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Rebuilding Iraq

As their numbers diminish, war protesters shift message

By John McElhenny, Globe Correspondent, 4/14/2003

    Rebuilding Iraq


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CAMBRIDGE -- Toby Sackton stood with his sign yesterday, challenging US policy in Iraq, as he's done every week for months. But unlike a month ago, when 300 other sign-toting, slogan-chanting protesters joined him on the Lexington Green, yesterday Sackton looked around and counted only a dozen others.

As the US military continues its rapid march toward victory over Iraq, war protesters who only weeks ago hoped to prevent an invasion are now scrambling to remain relevant, redefining their goals and struggling to hold on to new peace-movement recruits.

Two weeks after 25,000 antiwar demonstrators converged on Boston Common and marched through the city, yesterday's protest drew an estimated 300 demonstrators sparsely distributed from Dorchester to Lexington.

Jennifer Horan, spokeswoman for United for Justice with Peace, an organizer of the protest, said the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and the US-led military coalition's clear successes had sapped urgency from the local peace movement.

"Some people are dropping back into their personal and professional lives and stopping protesting. We're not robots," Horan said. "It's demoralizing, there's no question about that."

About 30 bicyclists from the group Bikes Not Bombs rode the 30-mile round trip between Dorchester and Lexington yesterday to protest the war, about one-third the number who made the trip a month ago.

Laurie Dougherty, 57, rode with a sign that said, "Bring the Troops Home Now." The numbers of antiwar protesters along the route were smaller this time around, she said, and the reception to her antiwar message slightly more hostile.

The speed of the US-led coalition's success in Iraq has posed a problem for antiwar demonstrators. On Saturday, three weeks after the United States invaded, the group announced yesterday's protest in a news release that said, "Stop the Invasion of Iraq!"

The demonstrators' attempts to keep pace with rapidly changing events in Iraq has been reflected in their changing protest signs. A month ago, many demanded tht negotiations be given more of a chance before force was used.

Yesterday, demonstrators held up photos of injured Iraqi children and messages warning of a possible expansion of the war into Syria or Iran.

Sackton, 56, a seafood company executive from Lexington, said the weekly demonstrations in his town had at least sparked debate and convinced many people that opposing the war was not unpatriotic. He said the movement's message has already shifted from opposing the war to favoring a strong United Nations involvement in rebuilding Iraq.

Before the invasion of Iraq, Sackton carried a sign that said, "Don't Attack Iraq." Yesterday, he held one that said, "US Out, UN In."

"The nature of the protests has changed dramatically," said Sackton. "The signs are different now."

Horan, who also helped organize protests against the first Persian Gulf War a decade ago, said many demonstrators were worried that the current administration's success in Iraq might embolden it to take military action in Syria or Iran.

That would inspire even more anti-American sentiment in the Arab world than has already been provoked by the Iraq invasion, she said.

Thea Paneth of Arlington had a more close-to-home concern: her kindergarten-bound daughter, and recently announced plans to close her local branch library.

A month ago, Paneth, 43, of Arlington, held a sign warning about the civilian deaths that would result from a "shock and awe" military campaign. Yesterday, she stood in Porter Square with a sign that said, "Money for education, not occupation."

Despite the declining numbers of protesters, Paneth said she wasn't worried.

"We've got enough material to keep going here," she said.

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