WASHINGTON—Iraq war veterans and families of soldiers who were killed in action gathered at the National Mall on Sunday in a small but boisterous display of support for American troops and the war, hoping to use their voices, if not their numbers, to counter a weekend of anti-war protests in the capital.
Grieving but proud parents and wives joined wounded veterans on a stage within blocks of the U.S. Capitol to applaud President Bush and the two-and-a-half-year-old military mission in Iraq. They portrayed the war as an extension of the fight against terrorism and accused war protesters of hurting the morale of American soldiers.
"Radicals can get out on the street and spout anything they want to," said Kevin Pannell, a 27-year-old Air National Guardsman who lost both legs in Baghdad. "I would challenge those people to go to Baghdad and do that."
The demonstration attracted about 400 supporters, a stark contrast to the tens of thousands of anti-war activists who assembled near the White House on Saturday. The lopsided weekend clash over the war came as the insurgency in Iraq continued to claim more lives and the federal government tried to cope with billions of dollars in spending on the war and on the hurricane devastation in the Gulf Coast.
Speaker after speaker Sunday called for the troops to remain in Iraq until democracy is established there and the insurgency is tamped down. The most poignant moments came as burgundy-clad members of Gold Star Families, those who've had family members die in military service, came to the stage to eulogize their loved ones. The crowd erupted in applause as Bush, aboard a Marine helicopter, flew overhead as he returned to the White House from two days on the Gulf Coast.
Diane Ibbotson of Albion, Ill., who lost her son in Iraq, broke into tears during an interview as she recalled the frequent visits from soldiers who've come home, permanently or on leave. She said they were a "band of brothers," "men I don't know," who feel the need to embrace her and share her loss.
"He died on a foreign field so I could have freedom and security in my hometown," she said.
Many in the crowd and onstage focused their anger on Cindy Sheehan, who became a leading anti-war activist after her son died in Iraq and who was a featured speaker at Saturday's rally. Many said the anti-war protest emboldened the enemy.
"If we don't stand behind our troops they will lose this, but we're not going to allow that to happen like they did in Vietnam," said Ann Faucheax of Annapolis, Md., whose son flies C-5 cargo planes in Iraq. "We're not going to back down this time, because we are the majority!"
Public opinion polls this month have reached different conclusions about American attitudes toward the war. A Pew Research Center poll earlier this month found that opinions had remained stable, with 49 percent saying military action was the right decision and 44 percent saying it was wrong.
But a Gallup Poll released Sept. 21 and a New York Times-CBS News poll published Sept. 17 found that a majority of Americans think the war was a mistake. In the Gallup Poll, conducted Sept. 16-18, 59 percent of respondents said the United States made a mistake sending troops to Iraq; 39 percent said it wasn't a mistake. The Times-CBS poll was closer, with 50 percent saying taking action against Iraq wasn't the right thing; 44 percent said the war was right.
Despite—or perhaps because of—that uncertainty over public opinion, politicians were scarce at either the anti-war rally Saturday or the counter-demonstration Sunday. Two members of the House of Representatives and one senator, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., were the only members of Congress to address the rally for the troops.
"The group who spoke here the other day did not represent the American ideals of freedom, liberty and spreading that around the world," Sessions said. "I frankly don't know what they represent, other than blame America first."
Some in the crowd voiced frustration at the absence of more politicians on the stage.
"There should have been a lot more because a lot of them voted to send the kids over there," said Vietnam vet William Baxendale of Pennsauken, N.J., whose son-in-law is serving in Iraq. "If you send them there, show up for the families who have lost one."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-RALLY