WASHINGTON—Tens of thousands of anti-war activists rallied near the White House on Saturday, hoping that their voices would catalyze opposition in the rest of the country and force a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
"We are here ... to show our government, to show our media, to show America that we mean business, and we're not going home until every last one of our troops is home," anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan said to cheers.
"Not one more should die," she said with the White House at her back. Supporters chanted, "Not one more, not one more."
Much of the anger in the crowd seemed aimed at President Bush. "Bush Lied, Thousands Died," said one sign waved by a protester. "Making a killing," said another, which bore a picture of a smiling Bush. "Yo Bush boy, it's over," said another.
Bush wasn't in Washington. He was monitoring hurricane relief efforts at the military's U.S. Northern Command headquarters in Colorado and then in Texas.
Organizers of the rally, the third mass protest since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, hoped to stir more anti-war sentiment, win over Americans unsure about the war and increase pressure on Bush and Congress to bring U.S. troops home.
"We are at a tipping point whereby the anti-war sentiment has now become the majority sentiment," said Brian Becker, a coordinator for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, one of the groups that organized the rally.
Supporters of the Iraq war planned to push back with a rally on Sunday.
One organizer of the anti-war protest claimed that 250,000 attended the rally and marched around the White House. The area near the rally stage was often sparsely populated, but the streets around the Ellipse and White House were filled with thousands of people.
Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey said Saturday that the rally "probably" reached its goal of 100,000 protesters.
An anti-war march at last year's Republican National Convention in New York City drew between 250,000 and 400,000. Another anti-war march in Washington in 2003 drew 30,000 to 500,000. (U.S. Capitol Police said it was between 30,000 and 50,000. Organizers, who also planned Saturday's rally, said it was 500,000.)
Protesters, many of them mothers and grandmothers, came by bus, car, plane and train on an overcast day to participate in a three-day program that will include a prayer service Sunday and culminate in lobbying members of Congress on Monday.
"I am trying to end the war," said Judy Miller, 65, of St. Paul, Minn., who rode to Washington on buses with her daughter and about 150 people from her church. "I was here protesting before the war. It didn't do much good then—maybe it will do some good now."
Marge Gugerty of Aurora, Ill., a mother of two military sons, said she turned against the war because it wasn't part of the war on terrorism. "They both joined up after 9-11 in a long line of family military service, to preserve and protect," she said of her sons. "That's not what the war in Iraq is."
Margaret Lawrence, 73, came from San Diego with her husband, a Korean War veteran. "We love our kids more than Bush does and we want them home," she said.
There were young people as well.
"This war was started on lies," said Cristin Munro-Leighton, 26, a graduate student from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who blames Bush for the war. "There's been no accountability and he's committed impeachable crimes."
While those on the Ellipse near the White House were energized, their audience was the countless Americans across the country who might tune in on television or read about the protests. The event was planned before it was known that Hurricane Rita would hit the United States and dominate news coverage through the weekend.
The protest at times veered into other causes, such as ending U.S. involvement in the Middle East, keeping U.S. troops out of the Philippines and opposing Saudi persecution of gays.
One speaker, Curtis Muhammad, director of Community Labor Union of New Orleans, equated the war with the treatment of poor blacks in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit there. "If you're against the war, you must be against the war against blacks," he said.
The Iraq war protesters were aiming at a middle ground of American opinion, made up of people who supported the war at the outset but who now feel that the United States is stuck there with no way out.
"The public is exasperated over this war. They don't know what to do. They're frustrated. They don't like being there but don't see a way out," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University in California.
"There is no one march, no one protest, that either expresses or turns public opinion or opens the eyes of public officials. That occurs over a long period of time. If this happens once, that's about all it will be. But if you see more occurring on a regular basis with greater numbers, then you're seeing public expression taking a new shape."
Public opinion is divided over the war, as it has been for several months.
"Despite a long summer with continued casualties, and a widely covered anti-war protest outside the president's vacation ranch, public attitudes on the war in Iraq are remarkable for their overall stability," concluded Andy Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Research Center, after a recent poll.
That survey, done Sept. 8-11, found a steady 49 percent saying the war was the right decision and 44 percent saying it was a mistake. It also found that 51 percent of Americans support keeping troops in Iraq while 45 percent want to bring them home "as soon as possible."
Bush already has the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, thanks to division over the war, as well as anxiety about soaring gasoline prices and anger at the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
A group that supports Bush and the war planned a counterdemonstration on Sunday. It plans to highlight Gold Star Families, who have lost sons or daughters in war but continue to support the Iraq war.
"We are sick and tired of what Cindy Sheehan is doing," said Shirley Hemenway of Kansas City, Mo., whose son was killed in the Pentagon when it was struck by a terrorist-hijacked jetliner on Sept. 11. "She is being used, she has a history of this, and it concerns us."
For more on the protest, go to www.answercoalition.org
For more on the Sunday rally supporting the war, www.supportthetroopsweekend.org
(Banks Albach and Clark Hoyt of the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and Jim Puzzanghera of The San Jose Mercury News contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PROTESTS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050924 USIRAQ Bush