President Bush, confronted by antiwar protesters on his travels, Tuesday renewed his refusal to meet with high-profile activist Cindy Sheehan, asserting that she does not speak for the majority of families who have lost relatives in combat.
Bush dismissed demands from Sheehan and others to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. "I think immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be a mistake," he said. "I think those who advocate immediate withdrawal from not only Iraq but the Middle East are advocating a policy that would weaken the United States."
The vacationing president called reporters to a mountain resort 100 miles north of here to address efforts in Iraq to reach agreement on a constitution. He issued a blunt warning to the Sunni minority, which has yet to agree to a draft of the constitution. "The Sunnis have got to make a choice," Bush said. "Do they want to live in a society that's free, or do they want to live in violence?"
He praised the "tough decision" by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for pushing through the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza and repeated his wish for two democratic states to coexist. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "has made a commitment to fight off the violence because he understands a democracy can't exist with terrorist groups trying to take the law into their own hands," he said.
Bush's quickly scheduled appearance came against a backdrop of antiwar protests that have sprung up during his three-day visit to Utah and Idaho, two politically Republican states. The president's sojourn from Texas suggested the protests threaten to bracket his appearances in ways that could complicate the White House's ability to argue for the Iraq policy and maintain support for it.
While the original demonstration continues outside Bush's ranch near Crawford, Tex., without Sheehan -- who returned to California to look after her mother -- figures from the Crawford protest traveled to Salt Lake City on Monday to speak to 2,000 antiwar protesters who had gathered near the convention center where the president was addressing military veterans. Among the demonstrators was Celeste Zappala, whose son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was killed last year.
Later Monday, 200 people turned up for a protest in Donnelly, a town of 130 inhabitants a few miles from the Tamarack Resort, where Bush is spending two nights on vacation. Another protest took place here Tuesday. It was organized by the Idaho Peace Coalition and featured a speech by Melanie House, who lost her husband, John D. House, in January.
"President Bush probably breathed a sigh of relief when he landed in Idaho last night," said Laura McCarthy, whose son is in Iraq, as she addressed 100 people at the Boise protest. "But no matter where he goes, he's going to find a Cindy Sheehan in every community across the United States. The name is going to be different, but the message is going to be the same."
To reinforce their message, protesters recorded a television commercial in which Sheehan accuses the president of lying. It is to air in the regions Bush is visiting. The ABC affiliate in Salt Lake City and the CBS affiliate here refused to broadcast the spot. It has aired in Waco, Tex.
Bush, in his session with reporters, pointed out that he had met with Sheehan and that she had a recent discussion with Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph Hagin and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley at the Texas ranch. He added that he "strongly supported" the right of Sheehan and others to demonstrate, and said he understood the anguish she has experienced.
Sheehan arrived in Crawford on Aug. 6, four days after the president began a working vacation at his ranch, aboard a bus painted red, white and blue and emblazoned with the words "Impeachment Tour." She vowed she would camp out until Bush talked to her, but she left last Thursday for California after her mother suffered a stroke.
Antiwar activists said that Sheehan's campaign had galvanized interest in their work. "People are coming out of the woodwork to express their opposition to this war and support Cindy Sheehan," said Liz Paul, a coordinator for the Idaho Peace Coalition that organized the demonstration in Boise. She said the group, set up after Sept. 11, 2001, had seen an upsurge in interest since Sheehan's outpost, Camp Casey, had been formed near the president's ranch. Paul said 40 unpaid volunteers were helping with the protest.
Although Bush has mostly avoided direct contact with protesters, about 200 people lined the streets of Salt Lake City as his motorcade drove to the airport Monday. Dozens were holding placards, with messages including "Impeach Bush" and "No War in My Name."
Meanwhile, conservative activists have launched their own drive to boost support for the president. They have chartered a caravan displaying messages of support for U.S. troops and are driving it through California.