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Saturday, April 12

Anti-war movement faces test as war wanes

By Derrick DePledge and Mike Madden | GNS

WASHINGTON - The protest signs have changed, and on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon at Freedom Plaza, so had the mood of many anti-war protesters.

Instead of posters with the slogan "No Blood for Oil," a staple of demonstrations before the war with Iraq, organizers handed out placards that read, "Fight the New Colonialism" and "End the Occupation of Iraq," acknowledging that the peace movement must either evolve or fade away with the war it formed to stop.

Activists who have brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to confront President Bush's war plans are now presented with a crucial test. The movement can build on what momentum remains and channel it into other progressive causes, or it can splinter and revert into ideological and sectarian divides.

Opinion polls have shown that most Americans support President Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq, and that numerous anti-war protests over several months have failed to have much influence on public opinion or the administration's foreign policy.

But many activists feel they have made a difference, that their very presence on the streets and, for some, their willingness to commit civil disobedience, sent a powerful message of dissent.

"We try not to give up. This war is morally wrong, and that's what keeps me going," said Mary Jane McDonald, an office manager from Columbus, Ohio.

"If we keep doing it and keep doing it, people will get motivated eventually,'' said Elizabeth Merkel, an Ohio State University student. ``Maybe we can stop it in the future.''

Anti-war demonstrations may stir people to get involved in other causes. Several people at Saturday's protest, for example, talked about finding the right candidate - a Democrat, a Green or some other alternative - to challenge Bush in 2004.

"They will have gotten a taste for self-expression, and in a democratic country that doesn't go away so easily, so they'll look around and say, `OK, what's next?''' said Michael Nagler, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and founder of the school's Peace and Conflict Studies program.

For activists who have been working to counter what they see as U.S. aggression since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the relatively quick end to the war does not provide much comfort. Images of injured and dead Iraqi civilians and the looting and lawlessness in many Iraqi cities are reminders of the consequences of war.

"It's certainly fortunate that civilian casualties weren't as high as people had forecast," said Dustin Langley, a volunteer with International ANSWER, the coalition that coordinated Saturday's protest here. "I don't give the administration credit for that, because I think they would have done whatever it had taken to bring Iraq to its knees."

Many protesters, in fact, take credit for keeping civilian casualties fairly low, arguing that the worldwide outcry against the war pressured the Pentagon into a more surgical military operation.

"It wasn't a rampage; it was much more methodical,'' said Susan Shaer, executive director of Women's Action for New Directions and a national co-chairwoman of Win Without War, an anti-war group. "We think we delayed the onset of the war."

President Bush, though, has dismissed the anti-war demonstrations as no more important than a focus group, and the Pentagon has stated that better technology has improved its ability to limit collateral damage.

At a separate rally Saturday to back Bush and the troops in Iraq, several people criticized the anti-war movement as misguided and on the wrong side of history.

"We not only support our troops," said Fred Thompson, a former Republican senator from Tennessee. "We support what our troops are doing."

A swift U.S. victory and the fact that doomsday scenarios have so far failed to materialize may have cost the anti-war movement some traction. Activist claims of an unjust and illegal U.S. war of occupation are also difficult to square with images of joyous Iraqis celebrating the end of Saddam Hussein's rule.

Jake McFee, a delivery driver and a student at York College in York, Pa., said public anger over the Sept. 11 attacks may have discouraged some people who likely would have protested the war in a different political climate. Others may have decided, correctly, it turned out, that Bush had already made up his mind.

"It's a feeling of hopelessness," McFee said. "I think a lot of people felt there was nothing they could do."

Wendy Rector, an elementary school counselor in Oxford, Pa., said she could not in good conscience teach students about conflict resolution, and avoiding violence and then not protest a pre-emptive war.

"I had to take a stand," Rector said. "I'm just hoping it stops and makes people think."