The Counter-Demonstration

A couple of blocks east of the Constitutional Gardens, about 100 counter-demonstrators sponsored by the Patriots Rally for America, gathered to support the administration's stance on Iraq. Some of their placards read, "There are no Hanging Chads in Iraq, Just Bodies," and "Sadaam is a War Criminal." Like the anti-war protesters, the counter-demonstrators had their fair share of slogans and placards that would offend the ambivalent majority of Americans. One protester held a sign that portrayed Osama bin Laden and the words "Stop Hillary before she pardons again." Another portrayed two black youth smiling in front of the burning Twin Towers with the words, "The Leftists Fantasy Came True."

Near the stage, where a host of speakers lamented the brutality of Sadaam Hussien's rule and the need to remove him from power, a group of Iraqi émigrés – most of whom had come to Washington from Dearborn, Michigan – chanted, "Death to Sadaam, He must go. He is murder, he must go." If anyone was going to make me sympathize with an invasion of Iraq, it was going to be the people who came from there, so I went to talk to the émigrés. Johnny Al-Awad, a 39-year-old taxi driver who came to the United States from Iraq in 1991 after surrendering to allied forces in the Gulf War, said he thought that the anti-war protesters didn't realize how bad things were in Iraq. "If I go back there, I will be killed," he said. He said his family was still in Iraq and that he hadn't seen them for 12 years. "We must take him out of power," he said.

I wanted to talk to the Iraqis more about a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, but as we spoke, a group of anti-war protesters descended on the rally and began pounding on drums and chanting their own slogans – "Drop Bush, not bombs," they said. The speakers on the stage became enraged and accused the anti-war protesters of trespassing. "Once again the left has shown its violent head. They are trespassing on permitted property trying to start violence," she said before leading a chant that went, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, fascist liberals have got to go."

One of the anti-war protesters, a 37-year-old professor of physics and computer science at the University of Cincinnati named Najib who came to the United States from Morocco, tried to talk to the Iraqis. Wearing a long beard and a green knit Islamic cap, he thought he might hold some credibility as a fellow Muslim. Najib's sign read, "Bush has got a strategery, It involves an attackery, On poor Iraqeri, Me thinks it's oilery." The sign didn't go down well with the Iraqis. They pushed Najib away and tore up his sign. "These guys, they think they are going to go back to Iraq and take power. I was trying to tell them that it's not going to happen – that Bush is only after the oil – but they didn't want to hear it," he said.

As a speaker accused "leftists" of wanting to keep violent dictators in power, a scuffle broke out next to the group's three portable toilets. Some anti-war demonstrators had wandered over to the demonstration and tried to use the toilets – but the counter- protesters guarding the toilets – several of whom were wearing "Sore-Loserman" T-shirts and waving American flags – pushed them away.

Back at the anti-war demonstration, tucked in a patch of grass among a grove of trees not far from the Vietnam Veterans war memorial, Washington DC's Al-Islam mosque had set up a designated prayer area for any Muslims who wanted to pray. A couple of hundred anti-war protestors, some of them Iraqi, kneeled on white tarps, chanting "Allah Akbar" as they bowed east towards Mecca. They came from as far away as North Carolina and Connecticut. "We just wanted to do our part to protest this war," said Tefayl, a representative of the mosque. When they finished their prayers, they joined the march on the White House, chanting "Power to the people," and "No blood for oil."