Across the tracks at Crawford, Texas, a divided nation bares its pain and fury

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On one side of the tracks was the Crawford Peace House, base camp for the activists who have poured in to support Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved mother of one of America's Iraqi war dead who has become the political sensation - and lightning-rod - of the summer with her simple but powerful gesture of parking herself in front of the presidential ranch to demand an explanation for the death of her son, Casey.

On the other side, along Crawford's main drag, were clusters of an entirely different breed of protester - ardent Bush supporters outraged at what they saw as Ms Sheehan's disloyalty and disrespect for the sacrifices of the US military. For them, Casey Sheehan's death and that of almost 1,900 of his comrades-in-arms was the price of freedom, no more and no less.

Tellingly, there was little or no contact between the two sides. Each remained firmly encased in its own bubble, with Cindy Sheehan telling her supporters how much she loved them "for drinking the smart Kool-Aid", while some of the more eccentric Bush supporters accused her of "working for the devil" and "blaspheming" against her president.

In the end, both sides had to feel disappointed by the turnout for the final weekend of summer madness - no more than a few thousand people all told. The counter-demonstration failed spectacularly in its aim of outnumbering the anti-war activists by three or four to one, as chartered buses turned up half-empty, and cars adorned with "You don't speak for me, Cindy" bumper stickers created a traffic jam stretching only one block rather than the miles the organisers had hoped for.

The grassroots passion remained predominantly with the activists at Camp Casey, the tent city that has sprung up outside the gates to the Bush ranch, even if only a few hundred extra protesters were willing to brave the stifling 40C heat. The carnival atmosphere, mixed with anger and personal grief, was like nothing America has seen since the days of Vietnam - peace meditators, radical priests, volunteers turning out free meals of organic salad, conceptual artists offering brightly painted parasols, musical appearances by the likes of Steve Earle and Joan Baez , and a permanent line of activists protecting a field of crosses bearing the names of the dead and acting as a sort of Greek chorus to newcomers arriving on the free shuttle-bus service from Crawford village.

Ms Sheehan has evolved into a remarkably self-assured public speaker, proving that she knows how to stir her own crowd. She noted with distaste that the president had been flying in and out of his ranch by helicopter to avoid having to look the peace protesters in the eye. She likened the ranch to the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad and suggested the president was as afraid of the peace activists as US soldiers were of snipers and roadside bombers.

Camp Casey "is the road from Baghdad to the airport and he won't go down it," she proclaimed. "He didn't even know there were people in the country who opposed him until we came down and ruined his vacation. This is America standing up and saying: we've had enough."

The ardour she has inspired is undeniable. Joan Baez intended to come for one day, but ended up sleeping next to the field of crosses for three nights to ensure there could be no repeat of the incident a fortnight ago when an angry pro-war trucker ploughed them up.

Jeff Key, an anti-war Iraq veteran, tried to make contact with his fellow veterans on the other side of the debate a few days ago and said they found a remarkable degree of common ground - not least an acknowledgement that they loved their country enough to be willing to die for it. Of the duelling weekend demonstrations, though, he said: "This is not a forum for discussion. We know what they think. What's at stake is that America will either turn into a religious empire, or it will reaffirm the principles on which the country was founded."

The Sheehan campaign won't end when the Crawford circus packs up and leaves town. She intends to hound congressional leaders as well as the White House on their position on Iraq, culminating in a three-day protest in Washington at the end of next month. Her detractors believe she speaks only for a fringe minority. The latest polls, however, suggest America may have reached a watershed over Iraq and that Ms Sheehan may have struck a powerful chord.