As the country prepares for the third anniversary of the conflict in Iraq, scores of people poured into a town hall meeting in Charlottesville on Monday in protest of a war that polls show is losing the support of the American public.

“We must impeach [President] Bush, not because he is incompetent, but because he is a danger to the world,” said David Swanson, a Charlottesville resident who co-founded the After Downing Street anti-war coalition and serves on several anti-war committees.

Swanson was one of seven people who spoke to the packed audience at McLeod Auditorium in the University of Virginia School of Nursing as part of a panel sponsored by the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice.

Congressional candidate Al Weed, a veteran who staunchly opposes the war, was the first to address the crowd. “We have to understand that these soldiers are doing their job whether or not we approve of it,” Weed said. “It is we who failed in sending them there.”

Virtually all of the discussion by 9:15 p.m. had been harsh criticism of a war that panelists called illegal and unjust. Tia Steele, the stepmother of a soldier killed in Iraq, held up photos of her stepson, David M. Branning, as she pleaded with those in the audience to discuss the war with those who support it. “Talk with someone who is not in the same position,” she said. “Because we all share the same fears.”

The Maryland resident added, “Anything I do to prevent other families from going through what we went through would mean David’s death is not in vain.”

Iraqi journalist Eman Ahmad Khamas detailed the difficulty of life in Iraq, and said that a U.S. pullout would be an improvement. “Iraq is supposed to be liberated. … We’re supposed to be happier now,” she said. “This is not true. I was more free in the past.”

Retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern and Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, retired from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, both piercingly criticized the organizations they once worked for, with McGovern saying he was ashamed of the torture committed by U.S. troops and Kwiatkowski describing a culture of deception. “There was a great sense of helplessness,” she said. “People in the Pentagon very much understood that we were being lied to.”

Several of the panelists specifically urged those in attendance to ardently fight any more government spending on the war and to push for Bush’s impeachment. “Politicians don’t change policy,” said Gael Murphy of CODE PINK-Women for Peace. “We do.”

Bush has steadfastly defended the war, while acknowledging recently that a long road lies ahead. Speaking at George Washington University on Monday, Bush said that since the invasion, Iraqis have gone from “living under the boot of a brutal tyrant ... to elections for a fully constitutional government.”

As for the possibility of the country descending into civil war, he said, “the Iraqi people made their choice. They looked into the abyss and did not like what they saw.” He has vowed that American troops will remain in Iraq, and said that the country cannot afford to pull out yet.

As part of a national effort, the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice is sponsoring several other events around the March 20 anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. On Wednesday, the group will show a documentary about a group of soldiers in Fallujah, Iraq, called “Operation Dreamland” at 7 p.m. in Wilson Hall at UVa. On Monday, it will hold the March for Peace and Impeachment, which will go from the Rotunda to the Downtown Mall starting at 4 p.m.

Amy Goodman, host of radio’s Democracy Now!, will do a book signing at the Virginia Festival of the Book at 7 p.m. March 24 at McLeod Auditorium.

Contact Jessica Kitchin at (434) 978-7263 or The Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.

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