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Mother's protest transforms quiet country road
BY G. ROBERT HILLMAN
The Dallas Morning News
CRAWFORD, Texas - (KRT) - No longer is it just a fork in the road, running through the cattle and goat pastures on the way to President Bush's ranch. Cindy Sheehan has changed that.
The California mother who lost her soldier son Casey in Iraq last year has camped there in a pop-up tent with a defiant anti-war message and a growing gaggle of supporters - and an adamant demand to confront the president personally on Iraq.
On Thursday, the two held back-to-back news conferences three miles apart in a summertime saga that has captured worldwide attention. And both stood their ground: Sheehan urged the president again to bring the troops home, and the president pledged again to stay the course.
"It's like the perfect storm," said Diane Wilson, a shrimper from Seadrift, Texas, who's helping organize support for Sheehan. "You got the front moving that way. You got the front moving this way ... all the right ingredients."
And they've all combined, she suggested, to put Sheehan in an unusually bright media spotlight.
"I've never seen anything like, never," Wilson said. "I've been to Washington, and they blockade you, and they make him so inaccessible ... Here, it's almost direct, in your face."
Sheehan's protest, too, has come as public support for the war in Iraq has waned at home and eroded the president's job approval ratings.
It's also August, vacation time. Congress is in recess. The president has moved out of Washington to his ranch for the month. And the White House press corps has followed him, settling in their temporary quarters down the road with sometimes little to do.
Enter Sheehan, with a strategy she said she hatched just a little over a week ago.
Crisscrossing the country for more than a year, she has demanded answers for what she views as an unjust war in Iraq. Then, on almost whim, she headed to the president's ranch over the weekend. And growing numbers of supporters have joined her, urged on by an Internet e-mail and blog campaign fueled largely by liberal interest groups.
"The election of Nov. 2 was not George Bush's accountability moment," Sheehan told reporters at her news conference at the fork in the road. "This is George Bush's accountability moment, and I'm not leaving Crawford until we hold him accountable."
Within an hour or so, the president, meeting at his ranch with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other national security advisers, addressed Sheehan directly.
"She has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has a right to her position," Bush said, adding he had "thought long and hard" about it.
"I've heard her position from others, which is get out of Iraq now," he went on, concluding bluntly: "It would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run, if we were to do so."
The U.S. mission in Iraq is to "fight the terrorists" and train the Iraqis to defend themselves, Bush said, and U.S. forces are not pulling out until the job is done.
"I know it's hard for some Americans to see that progress, but we are making progress," he said. "More and more Iraqi units are becoming more and more capable of fighting off the terrorists."
All of this cross-talk has put a strain on Prairie Chapel Road, that winding strip of hot asphalt from Crawford eight miles north to the president's ranch. Normally, it's a quiet, though sometimes busy, stretch. But Sheehan's stay at "Camp Casey" has drawn a crowd and stirred up the neighborhood.
So far, it's been a series of mostly polite, if often frustrating, exchanges among the protesters, the neighbors and the McLennan County sheriff's deputies, sworn to keep the peace.
Wednesday night, Jerrilyn Mattlage, who lives near the camp said she asked some of the protesters to move their cars parked in the ditch along her pasture. And they did.
"If they feel like doing what they want to do, that's fine," Mattlage said. "But I don't think this is the place to do it. This is our home out here."
Instead, she suggested the protesters rent space in Crawford, or somewhere else with toilets and other facilities for the gathering crowds.
She's sorry about Sheehan's loss, she said. But she added pointedly: "There's no draft. Nobody has to go to the Army, or the Navy or whatever."
And she said she knows her neighbors are just as annoyed as she is about all the congestion at the fork in the road because "they were all over here, very upset."
Since Sheehan arrived over the weekend, the sheriff's deputies have politely but firmly pushed the protesters off the median triangle of grass into the nearby ditches and sent their cars and trucks down a side road.
Meanwhile, protesters have begun planting small, white crosses in the ditch in honor of the military personnel killed in Iraq. And donations have begun flowing in, injecting new life to the Crawford Peace House, founded by Dallas-area activist John Wolf, and financing other costs.
Thursday morning, the deputies showed up at the camp with a pair of health inspectors, who poked around for a while, then left. The protesters have repeatedly warned of imminent arrests, but so far there have been none.
On Friday, Bush plans to attend a Republican fund-raising lunch at a neighbor's ranch, which could spark some angry salutes should he pass by the protesters. And there was no indication from the White House that he planned to change his schedule, or meet again with Sheehan.
Bush met with her and other family members last year at Fort Lewis, Wash., during one of his regular, private meetings with the families of the fallen. And Sheehan was quoted afterward in Vacaville's newspaper, The Reporter, that "we haven't been happy with the way the war has been handled." But she said her family had decided then not to confront the president out of respect.
In later appearances, and particularly lately in Crawford, she's been very strident in her demands to meet again with the president.
"Why did George Bush kill my son?" she asked Thursday. "What was the noble cause that my son died for?"