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World: From Washington To Tokyo, Protesters Say 'No' To War In Iraq

  • Jeffrey Donovan

For months, the United States has faced criticism and opposition to its foreign policy in Iraq from governments in Europe and around the world. On the weekend, ordinary citizens from Tokyo to Toronto took to the streets to voice their opposition to any U.S.-led war against Baghdad.

Washington, 20 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of thousands of people around the world took to the streets over the weekend to demonstrate against a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq. Protesters from Washington to Moscow and Ankara to Tokyo urged the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush not to go ahead with any plans to attack Baghdad, which the White House accuses of harboring weapons of mass destruction.

There were also demonstrations in Canada, across Europe, and in the Middle East as part of an internationally coordinated Day of Action against war in Iraq.

The weekend's biggest antiwar rallies in the United States were in Washington and San Francisco. Organizers claimed turnouts of 50,000 in San Francisco and at least 200,000 in Washington.

Mara Verheyden-Hillard, a civil rights attorney, told reporters before the Washington rally that a new antiwar movement -- not unlike the peace wave that swept the United States during the Vietnam War -- is set to hit the streets should the United States strike Iraq. "We're going to see the essence of grassroots democracy in the United States, which is people getting up, going outside, and taking to the streets when they feel that the government is not responding to the will of the people, because then people must act for themselves," Verheyden-Hillard said.

Shouting "No blood for oil," the protesters marched past some of the U.S. capital's key political and military symbols, beginning at the National Mall, near the famous Washington and Lincoln memorials, and spilling onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building before concluding in front of the Washington Naval Yards.

The long, park-like mall is legendary in the United States as the place where hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in 1963 to hear civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I have a dream" speech, in which he voiced a vision for a racially equal society.

Today is a national holiday in the United States marking King's birthday.

African-American leaders Jesse Jackson, a former presidential candidate, and Al Sharpton, a presidential hopeful in 2004, gave speeches at the rally denouncing Bush's record on race and what they call his militarism.

Like many protesters, the Reverend Grayland Hagler, a Washington religious leader, accused the Bush administration of seeking to topple Saddam Hussein in order to control Iraq's vast oil reserves. Bush and other top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, are former executives in the oil industry. "Why should our sons and daughters fight and die to keep oil in the tank of a gas-guzzling SUV [sport utility vehicle, popular among affluent Americans]? Why should our daughters and sons have to fight and die to benefit the profits of oil companies and the oil industry? That's why we're in the streets, because there is no logical reason," Hagler said.

The protesters are hoping to turn U.S. public opinion against the Bush administration at a time when Americans are ambivalent about a war in Iraq but largely support Bush's leadership.

The Bush administration vehemently denies that oil is playing any role in its calculations about Iraq. It maintains that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction, has violated several United Nations resolutions to disarm since 1991, and is a threat to regional and world peace.

Bush, who says Hussein has one last chance to disarm under the current UN inspections regime, has ordered a massive military buildup in the Persian Gulf in a bid to pressure the Iraqi leader to live up to his commitments to the UN.

Bush says he still hopes to avoid war but that the choice is Hussein's to make.

Both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told U.S. television over the weekend that a conflict could be avoided if Hussein abdicates power and seeks exile in another country.

At the Washington rally, one of United States' most famous antiwar protesters said a war in Iraq will hurt, not help, national security.

Ron Kovic is a paralyzed Vietnam War veteran whose return from that conflict and transformation into an antiwar activist was chronicled in his book "Born on the Fourth of July," which was later turned into a movie starring Tom Cruise. Kovic had this to say before the rally on 18 January: "Do you want to know what is threatening our national security? This war! This war will put the people that we love, our people, our fellow citizens, our mothers and our fathers [into harm's way]. This war, this president's war, will make us even greater targets of terror than ever before. This war will bring on a firestorm of terror against us," Kovic said.

Although not as large, antiwar protests in other countries were vocal and, in some cases, more volatile.

Demonstrations across Turkey, NATO's only Muslim country, marked the arrival of General Richard Meyers, the top U.S. military official. Washington wants to base up to 80,000 troops in Turkey for possible action against Iraq, but Ankara has been reluctant to give its permission. Some 80 percent of Turks oppose war with Iraq.

In Brussels, about 5,000 people marched under the motto "Stop United States of Aggression." Twenty-five people who were locked together in groups of two or three were arrested in London during a protest outside a military base. In Bologna, Italy, police fired tear gas to control a 2,000-strong crowd that tried to break through a barricade.

And in the Netherlands, police detained nearly 100 activists who tried to conduct what they called a "citizens' inspection of American nuclear arms" at the Volkel air-force base in the southern Dutch town of Uden.

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