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U.S./U.K.: Protests Seek To Underscore Popular Opposition To Iraq War

By Jan Jun/Mark Baker

London, 20 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-war protesters are rallying in central London today on the occasion of U.S. President George W. Bush's state visit to Britain.

Organizers are counting on the presence of thousands of protesters to highlight dissent to the U.S and British-led war in Iraq that toppled President Saddam Hussein.

The protesters are due to march through central London, culminating in the toppling of a large effigy of Bush in central London's Trafalgar Square -- meant to recall the toppling of the statues of Hussein in Baghdad in April.

They are carrying placards with slogans such as "Bush No. 1 Terrorist," "Bush Must Go," and "Blair Must Go." The last is a reference to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has seen his approval ratings fall amid the continuing violence and casualties in Iraq.

Twenty British soldiers have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since the war began.

Angela Smith, an independent demonstrator, tells our correspondent that she is protesting to show the world that not everyone in Britain supported the war.

"We want the rest of the world to basically see today that a lot of British people don't support Bush. We don't want our soldiers coming back home dead. We don't want innocent Iraqi people dying in our name -- and we're hoping that's what today will accomplish," Smith said.

Sixty-five-year old Harry Clark tells RFE/RL, "I'm here because I think Bush is the biggest threat to world peace. My banner reads 'No Respect for Bush.' [I think] he's a bloody hypocrite -- which he is. He uses dictatorships when it suits him to further the ends of the United States."

Some 100,000 protesters had been expected to participate in today's rallies. Both the protests and Bush's visit, however, are being overshadowed by today's multiple bomb attacks in Istanbul that have killed at least 26 people and injured hundreds of others.

The attacks -- near the U.K. consulate and a London-based bank -- appear to have been aimed at British targets. British Consul General Roger Short is among those reported to have died.

Earlier today, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met for talks that included the Istanbul bombings, as well as Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, and a controversial U.S. tariff on imported steel.

Speaking at a joint press conference afterward, Blair linked today's Istanbul bombings to the fight in Iraq and the greater war against all forms of fanaticism and extremism.

"What this latest terrorist outrage [in Istanbul] shows us is that this is a war, its main battleground is Iraq, we have got to make sure we defeat these terrorists, the former Saddam [Hussein] people in Iraq, and we must do that because that is an essential part of defeating this fanaticism and extremism that is killing innocent people all over our world today," Blair said.

Bush arrived in London on 18 November for the three-and-a-half-day state visit -- the first such visit by an American president in more than 80 years.

Ordinarily, such a visit would highlight the countries' close relations. But the continuing hostilities in Iraq -- and declining support in Britain for the war -- have led many to question the timing of the trip.

Polls indicate the British public is deeply divided by Bush's visit. An ICM/"Guardian" newspaper poll this week showed 43 percent of Britons welcome the visit, while 36 percent are against. The rest are undecided.

Bush today met with families of British troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, telling them that their loved ones had not died in vain.

In a major policy address yesterday, Bush sought to defend U.S. and British involvement in Iraq. Bush told an invited group at London's Whitehall Palace that despite a continuing anti-coalition insurgency in Iraq, the U.S. will not retreat from the country.

"We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq and pay a bitter cost of casualties and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," Bush said.

Last night, Bush dined with Queen Elizabeth II at a royal banquet at Buckingham Palace. The queen, in her toast, saluted the oft-remarked "special friendship" between the two countries.

"Sixty years ago, Winston Churchill coined the term 'special relationship' to describe the close collaboration between the United Kingdom and United States forces that was instrumental in freeing Europe from tyranny. Despite occasional criticism of the term, I believe it admirably describes our friendship. Like all special friends, we can talk frankly and we can disagree from time to time, even sometimes fall out over a particular issue -- but the depth and breadth of our partnership means there is always so much we are doing together at all levels," the queen said.

Bush responded by praising the joint contributions of Britain and America to the development of democracy around the world. He said democracy continues to spread to former dictatorships in Asia and South America.