U.S. protests shrink while antiwar sentiment grows

WASHINGTON, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Crowds at antiwar rallies in Washington have dwindled even as U.S. opinion has turned against the war in Iraq, as organizers feud and participants question the effectiveness of the street protests.

Rival antiwar groups, which in years past jointly sponsored massive rallies on the National Mall, have promoted separate protests recently or decided to steer clear of the capital altogether.

The thinning crowds stand in contrast to the antiwar protests of the Vietnam era, which grew as the war progressed.

Activists and experts say divisions among peace groups, along with other factors like the lack of a draft, fatigue about the war and the rise of the Internet, have all contributed to the declining turnout.

Sparse turnout -- fewer than 1,000 at a rally on Saturday, according to local media reports -- could undermine the goal of forcing an end to U.S. involvement in Iraq, participants say.

"When you have demonstrations in which the turnout is not terribly impressive, that gives politicians the sense that people may oppose the war but nobody's really going to pay a price," said Peter Kuznik, an American University history professor and antiwar protester.

Antiwar rallies drew hundreds of thousands of people at the war's start in 2003, although only 23 percent of Americans then said the invasion was a mistake, according to a USA Today/Gallup Poll. That figure is now 58 percent.

Frustration about the war has driven down President George W. Bush's approval ratings and helped Democrats win control of Congress last year. But since 2005, antiwar groups have opted to promote separate events rather than work together.

Saturday's protest, sponsored by the Troops Out Now Coalition, came two weeks after an antiwar event sponsored by the ANSWER Coalition, which drew roughly 10,000 people. ANSWER also sponsored a rally in March.

The groups' agendas are similar, opposing what they call "imperialist" U.S. policy not only in Iraq but toward countries like Cuba and Iran -- which has alienated some supporters.

"There's all of these peripheral issues that you're going to be associated with, whether you want to or not," said Hamilton College history professor Maurice Isserman.


Both groups' leaders were associated with the Workers World Party, which advocates a shift toward a Soviet-style planned economy. But a 2004 dispute prompted some members to form the splinter Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Members of the splinter group stayed active in the ANSWER Coalition, and the remaining members of the Workers World Party formed the Troops Out Now Coalition, Troops Out Now spokesman Dustin Langley said.

Another antiwar group, United for Peace and Justice, has refused to work with ANSWER since a joint rally in 2005. The event drew well over 100,000 people, media reports said, but the two groups clashed over speaking time and other issues.

United for Peace and Justice, which has tried to focus on ending the Iraq war, drew 100,000 people to a January protest. The group plans 11 regional demonstrations later this month, but none in Washington.

"The base that we work with was saying to us, 'We've been to Washington a lot in the last four years, we don't want to go to Washington again,'" national coordinator Leslie Kagan said.

ANSWER has called for antiwar groups to join forces for a large rally in the spring, but Kagan and Langley said their groups have not decided whether to participate.

Antiwar leaders say recent smaller protests reflect new tactics, not disorganization. Smaller activist groups like Code Pink have been a colorful, disruptive presence at congressional hearings and appearances by Bush administration officials.

"There's times when we've had half a million people out in the streets, and there's times when it's important just to be there," Langley said.

But others said it is less likely they'll head to Washington at all. "People are tired, they are frustrated because they didn't expect this to go on so long," said Laura Bonham, a spokeswoman for Progressive Democrats of America, which lobbies lawmakers to support a withdrawal. "It's like, well, we can stay home."

Largely absent from the actions are young people, who were the majority of Vietnam-era protesters -- perhaps because they do not risk being drafted into the military or from a sense that they can express their opposition to the war on the Internet, rather than on the streets, Isserman said.