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Talk of an Iraq War Riles Britons

Rally: Thousands march through London protesting the Blair and Bush administrations' steady press for a military solution.

September 29, 2002|WILLIAM WALLACE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — Jeering President Bush and chanting "Not in our name!" tens of thousands of antiwar protesters tramped through central London on Saturday, massing in Hyde Park for a three-hour rally against what they see as the British and American governments' enthusiasm for a war with Iraq.

Aimed at stopping a conflict that has yet to start, the protest was a preemptive strike of its own by a peace movement angered at Prime Minister Tony Blair's support for the Bush administration against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Organizers said that more than 350,000 people--some shouting "Shame!" as they passed Blair's 10 Downing St. residence--marched from the demonstration's starting point near the Houses of Parliament.

London's Metropolitan Police estimates were lower, putting the crowd at about 150,000. And the numbers were certainly boosted by the fact that the rally was twinned with a demonstration calling for an independent Palestinian state.

But the marchers were the visible tip of deep public anxiety here about a war, especially if London and Washington acted without the backing of the United Nations.

Recent polls have shown that only one in five Britons would support such an attack, although the number rises to 70% in favor if a U.N. imprimatur was obtained.

However, most of the speakers who addressed the crowd Saturday had no doubt that a war against Iraq would be wrong under any circumstances.

"This is not about the defense of British interests. It's a war so a bunch of corrupt American politicians can get their hands on Iraqi oil," said London Mayor Ken Livingstone, a radical left-wing populist whose style and personal clashes led to his expulsion from Blair's Labor Party two years ago.

Livingstone's language was fully in keeping with the protest's tone.

Although there was no violence, a small but loud minority occasionally screamed "Down, down, USA!" And a much larger portion applauded wildly whenever Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was denounced from the stage as a "bloody war criminal," which happened frequently.

Several speakers also mocked Blair for his "revolting love affair" with Bush.

The link was likely to have alarmed the prime minister's advisors, who have tried to turn the public conversation here away from a focus on the unpopular Bush and onto the merits of the case against Hussein.

But in Hyde Park on Saturday, the anger at the U.S. president and the prime minister--whom one banner called "Bomber Bush, Bomber Blair"--appeared synonymous.

"They are twins of evil," said Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who gained fame here for being captured by the fundamentalist Taliban when she sneaked into Afghanistan before last year's U.S.-led bombing ousted the regime.

Ridley, now a full-time peace campaigner, said Blair's support for the American position makes him "a shallow, vain, self-serving hypocrite--the 51st governor of the United States."

The same charge of collusion was evident Saturday in Rome, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is under attack for supporting Washington despite polls showing a majority of Italians oppose a war in Iraq.

Police in the Italian capital said more than 50,000 protesters clustered in the city center, blowing whistles and waving antiwar banners in a march organized by the Communist Refoundation Party.

The British march also had a retro, 1970s left-wing tinge to it, with copies of the Socialist Worker newspaper being hawked in the crowd.

The most vociferous personal attacks on Blair came during speeches from trade union leaders, a group that feels betrayed by Blair's abandonment of old socialist principles for the more electorally satisfying center.

Indeed, one of the organizing groups of Saturday's rally was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament--now a puny shadow of the once powerful movement that, in the '70s, counted Blair and some of his senior Cabinet ministers among its members.

But the rally also showed the diversity among antiwar critics.

There were members of the Christian clergy as well as thousands from Britain's 1.8-million-strong Muslim community.

And the biggest rumble of anticipation for any speaker greeted American Scott Ritter, the former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq who is now a vocal critic of military intervention.

Ritter dismissed the Blair government's recently released dossier on Hussein's alleged arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as falling far short of a "case for war."

He argued that "this document is not worth one drop of blood from an American soldier, a British soldier or an Iraqi civilian."

But Ritter also chastised those in the crowd shouting anti-American abuse.

"The American people can be your ally," he told them. "But we have an alcoholic at the wheel of American foreign policy in George W. Bush, and we need to reach in and grab the keys to the ignition away from him."

The comment drew loud applause.

The former Marine also argued backstage with Ridley, who was wearing a T-shirt featuring an American flag--with dollar signs and swastikas in place of stars--and the slogan "Terrorist No. 1."

"I didn't like it," Ritter said in an interview. "I wore that flag on my sleeve in war, and I love my country. What I'm doing here is about being a good American--about holding my country accountable to its standards--and that's what I'm here to tell these people.

"But this issue of war with Iraq is not going to be resolved in London," he said quietly. "It's going to be resolved in the United States, by Americans."

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