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U.K.: Huge Peace March Exceeds Expectations

Up to 1 million antiwar protesters converged on London's Hyde Park on the weekend, taking part in the largest demonstration the British capital has ever seen. The aim of the march was to register opposition to British participation in any war against Iraq, and sentiment seems to be that the march exceeded all expectations.

London, 17 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of London on 15 February to register their opposition to any U.S.-led war against Iraq. London police estimated the crowd at 750,000 to 1 million people, making it the largest such demonstration ever in the capital. Organizers put attendance at closer to 2 million.

Protesters listened to speeches by various politicians and activists, including Bianca Jagger, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and former British Labour politician Tony Benn, who met recently in Baghdad with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The peace march is regarded as having been well-organized and skillfully policed, although the British Sunday newspapers differed in their assessment of the number of participants and various excesses by the more extreme minority left-wing groups.

The main headline in the "Sunday Telegraph," for example, read, "Blair Warns Marchers of 'Blood on Your Hands,'" with the subtitle, "PM hits back as up to 1 million join biggest public protest in British history."

The main heading in the "Sunday Times," in contrast, focused on the protests in a global context, claiming, "Five Million March as Blair Calls for Toppling of Saddam," with a smaller headline reminding readers that the march was the "biggest public protest in British history."

Today, a London daily wrote, "With respect, they were all Saddam's 'useful fools.'"

Despite a number of his own Labour deputies who disagree with British support for the tough U.S. line against Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair can count on a majority of Conservative members of parliament and some Liberals, too.

Patrick Cormack is a senior member of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee and a Conservative member of parliament for nearly 33 years. He confirmed his support to RFE/RL: "Although I am a Conservative member of parliament, I strongly support the general line that the prime minister has taken. I think there have been one or two unfortunate episodes, such as the strange dossier they produced last week, but I believe the prime minister is right essentially in what he has been saying. And I believe that you cannot have an appalling and evil man holding the world to ransom and snubbing his nose to the United Nations," Cormack said.

As for the London march, Cormack said he "profoundly" disagreed with the protesters. "In a free country, people can demonstrate, and as long as they demonstrate peacefully and they make their points of view in speeches and they do not behave unlawfully, they are fully at liberty to do that. I disagree profoundly with them. I think they are very misguided. I think they misunderstand the situation. And I find it rather quaint that people of left-wing views, who proclaim always their belief in freedom and liberty, should be, in effect, taking the side of one of the most brutal and repressive dictators that the world has seen in the last hundred years. I think this is a most extraordinary situation, but this is a free country and if that is what they wish to do, then God bless them. They must be able to do it," Cormack said.

One young teacher from Gloucester summed up his reasons for participating in the peace march: "I am here as a teacher sent by the union because I am totally opposed to war, you see. Attacking innocent people, children particularly, like the children I teach in my school, just for the price of oil? I think it is an outrageous act that is being done in our name, and we are here to show that we do not want a war in our name."

At a party conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on the same day as the peace march, Blair himself sought to express sympathy with the fears of the protesters while attempting to spell out a moral case for his tough line against Saddam Hussein. "Let us not pretend, not really, that in March or April, or May or June, people will feel differently. It is not really an issue of timing, or 200 inspectors versus 100. It is a right and entirely understandable hatred of war. I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor, but sometimes it is the price of leadership, and it is the cost of conviction. And as you watch your TV pictures of the march, just ponder this: If there are 500,000 on that march, that is still less than the number of people whose deaths Saddam has been responsible for; if there are 1 million, that is still less than the number of people that died in the wars that he started. So if the result of peace or an absence of conflict is Saddam staying in power, not disarmed, simply say that there are consequences paid in blood for that decision, too," Blair said.

According to the most recent poll for "The Times" daily, 86 percent of Britons believe United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq should be given more time to complete their work.