WASHINGTON—Thousands of protesters marched peacefully through downtown Washington on Saturday, calling for an end to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and accusing President Bush of lying to win support for the invasion.
The crowd appeared to be much smaller than the 30,000 people the organizers had predicted would attend the first major anti-war demonstration held in the nation's capital since Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 1.
Still, enthusiasm was high. The protesters gathered near the foot of the Washington Monument in bright fall sunshine to listen to a series of speakers before marching on a route heavy with police that took them past the White House and the Justice Department.
The rally drew people from across the country and from all walks of life.
The parents of U.S. soldiers in Iraq marched with union members as Muslim Americans carried signs condemning the Bush administration's support for Israel's right-wing government. Dread lock-wearing college students beat drums and sounded bells and chanted ant-war slogans.
"I just felt hopeless at home," said Heather Smith, who made the six-hour trip from Willoughby, Ohio, with her husband and their dog Pugsley, who was clad in a red, white and blue t-shirt that read: "Pugs for Peace."
"At least here, I'm doing something. It gives me an outlet to express my feelings," Smith said.
The rally was organized by Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, and United for Peace and Justice. It was scheduled to coincide with the second anniversary of the Patriot Act.
Passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the act was intended to help the government track down and prosecute terrorists. But it has been heavily criticized as an assault on the right to privacy and civil liberties.
Protesters carried signs reading "Liberation, Not Occupation," "Bring Our Boys Home," and "Bush lies, they die."
The latter referred to allegations that Bush and his top aides exaggerated and misinterpreted intelligence to justify their claims that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had to be ousted because he was concealing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and cooperating with the al-Qaida terrorist network.
"You need to stop lying and start protecting our troops," the Rev. Al Sharpton, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, told the crowd. "We want to stop the misuse of American lives in Iraq."
Former attorney general Ramsey Clark ignited chants of "impeach Bush" as he charged that Bush "is destroying our international status; he is destroying our Constitution, and he is shredding the Bill of Rights."
At least 108 U.S. soldiers have been killed in bombings and guerrilla-style attacks in Iraq since May 1.
The ongoing losses and Bush's request to Congress for $87 billion more for Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a serious slide in his popularity, prompting the administration to launch a public relations drive aimed at convincing Americans that the situation is Iraq is steadily improving.
Bush, resting at his Camp David retreat in the mountains of western Maryland after a seven-day trip to Asia, continued that effort Saturday by devoting his fourth weekly radio address in a row to Iraq.
He said that billions of dollars in grants and loans pledged at an international donors conference in Madrid last week would "allow us to build on the success of the broad military coalition already in place today in Iraq."
Bush noted that schools, power plants and clinics are being rebuilt, progress is being made toward restoring Iraqi sovereignty and a new Iraqi currency is circulating.
But, he also conceded that, "There is still difficult work ahead because freedom has enemies in Iraq."
(Knight Ridder correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PROTEST