Protesters rallied in Lafayette Square yesterday against the U.S. occupation of Iraq and demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces.
After two hours of emotional speeches, the rain-soaked throng of about 1,300 marched up 14th Street to express their views at the Kalorama home of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was in Asia.
Demonstrators said Iraqis should be placed in charge immediately, even if civil war is the result.
"Iraq is a 5,000-year-old civilization," said Caneisha Mills, a Howard University history major and one of the leaders of the protest. "The Iraqi people can determine their destiny for themselves."
The event was organized by the International ANSWER coalition, an antiwar collective that demands that the United States maintain a hands-off foreign policy worldwide and stop support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
A parade of speakers addressed the noon gathering, their voices echoing off the north side of the White House across the street. President Bush was also out of the country yesterday, in France commemorating the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe in World War II.
Speakers said the Bush administration had trampled civil liberties by its use of the Patriot Act, allocated money for an overseas military adventure despite a great need for human services at home and used false information to justify the war.
The crowd paid the most attention to Michael Berg, an ardent pacifist whose 26-year-old son, Nicholas, a contractor seeking work and adventure in Iraq, was decapitated last month by five masked Islamic militants. The crime was videotaped and widely seen on the Internet.
Berg, a teacher from West Chester, Pa., invoked the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. and urged people to take direct action. He blamed Bush for pursuing the war and causing casualties in Iraq, and he demanded that the men who killed his son be brought to justice.
"I do blame them," he said. "They should be arrested and subject to a trial in a court of law, and if found guilty, never again be allowed to practice the brutality that cost my son's life."
Berg said in an interview later that he holds the Bush administration responsible for failing to accept an offer by the killers to save Nicholas Berg's life in exchange for detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Vanessa Heim, 41, a Manassas social worker who assists the homeless and mentally ill, carried a large sign with an obscenity before Bush's name.
"I do not believe this war is right," she said. "There are too many people in our own country who don't have their basic needs met. Why are we spending billions and billions of dollars on this war? I want Bush out of there."
Sue Niederer, of Pennington, N.J., came to the rally with a large photo of her son, Army 1st Lt. Seth Dvorin, who died in Iraq in February while trying to disarm a roadside bomb 35 miles south of Baghdad. She said she wants U.S. forces to leave Iraq now, even if that would unleash hostilities among ethnic factions.
"The Iraqis will kill each other, and they'll find their own type of democracy," she said. "I don't think it's possible for us to force our type of democracy on another type of country that doesn't want what we want."
Protesters marched up 14th Street NW, then turned on U Street NW to reach Rumsfeld's home on Kalorama Road NW. There was a heavy police presence and a few dozen counter-protesters, but no incidents were reported.