WASHINGTON — Thousands of protesters – many directing their anger squarely at President Barack Obama – marched through the nation's capital Saturday to urge immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
At least eight people, including activist Cindy Sheehan, were arrested by U.S. Park Police at the end of the march, after laying coffins at a fence outside the White House. Friday marked the seventh anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
"Arrest that war criminal!" Sheehan shouted outside the White House before her arrest, referring to Obama.
At a rally before the march, Sheehan asked whether "the honeymoon was over with that war criminal in the White House" – an apparent reference to Obama – prompting moderate applause.
The protesters defied orders to clear the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and park police say they face charges of failure to obey a lawful order.
Activist Ralph Nader told thousands who gathered in Lafayette Park across from the White House that Obama has essentially continued the policies of the Bush administration, and it was foolish to have thought otherwise.
"He's kept Guantanamo open, he's continued to use indefinite detention," Nader said. The only real difference, he said is that "Obama's speeches are better."
Others were more conciliatory toward Obama. Shirley Allan of Silver Spring, Md., carried a sign that read, "President Obama We love you but we need to tell you! Your hands are getting bloody!! Stop it now."
Allan thought it was going too far to call Obama a war criminal but said she is deeply disappointed that the conflicts are continuing.
"He has to know it's unacceptable," Allan said. "I am absolutely disappointed."
The protest drew a smaller crowd than the tens of thousands who marched in 2006 and 2007. Protests in cities around the country also had far fewer participants than in the past.
San Francisco's rally brought out Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers study of the Vietnam War and is the subject of the recent documentary film, "The Most Dangerous Man in America." He likened the protest and others like it around the country Saturday to a day of demonstrations organized against the conflict in Vietnam in 1969.
"They thought it had no effect," he told the crowd in San Francisco, referring to the 1969 protesters. "They were wrong."
Ellsberg said President Richard Nixon was planning to escalate the war around that time, but held off.
Protesters in Washington stopped at the offices of military contractor Halliburton – where they tore apart an effigy of former Vice President and Halliburton Chief Executive Dick Cheney – the Mortgage Bankers Association and The Washington Post offices.
Anna Berlinrut, of South Orange, N.J., was one of a number of protesters who have children who have served in Iraq, and said her son supports her protests.
"If there were a draft, we'd have a million people out here," Berlinrut said when asked about the turnout. The exact number of protesters was unclear, as D.C. authorities do not give out crowd estimates. Organizers estimated the march, which stretched for several blocks, at 10,000.
Despite the arrests, the protest was peaceful. At the outset, police closed a portion of the sidewalk in front of the White House fence after protesters tried to use mud and large stencils to spell out "Iraq veterans against the war."
Once the sidewalk was closed, the protesters stenciled the message on the street using mud they had carried in buckets to the rally.
Sheehan has been a vocal critic of the war since her 21-year-old son Casey was killed in Iraq in April 2004. She staged a prolonged demonstration in 2005 outside former President George W. Bush's ranch near Crawford, Texas.
Fellow anti-war activist and attorney Stephen Pearcy of Sacramento keeps in touch and supports Sheehan in her efforts. Sheehan lived with his family for a year while traveling to peace events.
Pearcy said in an e-mail that in the last decade, the U.S. government has a widespread pattern of violating the constitutional rights of peaceful anti-war protesters, arresting them, then not pressing charges.
"We've essentially become a country of restrictions rather than a country of freedoms," he said.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark also spoke at the D.C. rally, calling on the Justice Department to investigate the officials who launched the Iraq war.
In New York City, a few dozen enthusiastic protesters gathered near a military recruiting station in Times Square, though they were far outnumbered by disinterested tourists.
A group of older women calling themselves the Raging Grannies sang, "The country is broke, this war is a joke." Four demonstrators evoked images of the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by dressing in orange uniforms and wearing black hoods.
Liz Proefriedt, a retired Roman Catholic nun, held up a banner that read, "Bread not bombs."
"It's sad that a lot of people did not come out for this protest," said Kathy Hoang, of Manchester, Conn. "People are getting used to the war, and don't bother even to think about it anymore."
In Los Angeles, hundreds chanted anti-war slogans and carried mock tombstones, and several hundred gathered in San Francisco. The Los Angeles march, which was under a mile, was to culminate with a rally in front of the famed Grauman's Chinese Theater.
"We want to see the troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq," said Corazon Esguerra with Act Now to Stop War and Racism or ANSWER, which organized the protest. "We want all the troops wherever they are to come back."
Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik from New York, Noaki Schwartz from Los Angeles and Sudhin Thanawala of San Francisco contributed to this report.