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Antiwar activists must find broad strokes to paint new message

WASHINGTON—What does an antiwar movement do without a war?

Groups that opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, always diverse and sometimes divided, now are pursuing different agendas, from humanitarian aid to better veterans' benefits. Some have been radicalized; others are trying conventional politics.

They face a fundamental truth: They lost. The Bush administration won a relatively quick military victory with broad public support.

"Everybody loves a winner, and the way the war went took steam out of antiwar activities," said Terry Leach, a longtime activist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Todd Gitlin, a leading student activist in the 1960s who's now a sociologist and author, offered this blunt assessment: "Internationally, the movement showed unprecedented magnitude, and influenced policy in Britain and other places. But in the United States it failed, and you have to learn from your experience."

Across the country, many activists are re-evaluating their actions and goals. The Web site for the United for Peace and Justice coalition asks simply: "Where does the movement go from here?"

While some are frustrated and dispirited, others say they are motivated by an urgent need to resist possible U.S. pre-emptive attacks that may go beyond Iraq to Syria, Iran or other targets.

"A vital citizens' movement exposing the dangers of the administration's drive toward a world military empire is needed now more than ever," said Tom Andrews, director of Win Without War, a coalition of 40 organizations. "The administration's new norm of preventive war must be buried in Iraq."

Deborah Regal, a math teacher in Pinckney, Mich., whose son is in the Marines, has a personal motivation: "The sentiment I hear from some is `Shut up and support the troops.' But I don't want my son to be part of a U.S.-only occupation of Iraq. That's wrong."

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., librarian Paul Lefrak emphasizes that "Iraq is not over; we're looking at a messy occupation," and adds that the tactics of opposing Bush administration policy will change.

"We won't have one or two protests a week, but there's a need for more outreach and educational efforts to counter the official propaganda," said Lefrak, a leader of the Broward Antiwar Coalition.

A similar sentiment was heard in the San Francisco area, where antiwar forces were large and well-organized, able to shut down financial districts several times.

Thousands of protesters targeted companies with ties to the Bush administration, such as Bechtel Corp., which won a contract Thursday for reconstruction in Iraq. But the sit-ins and mass arrests also prompted a backlash and a debate over methods.

In Monterey County, Calif., activists now hand out critical articles about the situation in Iraq at post offices and tourist stops as part of a campaign they call "Beyond CNN—News You Don't See on TV."

"The protests in San Francisco were kind of scary," said Kristin Rasmussen, a marine lab student who politely offered literature. "This is really what I was looking for—it's nonconfrontational."

Leach, the Bay Area Democratic activist, works at registering young first-time voters angered by the war and reregistering Green Party members as Democrats. Her political target is President Bush.

"There's an ongoing debate out here about civil disobedience versus traditional politics," said Leach. "More people are willing to try—or retry—conventional politics."

She likened the situation to the late 1960s, when antiwar opponents funneled their energy into Eugene McCarthy's campaign. This time, she said, the beneficiary is Howard Dean, an antiwar presidential candidate who received a huge reception at the state Democratic convention.

Gitlin said he saw the "classic division between radical and conventional" in any large protest movement.

"You have to think through the consequences of your actions. When you block a building, the only beneficiary may be Karl Rove," he said, referring to Bush's top political adviser.

Last week, activists in several states protested budget priorities on the tax-filing deadline and held teach-ins on domestic budget needs.

"The different groups may hold together for a time, but I think they'll have distinctly different areas of interest," said Californian David Walls, a Sonoma State University sociology professor.

"It's hard for an antiwar movement to become a long-range peace movement," he added.

Some activists are on the defensive, with Bush allies on radio and TV accusing them of naivete or even treason. In a war debate that became more polarized, each side often saw no merit in the other's position.

While critical of Bush and the war, Gitlin said, opponents "must now acknowledge some benefits. Saddam Hussein is gone and that's a good thing."


(Davies reported from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Dana Hull and Sukhjit Purewal contributed to this report from California.)


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