WASHINGTON - Anand Gopal has been opposed to the Iraq war from the start. The 26-year-old felt so strongly that he organized three busloads of his fellow University of Pennsylvania students, 131 people, to travel here from Philadelphia to rally with tens of thousands of others against the war in Iraq.

"I feel like the government is spending billions in a war that's killed 500,000 Iraqis and 3,000 Americans, while spending for health care and social services is being cut here," Gopal said. "It's a war that's wreaking havoc and destruction." (There are no reliable statistics on the numbers of Iraqis killed since the war began in March 2003. The United Nations estimated that 34,000 Iraqis were killed in 2006.)

Although the Bush administration has argued that sending 21,500 more troops is necessary to win the war, Gopal thinks it would only hurt.

"I think, actually, most of the violence is related to the U.S. presence there," he said, citing the prevalence of attacks on American and Iraqi soldiers. The United States would be better off to withdraw troops and pay reparations to help Iraq rebuild, he said.

Buses left yesterday from Cherry Hill, Lansdowne, Chestnut Hill, West Philadelphia and other locations in the region; a total count of how many area residents attended was not immediately available.

With the Capitol dome as their backdrop, they joined thousands from across the country who filled the National Mall, singing, playing drums, swiveling in hula-hoops and listening to speeches by Sean Penn, Jane Fonda and others.

Natasha Mooney, 20, a Wayne native and Penn junior, said she had originally supported the war because "Saddam Hussein was a horrible dictator." But her mind changed as the war seemed to descend into disaster.

"The U.S.'s involvement from the very start should have been to give Iraq more power and us less and less, and I don't think that's happened, and it's spun out of control."

Her opinion shifted so strongly that last summer she worked as an intern at a nonprofit group here called Education for Peace in Iraq Center.

Like many people interviewed yesterday, she didn't see how more troops would help.

"We don't have a plan that's working," she said, "and I don't think adding more troops will make a bad plan any better."

Mooney was with some fellow students who wore cardboard boxes decorated as houses to symbolize their desire to bring troops home now.

Keri Tyler, 30, who researches transportation policy at Rutgers, traveled from her home in Brooklyn to join the Penn students on the trip to Washington. She is a friend of Gopal's.

Tyler said she wanted to go to the rally because she was opposed to the war and disappointed that more people have not acted on their antiwar feelings.

"It's not like Vietnam, where you had such a widespread movement," she said. "Over 70 percent of the United States is against the war, but it's hard to see that."

Vanessa Wills, 26, a Philadelphia resident studying philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, said the rally offered the antiwar movement a chance at revival after backing off after the last election.

"We're here to build the left and to build antiwar sentiment," Wills said.

Standing next to Wills, Sarah Grey, 26, said she saw the thousands gathered on the mall as "such a sign of hope for everybody thinking troops should come home now."

Contact staff writer Miriam Hill

at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com.