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Sheehan and three other women from the protest group Code Pink were charged with criminal trespass and resisting arrest for refusing to leave the plaza of the private office building at 140 East 45th Street, where the U.S. Mission, and the offices of Ambassador John Bolton, are temporarily housed.
"It's private property," said one NYPD officer on the scene. "If security or the State Department officials don't want to let them inside, it's their call."
Activists with Code Pink, who said they had notified police of the demonstration, said they were shocked that they were not allowed to deliver the petition. "A detective called me before and I told him exactly what we were planning to do and that we'd be marching from the United Nations on the sidewalk, and he said it would be fine," said spokesperson Andrea Buffa.
Instead, when the march got within shouting distance of the U.S. Mission, cops tried to corral the crowd of about 50 demonstrators into a protest area across the street. Sheehan and the Iraqi women pressed forward, determined to deliver the petition to the offices of Ambassador Bolton. "We come in peace!" Sheehan shouted. "We're coming in peace with a peace plan."
Police then moved in and forced the jostling media camera crews and demonstrators away from the building and onto the sidewalk, about 50 feet from the entrance, as security guards locked the doors.
"Is this what you do here? Is this the kind of democracy you're bringing to Iraq?" demanded Sureya Sayadi, a Kurdish refugee currently residing in the U.S., who complained that she'd been shoved aside by a police officer.
While the rest of the protesters were being forced out of the plaza, Sheehan and three other Code Pinkers sat down in front of the office building's revolving doors and refused to budge. "This is our delegation [to the U.N.], and they have no right to keep us out of it," Sheehan proclaimed, her arms locked to those of the demonstrators on either side of her.
After about 15 minutes, Sheehan and Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin got up and approached the media. "All we want to do is deliver a piece of paper, and no one will come down," Benjamin shouted, waving a copy of the petition, which calls on the U.N. to send an international peacekeeping force to help restore order in Iraq, and also demands "the full representation of women in the peacemaking process." It has been signed by more than 72,000 people across the world.
"We have meetings in Washington with our Congresspeople tomorrow and we do not want to be arrested," said Benjamin, who is accompanying Sheehan and the delegation of Iraqi women on a month-long tour across the U.S. "It is absolutely absurd that they will not accept a piece of paper. We do not want to be arrested, but we are sick and tired of a government [that] will not listen to us."
As Sheehan began reading out the demands of the petition, printed on a large pink and white banner, three officers surrounded her and pulled the banner from her hand. She locked arms with Benjamin and appeared to go limp. At one point, Sheehan wound up on the ground with her shirt over her head and her stomach exposed as police strapped plastic cuffs around her wrists.
But the peace mom bore a smile as she was led into the arrest van with the three other Code Pinkers. "My son was killed in Iraq!" she shouted before the doors slammed shut in front of her face.
"Shame!" the demonstrators chimed in.
A State Deparment official dismissed the arrests as a media stunt.
"We were absolutely willing to meet with them," said Richard Grenell, a spokesperson for the U.S. Mission. "When the group showed up, we told them that an individual or small group of individuals could come up. . . . I came down and invited them in. But they weren't interested in coming in and having a rational discussion. They wanted a media event downstairs for the cameras."
Sheehan and her fellow arrestees were not available for comment because they were still in jail.
Ann Wright, a former U.S. diplomat who resigned in protest of the American-led invasion of Iraq, said she was "horrified that the US mission had closed its doors" and was unaware of any offers made at the scene to meet with the delegation. "This was not a publicity stunt," insisted Wright, who was a senior envoy in the U.S. embassies in Afghanistan and Mongolia. "I was a diplomat for 16 years, and I received petitions from all over the world. Nobody was planning an getting arrested or anything like that. The whole point was to get the message to the U.S. Mission, that women in Iraq and around the world want peace."
And in fact, the arrests drowned out the voices of the Iraqi women the protest was intended to highlight. Before marching to the U.S. Mission, Sheehan and five Iraqi women held a news conference outside U.N. headquarters, when they blamed the presence of U.S. troops for fostering unrest in their country, and asked the U.N. to intervene to prevent a civil war from breaking out.
The Iraqi women denied that a civil war was already under way but said things could devolve quickly if terrorists and Islamic extremists continue to use the presence of U.S. troops to justify bombings of civilians and other targets.
"The resistance forces are using the occupation to provoke differences," said Nadje Al-Ali, a writer and founding member of Act Together: Women's Action on Iraq, which was formed in the late '90s to oppose U.S. sanctions on Iraq. "The longer the occupation continues, the greater the danger of a civil war happening."
Faiza Al-Araji, a civil engineer and mother of three, went further. "They are pushing the people to be in a civil war to justify their existence there," she said of the U.S., voicing a theory now common among Iraqis. "It is so they can build their bases and continue with their efforts to dominate the region. Who cares about the Iraqis?"
Dr. Entisar Mohammad Ariabi, a pharmacist at one of Baghdad's largest hospitals, broke into tears as she told reporters of the deaths and hardships she witnessed daily.
"U.S. occupation has destroyed our country, made it into a prison," said Ariabi. "Schools are bombed, hospitals are bombed."
She cited a report by the chief coroner in Baghdad who estimates they receive 1,600 dead bodies a month in the city, with perhaps 10 times as many injured. "Many of the injured don't survive because of the shortage of medical supplies," she said.
"Bush said he liberated Iraq. Well, thank you for liberating our country from Saddam. But now, go out! Please go out!" she pleaded.
With Sheehan and other activists still in jail, the Iraqi women and Code Pink organizers proceeded to Washington, D.C., where they will spend Tuesday lobbying Congress members against the occupation. On Wednesday, which is International Women's Day, they plan to deliver their petition to the Iraqi Embassy and then march to the White House.
The Iraqi delegation was sponsored by Code Pink and Global Exchange. It includes Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish womensome secular, some not. Two Iraqi women whose families were killed by U.S. forces were denied entry by the U.S. consulate, which claimed they had "insufficient family ties" in Iraq to guarantee that they would return home if they were let into the U.S. Two others are still waiting in Amman, Jordan, to see if their visas will come through. The women plan a 60-city tour to speak out about what's happening in their country.
"It's going to be the women who are going to lead us out of the violence and toward peace," declared Sheehan, speaking prior to her arrest. "We have the mother in us. And I'm calling on everyone, whether they're mothers or women or not to follow us."