WASHINGTON -- In the first major anti-war demonstration in the nation's capital since January, several thousand protesters marched from the White House to the Capitol yesterday, carrying signs and chanting slogans demanding an end to the war and the impeachment of President Bush.
A smaller group who support the president and the war conducted a counter-demonstration, leading to some heated confrontations. But it was a mostly peaceful affair - until about 160 protesters were arrested on the steps of the Capitol when they jumped barriers around the base of the building.
The rally was organized by the ANSWER Coalition, which stands for Act Now to Stop War & End Racism, and was timed to follow last week's congressional testimony by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Bush's speech about Iraq on Thursday.
"We wanted to have as much impact on the congressional debate as possible," ANSWER Coalition volunteer Ann Wilson said .
The day's events began in front of the White House with a morning rally, which included a man dressed in a Santa Claus outfit holding a sign that read "Coal for Bush and Cheney," a fake coffin for a fallen Marine, and several speakers, including former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
A group called Iraqi Veterans Against the War organized a mass "die-in" in front of the Capitol to memorialize the Iraqis and American soldiers who have died since the invasion.
"The Iraqi people do not see us as peacemakers; they see us as occupiers and murderers," Veterans Against the War member Garett Reppenhagen said. The 32-year-old Coloradan, who said he served as a sniper in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, was among those arrested at the end of the march when he climbed over the barrier surrounding the Capitol.
About 5,000 people lay down for the die-in, said Ian Thompson of Los Angeles, one of the protest organizers, and none was arrested. But when the crowd started to get rowdier, officers pepper-sprayed many of the protesters and started making arrests, he said.
Many were arrested without a struggle after they jumped over the waist-high barrier. But some grew angry as police with shields and riot gear attempted to push them back. Protesters responded by throwing signs and chanting: "Shame on you."
Among them was Jessica Ramierez, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles who spent $500 on her trip to Washington because, she said, she wants to see more students mobilize against the war. "It's about doing something that you believe in," Ramierez, 22, said as she sat on a ledge near the Capitol, chanting anti-war slogans.
The number of arrests by Capitol Police yesterday was much higher than at previous anti-war rallies in Washington this year. Five people were arrested at a protest outside the Pentagon in March, and about 50 demonstrators blocked a street near the Capitol during a rally in January, but they were dispersed without arrests.
In the morning, about a mile away, more than 1,000 people stood on the National Mall to rally in support of the war. The counter-demonstration, organized by the Gathering of Eagles - a group of Vietnam veterans - and the Washington chapter of the conservative group Free Republic, lasted for more than three hours.
"Those who protest our troops, they no longer own the streets," said Col. Henry J. Cook III, retired U.S. Army Special Forces national commander.
Kristinn Taylor, spokesman for Gathering of Eagles, said he refuses to think of the consequences if the troops were to be taken out of Iraq. "Even though the parents have paid the price, they know the price of losing this war would be too much for any of us
Tina Marie Macias and Jordy Yager write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.