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World: Global Antiwar Protests Draw Huge Crowds

  • Charles Recknagel

Some 4 million to 6 million people around the globe demonstrated over the weekend in favor of finding a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis. The protests, the biggest since the anti-Vietnam-war rallies of the 1960s and '70s, came as world leaders differed sharply over whether weapons inspections are working in Iraq.

Prague, 17 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Protesters against war in Iraq came out in 600 cities over the weekend -- in some cases in some of the largest rallies seen in decades.

The protests, loosely coordinated by peace groups in numerous capitals, brought out a total of 4 million to 6 million people, depending on widely varying estimates. The biggest of the protests were in countries whose leaders support U.S. President George W. Bush's determination to quickly conclude the UN arms inspection process and resort to military force if Baghdad does not immediately disarm.

Rallies on 15 February brought thousands of people into the streets of Almaty, Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, Istanbul, Kyiv, London, Madrid, Minsk, Mostar, Paris, Prague, Rome, Seville, Sofia, Tokyo, Warsaw, Zagreb, and New York, among many other cities.

In London, organizers say 1.5 million people took to the streets, though police put the number at half that. By either estimation, the crowd was one of the largest in the city's history.

The demonstrations in London were organized by the Stop the War Coalition, an umbrella group including pacifists, politicians, celebrities, environmentalists, and labor-union figures.

One unidentified demonstrator said he did not want Britain to become Washington's "puppet" in joining a war on Baghdad. "I don't think we should be American puppets. I think we should be completely against this. It is fairly futile. The only people that are suffering are Iraqi women and children," he said.

Much of Britain's population is uncomfortable with British Prime Minister Tony Blair's commitment of 40,000 troops to a U.S.-led military buildup in the Persian Gulf. Opinion polls have consistently reported most Britons do not favor another Gulf War, particularly if it is not authorized by a new UN resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq.

Despite the protests, Blair showed no sign of backing away from his position. He told a conference of his ruling Labor Party in Glasgow on 15 February that Iraq must be disarmed now. He called on the UN to act decisively to see that happens -- or risk losing authority as a world body. "I hope, even now, Iraq can be disarmed peacefully -- with or without Saddam. But if we show weakness now, if we allow the plea for more time to become just an excuse for prevarication until the moment for action passes, then it will not only be Saddam that is repeating history. The menace, and not just from Saddam, will grow. The authority of the UN will be lost," he said.

In Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi supports the U.S. and British position, organizers said as many as 3 million protesters poured into the streets of Rome on Saturday. Police put the crowds at 600,000.

In Spain, where the government equally supports Bush, police say a total of 1 million people demonstrated in Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville.

And in Australia, where Prime Minister John Howard has sent troops to the Persian Gulf along with Washington and London, some 400,000 people protested in major cities.

Rallies in France and Germany also brought out many thousands of participants on 15 February. There, demonstrators supported their governments' opposition to the use of any military force against Baghdad outside of the UN framework.

And at a rally in Istanbul, protesters chanted slogans against any attacks on neighboring Iraq, a fellow Muslim country. News agencies say opinion polls show some 94 percent of Turks opposed to strikes on Baghdad. Turkey's parliament is expected to vote later this month on whether to allow deployment of a U.S. force in Turkey, which could open a northern front against Baghdad.

U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the antiwar protests did not lessen Washington's resolve in its efforts to get Baghdad to disarm. Australian Prime Minister Howard said he is not out of step with his people and that public opinion cannot be measured simply by the numbers at protest rallies.

The protests, which were scheduled weeks ago, came a day after a dramatic confrontation at the UN between states which favor more time for disarming Iraq peacefully through arms inspections and states whose patience has almost run out.

The 14 February confrontation saw Washington reacting sharply as the UN Security Council heard top UN arms inspector Hans Blix report that Baghdad recently improved its cooperation with his teams.

Blix said that cooperation included agreements to allow overflights by surveillance aircraft. He also praised the formation of new Iraqi government committees to hunt for new documents to prove past stocks of weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed and no new weapons are being produced.

But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the Iraqi steps "all tricks that are being played on us." He said they fall far short of full cooperation from Baghdad needed to disarm it peacefully.

Powell said it is now time for the council to begin thinking about whether or not it's time to disarm Iraq by force. "We now are in a situation where Iraq's continued noncompliance and failure to cooperate, it seems to me in the clearest terms, requires this Council to begin to think through the consequences of walking away from this problem or the reality that we have to face this problem," Powell said.

Powell's impatience was quickly endorsed by Britain, Spain, and Australia. But France, Germany, and Russia remain determined that the arms inspections are making progress and deserve more time.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told the Security Council that inspections, not war, are the way to deal with Baghdad. "In contrast [to the use of force], the inspections offer an alternative that will allow us to move closer and closer, day by day, toward an efficient and peaceful disarmament of Iraq. We should ask ourselves whether ultimately this option would not be the safest and fastest solution," de Villepin said.

Reaction from Muslim world leaders to Blix's report has so far been muted.

At talks in Cairo late on 15 February, Arab foreign ministers issued a final communique that said their countries should deny any support for military action against Iraq. But the communique fell short of a binding resolution. The talks came amid large antiwar protests in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and Syria.

There were also demonstrations of varying sizes over the weekend in India, Nepal, Pakistan, South Africa, and Thailand.