OAKLAND — As protesters geared up around the country to mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama on Saturday railed against the Bush administration's handling of the war with words that also served to implicitly criticize his own party's competitors for the White House.
"I am proud of the fact that I opposed this war from the start, that I stood up in 2002 and said this is a bad idea, that this is going to cost us billions of dollars and thousands of lives," the junior senator from Illinois told thousands who spilled out across Oakland's City Hall Plaza.
"We are in the midst of a war that should have never been authorized, and should have never been waged, and ... after spending half a trillion dollars and seeing almost 3,200 precious lives lost
Without mentioning their names, he alluded to the fact that former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- his main Democratic competitors at this point -- voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq invasion. He told the crowd that a recent visit with an Iraq war veteran maimed and blinded in a combat explosion had reminded him why he was running for president.
"We have been so consumed by cynicism and pettiness and negativity in Washington that we no longer recognize what's at stake; we no long understand what's going on in the life of that veteran," he said. "It is time for our young men and women to come home.... We can't continue this occupation."
He also referred to recent reports of dilapidated conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
"We still have an opportunity to get at least one thing right, and that is to make sure that when they come home that we treat them right," he said. "That when they come home they don't have mold on their walls and rats scurrying under their beds.... That when they come home they're not going through Dumpsters looking for food because they've been forgotten."
"Don't stand next to a flag and say you believe in supporting the troops," he said, his voice rising into a shout, "when you forget them when [they] come home. We can do better than that."
The crowd in Oakland was a blend of ages and races that mirrored the city's rich diversity. Some were so eager for a glimpse of the senator that they climbed light poles to get a better view.
Obama's remarks were a continuation of his attempts since his February announcement of his candidacy to distinguish himself from other top-tier Democrats by emphasizing the fact that he spoke out against the war as early as October 2002 at a rally in Chicago.
On Saturday, his remarks coincided with a mass protest in the nation's capital; other protests are scheduled in the coming days to mark Tuesday's anniversary.
Obama has sponsored legislation that would start the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq no later than May, with the goal of removing all combat brigades from Iraq by March 2008. A smaller force would remain in Iraq to help train Iraqi troops, guide anti-terrorism efforts and protect remaining forces on the ground.
Many who flocked to see Obama on Saturday said that his early and vocal opposition to the war was a major factor in their decision to stand behind him.
"He was able to see through the falsehoods of the propaganda," said John Taylor, a doctor from Hayward.
"I think a lot of members of the Democratic Party were too fearful of registering their objection to this war," Taylor said.
But others said they had questions about his experience and whether he could withstand a withering primary race. Many said they were making calculations about his electability compared with that of Clinton or Edwards.
Virginia Allen, a 70-year-old retired nurse from Oakland, is an Obama fan in large part, she quipped, "because he's black like me" -- but said she initially didn't want him to enter the race.
"I didn't want him to run, because I felt like he wasn't going to win and I would be throwing my ticket away," Allen said. "People aren't ready for a black president, but I'm going to vote for him. I'm just hoping and praying he makes it."
Obama addressed the concerns by scoffing at suggestions that he did not have enough experience to be president.
"I know that my experience as a community organizer [in Chicago] told me that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.... My experience as a civil rights attorney tells me that fairness and justice have to be fought for each and every day," Obama said.
"It's true that I haven't been in Washington that long, but I've been in Washington long enough to know that Washington needs to change, and that's why I'm running for president."
After the event in Oakland, Obama was headed to a $1,000-a-head fundraiser at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, co-chaired by venture capitalist Mark Gorenberg, former state Controller Steve Westly, political activist Wade Randlett and several high-powered Silicon Valley attorneys, among others.
As the first-quarter fundraising deadline of March 31 approaches, other candidates are also heading to California. Clinton is due to raise money in Beverly Hills on Saturday and in the Bay Area on March 25.