Leaders of the anti-Iraq war movement expect 100,000 demonstrators to descend on the nation’s capital this weekend. But as it prepares to encircle the White House, the antiwar coalition is quietly divided.
Some major groups, including protest organizers United for Peace and Justice, demand that the United States immediately withdraw from Iraq. Others, including Moveon.org, instead back resolutions calling for a pullout starting in late 2006.
At a moment when the groups say they are steadily gaining support, each faction asserts the other’s message is undermining their common cause.
In a public statement last month, the Green Party of the United States accused Moveon.org of having ”undermined such [antiwar] efforts by refusing to endorse an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq.”
Green Party spokesman Scott McLarty explained that his faction believes Moveon.org is giving cover to Democrats who have criticized the war but have not supported proposals to cut off funding.
”The more we prolong the occupation, the more dead American soldiers and the more dead Iraqi civilians there will be,” McLarty said. ”It’s going to be a disaster whether we stay there or whether we don’t stay there. And by staying there, we are aggravating the disaster.”
Tom Matzzie, Washington director for Moveon.org, agreed that the United States should leave Iraq as soon as possible, but argued that the quickest way to end the war is to build support in Congress for a specific date to remove the troops.
”As political organizers, we think the best way to bring our folks home from Iraq is to create a political dynamic where Republicans are defecting from their leadership and Democrats are making Iraq a political liability for the Republicans,” Matzzie said.
The internal discord poses a threat to the coalition just as its leaders believe it is on the cusp of becoming a force in mainstream politics.
Antiwar activists trace their emergence to a series of events over the summer. The sequence began in May when The Times of London published a leaked British intelligence document now known as the ”Downing Street Memo.”
The memo said that nine months before the Iraq invasion, ”the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy” of removing Saddam Hussein. Opponents saw the document as proof that the Bush administration had misled the nation about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Then, in June, two Republican representatives — Ron Paul of Texas and Walter B. Jones of North Carolina — joined Democrats in sponsoring the first bipartisan resolution calling on Bush to start bringing American troops home by October 2006. That same day, the ”Out of Iraq Caucus” was formed by a congressional panel.
The increased dissent on Capitol Hill set the stage for a wave of unusually intense public grief after one Ohio-based Marine battalion suffered several casualties in late July and early August.
Then, as August progressed, President Bush and Congress went on vacation. The news vacuum was filled by Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain Marine who started a vigil outside Bush’s Crawford ranch. The antiwar movement quickly latched onto Sheehan.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The continued cost of the military involvement in Iraq was thrown into relief both by the projected price of rebuilding at home and the slow response in rescuing residents, which some critics attributed to crucial National Guard equipment having been sent overseas.
According to a CNN/USA Today poll, over the summer a majority of Americans went from thinking the war was not a mistake to thinking that it was. In the most recent polling, from Sept. 16-18, a record 67 percent disapproved of Bush’s handling of Iraq, while 63 percent said some or all US troops should be withdrawn.
This weekend’s protests in Washington are expected to attract people from around the country. Among the Boston-area activists is Military Families Speak Out, based in Jamaica Plain. The group, which includes family members of troops in Iraq, plans to hold a candlelight vigil tonight near the Washington Monument.
The group is hosting more than 250 military families from across the country. A Cambridge-based group, United for Justice With Peace, is ferrying two busloads of protesters to Washington.
But even though anyone opposed to Bush’s Iraq policy is welcome to join the protests, the organizers say, their focus will be an immediate withdrawal.
”There is a loud cry, which is getting louder from the grass roots, to end this war and bring the troops home now,” said Bill Dobbs of United for Peace and Justice.”
Globe staff writer Bryan Bender contributed to this report.