14 Aug 2005 20:27:00 GMT
By Tabassum Zakaria
CRAWFORD, Texas, Aug 14 (Reuters) - The mother of a dead American soldier who brought the anti-war movement into President George W. Bush's backyard has become a symbol for those who want U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq.
Cindy Sheehan, whose 24-year-old son Casey was killed in Iraq in April 2004, has pitched a tent on the side of a country road that leads to the president's ranch and refuses to go away until he speaks to her.
She has grabbed the national spotlight and developed an almost cult-like following, drawing supporters to this Texas town, which has a population of 705.
Cars line up near her campsite on a two-lane road that winds through farmland, from states like Kansas, Colorado and Florida, with messages such as "Crawford bound to support Cindy" scrawled on windows.
Bush, who met with Sheehan once shortly after her son's death, has said he grieves for every death but will not prematurely pull troops out of Iraq. Opinion polls show public approval dropping for the president's handling of the war, in which more than 1,800 American soldiers have died.
"I was just fed up. When the 14 Marines were killed, and when George Bush said again that they died for a noble cause, and he said we have to complete the mission by honoring the sacrifices of the fallen heroes, that was it, I just was so enraged," Sheehan said in an interview with Reuters.
"If it's such a noble cause, why aren't his daughters over there?"
She sits in a white plastic chair wearing a straw hat, a white shirt with a picture of her son, and a tattoo on her left ankle: "Casey '79-'04." Visitors pay homage, kneeling down, grabbing her hand or hugging her, saying they support her.
Those who have gathered include parents with children fighting in Iraq, parents whose children died in Iraq, former soldiers who fought in Iraq and clergy.
'WE WERE USED'
Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who addressed protesters from the bed of a red pickup truck, called Sheehan "our Rosa Parks," in a reference to the black woman who triggered civil rights protests after she was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger.
Sherry Bohlen of Scottsdale, Arizona, came to Crawford after seeing Sheehan on television. Bohlen tears up when she talks about her son, Thor Bohlen, 36, who has been in Iraq for a month. "My son joined the Army to serve his country, he didn't join to serve a lie," Bohlen said.
Hart Viges, 29, who joined the Army because of the Sept. 11 attacks said: "We were used. I believe the government betrayed the United States armed forces. They sent them out on a mission that was meant for something other than weapons of mass destruction." Viges, who returned from Iraq last year, has since left the military.
Sheehan said she has been overwhelmed by the response. "The movement was already in place, it just took somebody to be a catalyst to spark it off," she said.
Not everyone in Crawford is happy about the protesters. One resident made his opinion clear with a shotgun blast that rang out on his nearby ranch on Sunday.
Sheehan said in a statement that protesters had not infringed on the rancher's property. "As to the neighbor's suggestion that we go home, we suggest he talk to his permanent neighbor, President Bush. We are not leaving until President Bush meets with us and answers our questions about why our sons are dead."
Public relations firm Fenton Communications was hired to help organize media coverage for Sheehan and is being paid by TrueMajority, a nonprofit advocacy project founded by Ben Cohen, co-founder of the Ben and Jerry's ice cream company.
Sheehan, a Democrat, rejects any suggestion that her actions are politically motivated against a Republican president.
"I don't think this is being politically active," she said. "I see it as life and death, war and peace. It just so happens that the party who is the most war-like and that wants the war the most is the Republican Party."
But she also had plenty of criticism for Democrats.
"They vote for the funding, or they voted to give Bush the authority to go to war. They won't stand up and say well we voted to give you the authority, now we're going to take it away," she said. "A lot of Democrats are very wishy-washy."
Sheehan said she has been asked by several groups to consider running for Congress, but dismissed that, saying she is a one-issue activist -- bringing U.S. troops home.
She is already booked for the whole of September with speaking engagements and other activities in Italy, Colorado, Louisiana and Washington, D.C.
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