Protesters energized by fresh congressional skepticism about the Iraq war demanded a withdrawal of U.S. troops in a demonstration Saturday that drew tens of thousands and brought Jane Fonda back to the streets.
A sampling of celebrities, a half-dozen members of Congress and busloads of demonstrators from distant states joined in a spirited rally under a sunny sky, seeing opportunity to press their cause in a country that has turned against the war.
The House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. John Conyers, threatened to use congressional spending power to try to stop the war. “George Bush has a habit of firing military leaders who tell him the Iraq war is failing,” he said, looking out at the masses. “He can’t fire you.” Referring to Congress, the Michigan Democrat added: “He can’t fire us.
“The founders of our country gave our Congress the power of the purse because they envisioned a scenario exactly like we find ourselves in today. Now only is it in our power, it is our obligation to stop Bush.”
The protests came on a day when the U.S. military reported the deaths of seven more American soldiers, raising to at least 12 the number of service members killed in the past three days.
The most recent seven death reports were all the result of roadside bombs, two in Diyala province, two in Baghdad and three others at an unspecified location north of the capital.
Five of the soldiers were assigned to Multi-National Division-Baghdad, one was a member of Task Force Lightning who was assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, and one other was a Multi-National Corps-Iraq soldier attached to north division.
High U.S. death toll this month
According to an Associated Press count, at least 73 service members have been killed so far this month.
“Silence is no longer an option,” Fonda declared on Saturday to cheers, addressing not only the nation’s response to Iraq but her own absence from anti-war protests for 34 years.
The actress once derided as “Hanoi Jane” by conservatives for her stance on Vietnam said she had held back from activism so as not to be a distraction for the Iraq anti-war movement, but now needed to speak out.
“Thank you so much for the courage to stand up against this mean-spirited, vengeful administration,” she said.
Fonda drew parallels to the Vietnam War, citing “blindness to realities on the ground, hubris ... thoughtlessness in our approach to rebuilding a country we’ve destroyed.” But she noted that this time, veterans, soldiers and their families increasingly and vocally are against the Iraq war.
The rally on the National Mall unfolded peacefully, although about 300 protesters tried to rush the Capitol, running up the grassy lawn to the front of the building. Police on motorcycles tried to stop them, scuffling and wrestling with some and setting up barricades along the front steps.
Protesters chanted “Our Congress” as police faced off against them. Their ranks grew and several dozen shouting “We want a tour” broke away and tried to get into a side door.
At the rally, 12-year-old Moriah Arnold stood on her toes to reach the microphone and tell the crowd: “Now we know our leaders either lied to us or hid the truth. Because of our actions, the rest of the world sees us as a bully and a liar.”
The sixth-grader from Harvard, Mass., the youngest speaker on the stage, organized a petition drive at her school against the war that has killed more than 3,000 U.S. service-members.
Celebrities flock to demonstration
More Hollywood celebrities showed up at the demonstration than buttoned-down Washington typically sees in a month.
Actor Sean Penn said lawmakers will pay a price in the 2008 elections if they do not take firmer action than to pass a nonbinding resolution against the war, the course Congress is now taking.
“If they don’t stand up and make a resolution as binding as the death toll, we’re not going to be behind those politicians,” he said. Actors Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Danny Glover also spoke.
Fonda was a lightning rod in the Vietnam era for her outspoken opposition to that war and her advocacy from Hanoi at the height of that conflict. Sensitive to the old wounds, she made it a point Saturday to thank the active-duty service-members, veterans and Gold Star mothers who attended the rally.
On the stage rested a coffin covered with a U.S. flag and a pair of military boots, symbolizing American war dead. On the Mall stood a large bin filled with tags bearing the names of Iraqis who have died.
Some service members present
A small contingent of active-duty service members attended the rally, wearing civilian clothes because military rules forbid them from protesting in uniform.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Tassi McKee, 26, an intelligence specialist at Fort Meade, Md., said she joined the Air Force because of patriotism, travel and money for college. “After we went to Iraq, I began to see through the lies,” she said.
In the crowd, signs recalled the November elections that defeated the Republican congressional majority in part because of President Bush’s Iraq policy. “I voted for peace,” one said.
“We see many things that we feel helpless about,” said Barbara Struna, 59, who came from Brewster, Mass., to march. “But this is like a united force. This is something I can do.”
About 40 people staged a counter-protest, including military family members and Army Cpl. Joshua Sparling, 25, who lost his leg to a bomb in Iraq in November 2005.
He said the anti-war protesters, especially those who are veterans or who are on active duty, “need to remember the sacrifice we have made and what our fallen comrades would say if they are alive.”
As protesters streamed to the Mall, Bush reaffirmed his commitment to the troop increase in a phone conversation Saturday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a day when one or two rockets struck the heavily fortified Green Zone, home of the Iraqi government, thousands of Americans and the U.S. and British embassies.
Bush was in Washington for the weekend. He is often is out of town during big protest days.
United for Peace and Justice, a coalition group sponsoring the protest, said there has been intense interest in the rally since Bush announced he was sending 21,500 additional troops to supplement the 130,000 in Iraq.