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Mr. President, There's Someone Waiting, and Waiting, to See You

Sidney Morning Herald

Tuesday 09 August 2005

Texas ambush ... Cindy Sheehan on the road leading to Mr Bush's ranch. She has vowed to camp out until the President agrees to see her.

Crawford, Texas - The US President draws anti-war protesters just about wherever he goes, but few generate the kind of attention that Cindy Sheehan has since she drove down the winding road towards George Bush's ranch last weekend to try and tell him face to face to pull all US troops out of Iraq.

Mrs Sheehan's son, Casey, was killed last year in Iraq, after which she became an antiwar activist. She says she and her family met Mr Bush two months later in Washington state.

But when she was blocked by the police a few kilometres from Mr Bush's 650-hectare ranch on Saturday, Mrs Sheehan, 48, was transformed into a media phenomenon, the new face of opposition to the Iraq conflict at a moment when public opinion is in flux and the politics of war have grown more complicated for Mr Bush and the Republican Party.

Mrs Sheehan has vowed to camp out on the spot until Mr Bush agrees to see her, even if it means spending all August under a broiling sun beside a dusty road.

Reporters from across the country have been calling her on her mobile phone and she has already appeared on CNN and ABC television. "It's just snowballed," Mrs Sheehan said, standing beneath a group of trees beside her sleeping bag, some candles, a jar of nuts and a few other supplies.

Seeking to head off exactly the phenomenon that now seems to be unfolding, Mr Bush sent two senior officials out from the ranch on Saturday afternoon to meet her. But after talking to Stephen Hadley, the National Security Adviser, and Joe Hagin, a deputy White House chief of staff - Mrs Sheehan said she would not back down in her demand to see the President. .

Her success in drawing so much attention to her message - and leaving the White House in a face-off with an opponent who had to be treated gently even as she aggressively attacked Mr Bush and his policies - seemed to stem from the confluence of several forces.

The deaths last week of 20 marines from a single battalion focused public attention on the unremitting pace of casualties in Iraq, providing Mrs Sheehan an opening to deliver her message that no more lives should be lost. At the same time, polls showing falling approval for Mr Bush's handling of the war left him open to a challenge in a way he was not when the nation was more strongly behind him.

As the mother of a US Army specialist who was killed at the age of 24 in the Sadr City section of Baghdad in April 2004, Mrs Sheehan's story is certainly compelling. She is also articulate, aggressive in delivering her message and is armed with a story most White House reporters have not heard before: how Mr Bush handles himself when he meets behind closed doors with the families of soldiers killed in Iraq.

The White House has released few details of such sessions, which Mr Bush conducts regularly as he travels the country, but generally portrays them as emotional and an opportunity for the President to share the grief of families.

In Mrs Sheehan's telling, though, Mr Bush did not know her son's name when she and her family met him in June 2004. Mr Bush, she said, acted as if he were at a party and behaved disrespectfully towards her by referring to her as "Mom" throughout the meeting.

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