Thousands of union workers bearing American flags and homemade signs packed a rally at ground zero Thursday to show their support for U.S. military efforts in Iraq.

The rally stretched for several blocks north from the World Trade Center site. Carpenters, electricians and firefighters chanted "USA! USA!" as labor leaders and politicians addressed the crowd.

Many speakers and participants described the war as a natural outcome of the World Trade Center attack, drawing little distinction between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

"The war started right here on Sept. 11, 2001," Gov. George Pataki said.

"We were here!" shouted carpenter Jimmy Nolan, waving a pole bearing an American flag and a yellow flag with the image of a yellow ribbon.

Nolan said he spent 11 months excavating the site and repairing shattered windows in surrounding buildings after the terrorist attack on the twin towers.

Like many in the crowd, he said he saw the union-sponsored lunchtime rally as a counterpoint to anti-war demonstrations that have drawn hundreds of thousands to New York streets and parks.

"We got tired of those protesters always arguing against the war," he said.

A sea of hard hats and red-white-and-blue bandanas stretched along West Street from the trade center site, where workers building a temporary PATH train station at the site sat watching the rally from a fence overlooking the crowd.

"There's more people here than in my home state of Kansas," former Republican Sen. Bob Dole said.

Dozens of firefighters in bunker gear were scattered about the construction workers.

"This is where the war started," said fire Lt. Kenny O'Brien, whose Harlem firehouse lost two members in the terrorist attack. "This is the most appropriate spot in the world to make this statement.

Many in the crowd were veterans or relatives of service members on duty in Iraq. Some carried pictures of their family members in uniform. Others carried Marine Corps and other military banners.

"I was in Vietnam and we never had support like this," said sheetmetal worker Jim Pruitt.

The rally was sponsored by the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York.