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Battle lines are drawn in Texas

San Diego Union Tribune
By Alex Roth

CRAWFORD, Texas – A few miles down the road from President Bush's vacation ranch, a small patch of countryside has come to symbolize the fault line that has emerged in this country over the wisdom of the war in Iraq.

Along a dusty road yesterday morning, under the shade of several large oak trees, dozens of posters declared "Wage Peace" and asked "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" A man with dyed-orange hair strummed an acoustic guitar from atop a 1983 Volvo station wagon, and an anti-war group handed out pink umbrellas decorated with peace signs so protesters could shield themselves from the blistering Texas sun.

The war's defenders began arriving in late afternoon.

Several dozen Bush supporters, bused in from Dallas by a conservative radio talk-show host, staged a counterprotest, waving signs saying, "George, We Support You," and singing, "God Bless America."

At the center of all this hullabaloo is a Northern California woman named Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq and who has vowed to camp on the outskirts of Bush's ranch until the president grants her an audience or until he finishes his five-week vacation, whichever comes first.

She started camping out a week ago. Before she knew it, people from all over the country were showing up to offer encouragement. A few decided to camp right next to her. By yesterday the crowd had swollen to about 200, and Sheehan couldn't walk 10 feet without being followed by a horde of media from around the world. Her cell phone, according to one of her supporters, is receiving an average of 1,000 messages a day.

To opponents of the war, Sheehan is a quiet hero willing to speak the truth to the world's most powerful man.

To the war's supporters, her behavior is self-indulgent and an insult to the men and women serving overseas. She has been pilloried on talk radio and savaged on the Internet. Conservative television personality Bill O'Reilly accused her of falling under the spell of "far-left ideologues." One Internet blogger said she "deserves a padded cell."

In Crawford, a counterprotester waved a sign saying "Your son is a hero, not a victim."

Sheehan seems somewhat dazed by all the attention. She is 48 years old and 6 feet tall, with graying red hair and a tattoo on her ankle honoring her 24-year-old son, Casey, an Army specialist who was killed in Iraq in 2004.

She has had one meeting with President Bush, at an Army base near Seattle last year with the families of a dozen other fallen soldiers. After the meeting she spoke politely about the president's visit. But as the months passed her frustration with the war grew. During her 10 minutes alone with Bush, she recalled, he referred to her son as "the loved one," a response that convinced her the president didn't know her boy's name.

So now here she is, sleeping under the Texas sky in a fire-ant-infested tent containing an air mattress, sleeping bag and several sandbags to keep out water during violent thunderstorms. The makeshift encampment sits at an intersection of two small roads in the middle of mile upon mile of windblown green farmland. Protesters have dubbed the spot Camp Casey in honor of her son.

Asked by a reporter yesterday whether she was surprised at all the attention she has been getting, Sheehan, who lives in Vacaville, responded, "I can't process it. I just cannot process it."

Someone asked her to estimate the odds that Bush would amble down to Camp Casey to meet with her.

"Probably from zero to zero-point-five percent," she said. "But there's always that little zero-point-five percent of hope."

The influx of anti-war demonstrators has annoyed some residents of Crawford, where a large photo of the president and his wife, Laura, greets visitors as they drive into town. At a gas station, there was talk yesterday of a petition drive to kick the protesters out.

But even some of Bush's staunchest supporters are unwilling to criticize the behavior of a woman who lost a son to combat.

"You can't say unless you've walked in her shoes," said Dorothy Spanos, the owner of a local diner named the Coffee Station and a big fan of Bush, whom she calls "a very compassionate person" and "a very gracious neighbor."

"Being a private person, I'm not sure I'd do it the same way," she said. "But who knows?"

Sheehan's supporters have come from as near as Austin and as far away as Washington state. Among them was an Alabama woman named Jean Prewitt, whose son Kelley, an Army private second class, was killed in Iraq in 2003. She came to Crawford, she said, to show solidarity with Sheehan.

Two women from San Diego County – Tiffany Strause, 29, of San Marcos, and Julie Decker, 40, of Carlsbad – have been here since Tuesday, having made spur-of-the-moment travel plans after reading about Sheehan in the newspaper. The crowd also had dozens of journalists, including reporters from several major networks, the United Methodist News Service, at least three California newspapers and a French magazine.

Yesterday morning, Sheehan and her supporters might have come as close to the president as they're going to get.

Shortly after 11 a.m., Bush's motorcade approached the encampment on its way to a GOP fundraiser.

A protester with a bullhorn warned the crowd in advance that running after the motorcade would be ill-advised.

"This would be a very bad idea," she told the crowd. "They have guns. They are the Secret Service. They are not playing."

Word filtered through the crowd that the car carrying Bush would be passing on the far left side of the road.

"We should be so lucky that he'd be on the left of anything," someone shouted.

Soon a helicopter circled overhead and the motorcade swept past as the protesters yelled out "Bring them home!" and "Meet with Cindy!"

The cars were gone in a flash, and the protesters re-grouped.

They held a prayer vigil. They conducted a moment of silence. Some knelt and wept by the roadside, where hundreds of white crosses have been placed in the ground, each representing an American soldier killed in the war.

At 1:30 p.m., the president's motorcade returned to his ranch, speeding by just as quickly the second time. There were cat calls from the crowd and clucking chicken noises. The man with the dyed-orange hair held up a sign saying, "Honk if your kids are in Iraq."

Sheehan walked back to her tent, followed by at least 10 photographers and several sound technicians holding boom microphones. She held a brief news conference, pronouncing it "appalling that he's on a five-week vacation when we have kids suffering in Iraq."

Someone asked whether she was disappointed that Bush didn't stop to say a few words to her. She said she wasn't really sure.

"What would he do?" she asked. "Just walk over and shake my hand and leave?"

The news conference finished, she settled into a yellow chair in front of her tent, looking in no particular hurry to go anywhere.

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