Saturday, November 26, 2005

Anti-war activists return to protest Bush

Anti-war activists return to protest Bush

By Patricia Wilson

CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - President George W. Bush's hopes for a brief reprieve from the bitter Iraq war debate were dashed on Friday when peace activist Cindy Sheehan rallied her troops in protest near his central Texas ranch.

Bush is spending a six-day Thanksgiving break at "Prairie Chapel," about 8 miles from the tiny town of Crawford where Sheehan dedicated a memorial garden to her son Casey, a soldier who died in Iraq last year.

"We're here to say that the killing has to stop and we're not going away," Sheehan told scores of supporters. "We want people to be held accountable and just because someone's president of the United States, it doesn't guarantee them immunity from accountability."

The California mother unveiled a stone carved with the words "Sheehan's Stand" set among cactus and yucca plants. The ceremony was punctuated by hecklers in passing pickup trucks, one of whom shouted, "Go home you freakin' losers!"

Sheehan, who plans to lead an anti-war rally on Saturday and participate in an interfaith service on Sunday, became an icon for the peace movement during a 26-day vigil outside Bush's ranch in the summer.

She took her protest to Washington in September where she was arrested for demonstrating without a permit outside the White House.

With Bush out of public sight working and biking on his 1,600-acre (648-hectare) ranch, Sheehan helped fill a news void for the White House press corps -- including five television networks -- that travels with the president.

Protesters say they will come to Crawford every time Bush visits his ranch. Supporters vowed to do the same.

Across the street from the Yellow Rose gift shop, Vietnam War veteran James Vergauwen stood with a sign reading: "The price of freedom is not free." He and others will stage a pro-Bush rally on Saturday.

"I didn't like the idea of her calling the president a liar and a killer," Vergauwen said.


Crawford -- population 700, one traffic signal -- prepared for the influx by erecting a large warning sign for motorists a mile or so outside town that flashed the words: "Expect heavy traffic Friday, Saturday and Sunday."

With the American death toll in Iraq at more than 2,000 and Democrats openly questioning the administration's case for war and its progress, public opinion has shifted and Bush's credibility has suffered. Polls show his job approval at the lowest of his presidency.

Amid political pressure for a course correction in Iraq, U.S. officials have tried to reassure Americans that sufficient progress is being made in training Iraqi forces to possibly permit some U.S. troops to leave.

"I suspect that American forces are not going to be needed in the numbers that they're there for all that much longer, because Iraqis are continuing to make progress in function, not just in numbers, but in their capabilities to do certain functions," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN earlier this week.

Rice's comments came after an acrimonious debate in Congress about Bush's Iraq policy including a demand by one of the most hawkish Democratic members, Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, that U.S. forces be withdrawn as quickly as possible.

The United States has 150,000 troops in Iraq, boosted from the usual 138,000 to tighten security for an October referendum and December elections.