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Ferrying three black stretchers holding shrouded figures meant to symbolize dead Iraqi civilians, the protesters locked arms across Broadway as police rushed in to prevent them from reaching the traffic island thats home to the Armed Forces Recruiting Station.
Stop the war! they chanted as police began peeling them away. One woman knelt before the mock stretchers in prayer.
Their chants were echoed by about 250 demonstrators, many of them waving pictures of dead and mutilated Iraqis, who were corralled into a protest pen across the street.
Organizers with the War Resisters League said they had not intended to block traffic and were instead aiming to deliver the shrouded bodies to the entrance of the recruiting center, where they planned to take turns reading out the names, ages, and occupations of Iraqis killed during the war and occupation.
But police cordoned off the traffic island and insisted it was off limits, even though it has been a traditional locus for protests in New York for decades.
Last year, protesters staged a die in there, bearing cardboard coffins to symbolize dead American soldiers. But with Iraq on the brink of a civil war, organizers sought this time to highlight the civilian death toll. We really wanted to focus on the deaths of Iraqi men, women and children, to remind New Yorkers and all Americans that this is happening in their name, said Frida Berrigan, daughter of famed anti-war campaigner Philip Berrigan. She was among those charged with disorderly conduct for standing in the street.
Protesters set off from the fountain at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue in silence, but for the dirge created by two men rhythmically striking a pair of Tibetan gongs. Some marchers wore black. Others solemnly banged drums.
Escorted by a heavy detail of police on foot and scooters, they marched in pairs on the sidewalk through throngs of Sunday shoppers and puzzled tourists, wending their way past Rockefeller Plaza and through the theater district.
Many people stopped to stare at the enlarged photographs of weeping Iraqi women or snicker at the mime duo dressed up as Lying King George and puppet master Dick Cheney pulling the strings. But a few crumpled up the flyers that told of Iraqi families shattered by American bombs, or shook their heads in disgust.
Susan Friedman, a marketing director from Eastchester, New York, marched with a particularly gruesome full-color shot of a young Iraqi girl with both arms amputated and her cratered chest swathed in burn ointment. Just multiply this thousands of times and this is what were doing. Its unconscionable, Friedman said of the violence, which intensified this week with the launch of Operation Swarmer, billed as the largest airborne assault in Iraq since the American-led invasion in 2003.
Though moving, this anniversary protest felt more like a ritual of resistance rather than anything really aimed at altering the status quo.
So did Saturdays rally in Times Square organized by the avowedly leftist Troops Out Now Coalition, which drew about 1,000 protesters railing about everything from the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina to U.S. bases in South Korea.
The turnout was far below the 5,000 or so who marched from Harlem last March, let alone the 100,000 who hit the streets on the war's first anniversary in March 2004.
Protests in other U.S. cities were smaller this year as well.
That could be because organizers in the anti-war movement decided to spread their energy in decentralized, community-based actions, rather than mobilize big events.
United for Peace and Justice has announced plans for a national demo in New York on April 29, headlined by Reverend Jesse Jackson, and that may have sucked some steam out of the protests marking the U.S. invasion.
The smaller crowds also reflected the confused state of affairs in Iraq, and perhaps a growing sense of despair.
Polls show there are more people opposed to the U.S. role in Iraq than ever. According to a Newsweek poll released Saturday, 65 percent of the American public disapprove of Bush's handling of the war and only 29 percent approve, his lowest score yet.
A recent Zogby poll found 72 percent of the U.S. troops in Iraq believe all U.S. forces should be withdrawn within 12 months, and 29 percent want an immediate withdrawal.
Yet even as opposition to the U.S. occupation goes mainstream, with hawkish Dems like John Murtha attacking Bush's strategy and House Republicans fuming about the financial costs, the peace movement seems to be scrambling for traction.
Most people I meet are against the war and think this administration is ridiculous and scary, but when I ask them to sign a petition, they say, what good is it going to do? said Leah Weich, a guidance counselor from Brooklyn.
Others blamed fear. I think the fear factor is keeping people paralyzed, said Linda Solomon of New Rochelle. With all this wire-tapping, people are afraid theyre going to be monitored. And weve seen how police treat demonstrators, she added, citing a report in Fridays New York Times that revealed top NYPD commanders had advocated the use of proactive arrests to quell demonstrations.