WASHINGTON – Shortly before the new symbol of the anti-war movement left Crawford, Texas, Thursday for a family emergency, Vice President Dick Cheney (search) suggested that the best way to honor fallen soldiers is not through protests and candlelight vigils but by supporting completion of the war in Iraq.
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"Every man and woman who fights and sacrifices in this war is serving a just and noble cause. This nation will always be grateful to them and we will honor their sacrifice by completing our mission," Cheney said during a speech in Springfield, Mo., to the 73rd national convention of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (search).
Administration officials have watched the last two weeks as the anti-war movement picked up steam after the mother of a soldier slain in Iraq last year began a sit-in outside President Bush's Crawford ranch. Cindy Sheehan said she was camping out outside the president's home because she wants a second meeting with Bush to tell him of her opposition to the war in Iraq.
Sheehan said she believes the war is immoral and wants U.S. troops withdrawn immediately. Cheney did not mention Sheehan specifically, broadening his condolences to all those who have lost loved ones to the War on Terror.
"In this difficult and necessary cause, we've lost some of our finest Americans. That loss is irreplaceable and no one can take away the sorrow that has come to families of the fallen," Cheney said.
Anti-war protest organizers say they held more than 1,500 candlelight vigils Wednesday night around the country in support of Sheehan's demonstration in Crawford. The liberal anti-war group Moveon.org coordinated locations, placards and the message.
But counter-protests also emerged in many of those locations, including in Sheehan's Vacaville, Calif., hometown, where demonstrators said they disagreed with Sheehan.
"It was time to say, 'No Cindy, you don't speak for me," one protester told a local news channel.
Late Thursday, Sheehan left "Camp Casey," the protest area in Crawford named after her dead son, after she learned that her 74-year-old mother had suffered a stroke.
"I'll be back as soon as possible if it's possible," Sheehan told supporters before getting in a van and departing. About 100 people at the camp made no indication they were going anywhere.
Recent national polls show a majority of Americans think the situation in Iraq is not going well for the United States.
In Washington, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps suggested that misgivings are on the rise because the news from Iraq is dominated by casualties, not the progress troops are making.
"I would argue that we are not doing a good enough job on getting that information out on what these young men and women are doing," said Gen. Michael W. Hagee.
On Thursday, three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin became the first senator to offer a withdrawal plan with specific timetables — all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of next year. Feingold is weighing a presidential run and his withdrawal plan could help court anti-war, anti-Bush liberals looking for a candidate in 2008.
Another senator eyeing the White House weighed in on the momentum generated by Sheehan and her supporters. Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia said Thursday that he wishes the president had met with Sheehan several weeks ago and that he personally would have talked to her. Allen is considered a strong conservative and loyal Bush ally.
Other Bush supporters have argued that meeting with Sheehan would create a precedent in which others could then demand meetings with the president whenever they want.