European Tour

Madrid -- Cindy Sheehan blazed through Madrid this week like a rock star or a political candidate, shuttling from peace rally to a day-long press event to a private dinner with her supporters. Watchful handlers hurried her from venue to venue, drawing her away from autograph seekers, though she seemed always to have time to give her supporters a hug.

It was a mission to rally the faithful, amidst signs that Europe has backed off from confronting America over foreign policy and is turning inward to deal with domestic problems.

The Madrid stop was the third and final leg of Sheehan's European tour, which had taken her through England and then Ireland, where she met the foreign minister, before arriving in Spain. The whirlwind tour had clearly left her exhausted, but like a veteran candidate, America's most famous anti-war protester always kept up a smile. “I always wanted to come to Europe," Sheehan told The American Prospect. “So I finally came but I didn't get to see anything.”

The mother from California gained international fame for keeping up a vigil in front of President George W. Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch after the death of her soldier son in Iraq. For many Americans, it drove home the horrible pain of war. It was something that until then many had seemed oblivious to, unlike the millions of Europeans who protested in cities across the continent in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion.

Sheehan said she was surprised to find herself a cultural ambassador, asked repeatedly by Europeans reporters to explain why Americans were not more outraged about the war. “In almost every interview, people asked why George Bush was reelected,” she said.

Her last rally in Spain, a protest in front of the heavily guarded American embassy in Madrid, was particularly poignant because it was in honor of José Couso, a Spanish television cameraman who was killed by an American tank while filming the invasion from a hotel in Baghdad. At the rally on December 20, she met with Couso's mother, Maribel Permuy.

Sheehan does not speak Spanish, but she said it did not matter. “We don't need to speak the same language, we have the same pain,” she said.

Permuy said that she had attempted to find answers from the U.S. government for the death of her son, but had received nothing other than an unsigned form letter from the Pentagon.

A spokesperson from the U.S. embassy declined comment on both the Couso death and the Sheehan rally.

Couso has become a cause celebre in Spain, where placards bearing an image of his face under the word “murdered” can be found hanging in cafes and pasted onto students' notebooks.

Still, yesterday's protest was sparsely attended. The 50-person crowd was nearly matched in number by the security guards and police in front of the embassy. The protesters were mostly Spanish but included a sprinkling of Americans, who joined in the chants of “We want peace now” and “Bush is a terrorist.” The streams of passing cars and crowds didn't pay them much attention, more concerned with the coming holidays and the shopping that needed to get done.

For the Spanish, as for many Americans, the war is something that has grown increasingly distant. It's quite a change from the fierce anti-war sentiment that drew millions here to street protests early last year. In the wake of the March 11, 2004, terrorist bombings in Madrid, which were widely interpreted as retaliation for Spain's participation in the war, the conservative government that had been an ally of the Bush administration was toppled from power. One of the new Socialist government's first acts was to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.

The war in Iraq has ceased to be a Spanish problem,” said Fernando Vallespin, who heads the Center for Sociological Investigation, a publicly funded polling organization in Madrid.

At the time, the Socialists' abrupt troop withdrawal caused a serious breach with the Bush administration; now, it seems, the Socialists are trying to put aside their old disputes and repair their relationship with the world's only superpower. A sign of this was during the recent hullabaloo over the alleged CIA flights of suspected terrorists through Europe, many of which stopped in Spain. Despite an uproar in the Spanish press, the Socialist-led government kept a low profile and refrained from picking a fight with the Americans.

For the two mothers, though, the war in Iraq goes far deeper than politics, and it is not something they are willing to set aside.

We came together to fight for peace and for justice,R21; said Sheehan.

We are mothers who have lost children because of the lies of politicians,” said Permuy. “We have to fight together to tear down their impunity.”

Samuel Loewenberg is a reporter based in Madrid, Spain. He has written for The New York Times and The Economist, among other publications.

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