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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Antiwar Rallies Draw Millions Around World

The biggest protests are in nations whose leaders back U.S. policy toward Iraq. Large crowds also gather in countries heading the opposition.

February 16, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Millions of protesters opposed to a U.S.-led war on Iraq demonstrated around the world Saturday as anger at the Bush administration moved from the United Nations to jampacked streets.

Protests in Europe included some of the largest antiwar demonstrations in decades, authorities said. And the biggest marches took place in nations that are strong U.S. allies and whose governments support President Bush's confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The sea of marchers was another sign that the Iraq crisis has not only embittered U.S. relations with Europe but driven a wedge between many Europeans and their leaders.

At least 1 million people turned out in Britain, which has committed about 45,000 troops to join U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. Close to 1 million marched in Italy and at least 2 million filled the streets in Spain, both countries where overwhelming antiwar sentiment clashes with official policies favoring the use of force.

Large protests also took place in Paris and Berlin, two capitals leading the opposition in the U.N. to a war. Despite rain, wind and near-freezing temperatures, about 500,000 people gathered in Berlin.

In addition to the students, activists and union members who are ubiquitous at leftist events in Europe, the marches attracted a broader cross-section of participants. In London, the usual array of veteran protesters was bolstered by an eclectic mix of activists, from families with children to representatives of the "sex workers" lobby. Some protesters in Germany waved signs in English, wrapped themselves in U.S. flags and lamented the transatlantic rancor of recent days.

"I don't demonstrate against the USA," said Soeren Juergens, 58, a ship engineer from Hamburg, Germany, who lived in Oakland for several years. "I have friends in the USA. But Mr. Bush is isolating the USA from Europe, not vice versa. Don't get me wrong: I don't support a dictatorship like Saddam's regime, but to just drop a bomb on it is like opening a Pandora's box. This is pure imperialism, even for such an old and conservative guy like me."

In contrast, the tone of protests was more militant in the Arab world. About 200,000 Syrians chanted anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans in their capital, Damascus. Demonstrations were smaller in U.S.-aligned countries whose security services keep a tight leash on dissent, but a rally in Jordan indicated that the Iraqi dictator's predicament has made him something of a hero in the Arab world.

About 3,000 protesters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, held aloft portraits of Hussein and accused Arab leaders of staying silent in the face of U.S. aggression. The majority of Jordanians oppose a war, but the government quietly supports American military action while encouraging a peaceful solution.

"Our beloved Saddam, attack Tel Aviv!" protesters shouted in the freezing rain outside U.N. offices in Amman. "You Arab leaders, where are your armies?"

Public Rebuke for Blair

The growing international antiwar movement also made its mark in Asia, Africa, Latin America, New Zealand and Australia, along with the U.S., with turnouts ranging from the hundreds to the tens of thousands.

But for Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, partners struggling to build an international coalition for a possible invasion of Iraq, the mass mobilization in Britain was a very public rebuke. The outpouring made Blair look more isolated than ever in his self-appointed role as a mediator coaxing reluctant allies to craft an agreement in the U.N. Security Council.

Leslie Druce, 70, marched in London carrying a placard that proclaimed "Bush and Blair ... Liars and Bullies."

"They treat us like we have no power of thought," Druce said. "Who are they kidding? Do they really feel threatened by the Iraqis? The U.S. could be such a power for good in the world, but Bush has chosen to be the bully boy instead. It really bothers me that Bush has used Blair as a veil of decency through all of this."

Many protesters were members of Blair's Labor Party who have broken with their leader over the war.

"We voted for Blair, but on this he's totally wrong. It's immoral," said Peter Burton, who made the 237-mile trip to London from his Exeter home along with his wife, Rita. "He has totally misjudged how dangerous this is to the Middle East and how destabilizing this has been to the United Nations. And we believe in the United Nations."

Organizers claimed that well over 1 million people marched in London. The official police count of about 750,000 still made the demonstration one of the largest in the city's history. The marchers walked, occasionally 20 abreast and pausing frequently because of congestion, for more than five hours through the heart of London. They finally congregated in sprawling Hyde Park to hear speeches from political figures such as Mayor Ken Livingstone, who said he had never seen such a massive rally in his career.

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