully targeting a federal building and we're being polite, but if they wage an illegal war there will be resistance," said Terry Rumsey, 48, who is from the suburb of Media.

These tactics generated mixed responses. In California's Bay Area, some businesses closed for the day so employees could participate in protests.

But Randy Sumabat, who couldn't get to his office in San Francisco, was critical: "It's disruptive and unproductive. . . . I work for Blue Shield. I try to protect people's health insurance. You may need health insurance later on."

In other cities, activists tried similar tactics, but on a smaller, sporadic scale. About 30 demonstrators from the anti-capitalist Shirts Off Coalition shut down the Key Bridge, a main artery from the Virginia suburbs to Washington, for about 20 minutes during the morning rush hour.

Protesters on bikes also slowed traffic in the nation's capital. Others marched on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's house carrying bloodstained baby-sized coffins. About 500 protesters gathered in nearby Dupont Circle on Thursday afternoon, banging drums and blowing whistles.

"I don't think that advocating for peace stops just because the bombs are falling," said Alicia Lucksted of Baltimore.

Other groups focused on humanitarian aspects of the war. Leaders of Physicians for Social Responsibility warned that the U.S. invasion will have dire consequences for Iraq's civilian population.

"The `shock and awe' campaign by the Pentagon will produce significant civilian casualties and damage the fragile public-health infrastructure of an impoverished nation," said Dr. Robert Musil, director of the group, who urged opposition to the war at a news conference.

The advent of war also spurred plans for events to support the U.S. invasion. Free Republic and other groups that back the war scheduled weekend rallies in dozens of cities, including Washington and New York.

"We urge the American people to stand with President Bush in his quest to fight terrorists and bring democracy and Western values to all regions of the Earth," said Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition.

With U.S. troops in action, a lively debate about debate itself grew Thursday.

"Protests during war affect the morale of our troops, and that's bad," said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla. "We saw enough of that during the Vietnam War."

One of his colleagues, Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., disagreed: "The First Amendment doesn't get suspended when we go to war. Some are trying to use patriotism to stifle dissent, but it's important to speak out in times of peril."


(Knight Ridder correspondents Tosin Sulaiman, Dana Hull and Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PROTEST