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Protest by a grieving mother gains momentum
Vigil near Bush's ranch has drawn far more publicity than usual — and her share of critics
By BENNETT ROTH
CRAWFORD - Cindy Sheehan has developed laryngitis from giving so many news media interviews. She has been forced to flee lightning, rainstorms and waterlogged ditches.
Nevertheless, the California woman whose son was killed in Iraq, and who is camping out near President Bush's ranch to protest the president's Iraq policy, is not complaining.
"This is beyond anybody's imagination," Sheehan said Wednesday of her sudden fame.
Sheehan has attracted national and international publicity — she also has developed a share of prominent critics — since arriving here Saturday and demanding to meet with the president to discuss the war that she believes is unjustified.
Protests near Bush's ranch are common. But Sheehan, with her questioning of whether her son died for the "noble cause" that Bush called the Iraq war a few days ago, has drawn far more attention than the usual protester.
Political analysts said Sheehan, 48, presents a sympathetic face during a war that polls show has become increasingly unpopular among Americans. Also, with Congress in recess, the Washington press corps is focused on events in Crawford during Bush's five-week stay.
Bush, who once met Sheehan at a reception with survivors of U.S. solders killed in Iraq, has not publicly acknowledged her presence near his Prairie Chapel Ranch.
Two of his policy aides met briefly with her after she led a protest rally Saturday, and now she is a magnet for an increasing number of visitors and expressions of support.
A caravan of people left from Houston Wednesday to join her roadside encampment near Waco.
Offers to provide her food and drink have poured in to help Sheehan maintain a vigil, which she vowed will last until the president agrees to see her or until his August stay here ends.
Some Swedes even donated portable toilets that were set up outside the Peace House here, which is run by liberal activists.
The protest is expected to grow today as Bush meets at his ranch with his top foreign policy advisers, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to discuss Iraq and other issues.
Sheehan has been criticized by conservatives such as Fox television talk show host Bill O'Reilly, who accused her of changing her statements about Bush since last year and being manipulated by liberal activists.
Others such as Kathy Brooks, a counselor who ate at the Crawford Coffee Station on Wednesday, said that she understood Sheehan's grief but that the president is not to blame.
"The president did not make her son go," Brooks said. "He did have a choice."
Sheehan's oldest of four children, 24-year-old soldier Casey, was killed in Sadr City, Iraq, in April 2004, five days after he arrived.
Carroll Dougherty, a pollster for the Pew Research Center, said that a combination of factors, including the deadly attacks in Iraq on Marines from Ohio, has given Sheehan's protest prominence.
"The public is really, really anxious about Iraq right now," he said.
Sheehan said she is helping to underscore the human sacrifices for a war that she contends the White House has tried to sanitize with practices such as, until recently, banning the release of photographs of flag-draped coffins of dead soldiers.
Sheehan accused the president Wednesday of "sending our children to die in a war that is illegal and immoral."
Less critical of president
In June 2004 however, after she and others who lost family members in Iraq met with Bush in Washington state, she was less critical of the president in an interview with her local newspaper, The Reporter, of Vacaville, Calif.
Bush is "sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis," she told the newspaper. "I know he's sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he's a man of faith."
Sheehan also said then that she had qualms about the war but decided not to raise them with the president out of respect for her son's death.
Sheehan explained Wednesday that she made the statements "in a deep state of shock and a deep state of grief," and has since learned more about the U.S. mission in Iraq.
She expressed exasperation that critics have pounced on the change in her statements about Iraq at a time when the president's initial rationale for the war, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, has proven untrue and that the president cites different reasons for the military remaining in that country.
Sheehan said she will allow herself to be arrested if authorities try to remove her her from her site about five miles from the presidential ranch.
However, an officer with the McLennan County Sheriff's Department said there are no plans to remove her and her supporters.
Although surprised at the attention she has garnered, Sheehan has developed media savvy with assistance from the national public relations firm Fenton Communications, which has also worked with MoveOn.org, the liberal group that campaigned against Bush last year.
And after saying she would camp out every night in her tent, Sheehan made an exception Monday when she stayed in a bed-and-breakfast to prepare for an interview the next morning with ABC News.
Some who have joined Sheehan say they made impulsive decisions to come here after learning about her protest on Web sites and other media.
Matt Rosine, 29, a minister at the First Colony Christian Church in Sugar Land, said since he had the day off Wednesday he decided to jump in his car and drive to Crawford.
"I wanted to meet her (Sheehan) and say 'way to go,' " he said.
But Larry Mattlage, who owns the farm across the road from where Sheehan and her supporters are encamped, was not pleased by the new visitors, who hung protest signs in the trees. Sitting on his parked tractor across the road, Mattlage said he supported the right to protest but that the demonstrators should not be allowed to stay for prolonged periods.
"In the morning I usually wake up and see the morning sun," he said. "Now I wake up to stuff hanging in trees."