WATERTOWN, Wis. -- In an exercise that one side calls democracy and the other describes as a disservice, voters in 30 Wisconsin towns will cast ballots next month on whether the Bush administration should withdraw US troops from Iraq.
From Baraboo and Monona to Madison and La Crosse, antiwar activists invoked a 1911 state law to schedule a bring-the-troops-home referendum designed to send a message to Congress and the White House that the war is costing too many lives and too much money.
Watertown, a conservative city of 23,000 on the Rock River, voted strongly for President Bush in the past two elections, yet war opponents had no trouble gathering nearly 1,000 signatures to put the referendum on the April 4 ballot.
The City Council objected, but the objection was overruled by a local court.
Letters from readers flew into the popular ''Voice of the People" section of the Watertown Daily Times. Posters began popping up.
Veterans groups, including the American Legion, have been discussing how to turn a referendum they oppose into a victory for US forces.
''We got accused of splitting the community," said Penny Eiler, 59, an organizer of the ballot question. ''We weren't the ones who split the community. It was split already. All we did was give the people who didn't have a voice a voice."
The father of a soldier who served recently in Iraq, Watertown resident Steve Gillis spent more than 20 years in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, and he does not like what the referendum is doing to his town or the troops. ''They say they're supporting the troops, but they're not," said Gillis, 53, a city worker who says that the troops and the mission are inseparable.
Nationally, three years after the US invasion, 76 cities have passed resolutions calling for troops to come home, most recently Corvallis, Ore., and Lansdowne, Pa. Among them are Chicago; Berkeley, Calif.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Gary, Ind., as well as dozens of towns in Vermont.
Gillis sees in the Wisconsin initiative an echo of the 1960s protests against the Vietnam War in nearby Madison that helped sour a nation on the war. He said: ''We gave up before our mission was accomplished, and we turned around and came home. I don't want to see that happen again."
The passion in some quarters in Watertown is as clear as the writing on the window of lawyer Ronald Ziwisky's downtown office and the words sent from Iraq by Army Captain Jim Leslie, who left his City Council post late last year to serve as a chaplain in the Fourth Infantry Division.
''Sent to their death by Osama: 2,189," Ziwisky's window read on a recent day, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. ''Sent to their death by George: 2,296," referring to the number of American casualties since the Iraq war began.