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WAR WITH IRAQ / OPPONENTS RALLY

British Protests Shrink as Public Opinion Turns

Tony Blair gains support now that troops are in harm's way. Still, the antiwar turnout is large.

March 23, 2003|Janet Stobart and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

LONDON — Antiwar activists marched through London on Saturday in a protest that was angrier but smaller than past demonstrations, while polls showed public opinion shifting to the government now that British troops are fighting and dying in Iraq.

More than 100,000 marchers denounced the invasion of Iraq, which has claimed the lives of 14 British soldiers in two helicopter accidents. The turnout was smaller than last month's rally by about 1 million people, a diverse gathering that included many first-time protesters. By contrast, Saturday's crowds consisted largely of the leftist and Muslim groups at the core of the antiwar movement.

After weeks of declining public approval, Prime Minister Tony Blair's image has improved among Britons, according to a poll reported Saturday. The ICM Research poll found 56% believed Blair's dogged support of the Bush administration's confrontation with Iraq had been "about right," while 26% thought he had been "too firm."

A few weeks ago, only about a third of those Britons polled backed the government's Iraq policy, including sending 45,000 troops to the Persian Gulf.

Blair's personal approval rating also has climbed, by 11 percentage points to 40%. The shift reflects the apparent tendency to close ranks with the government once troops are in combat. Only 13% of those polled advocated an immediate end to the war, while 82% wanted the coalition to finish what it had started in Iraq.

British antiwar feeling prompted rifts and resignations in Blair's Labor Party, causing the worst political crisis in his six years in office. But outrage has lessened with combat, partly because there are few signs that a high-tech, carefully targeted assault will result in large numbers of casualties.

"The gloomy predictions of the peace movement are unlikely to be proven," said Adam Roberts, a professor of international relations at Oxford University.

"Our images of war are formed by our experience with it, and the memories of the 1991 Gulf War feed this sense of it as mass slaughter. I don't think it has really sunk into our public consciousness that the U.S. and U.K. have developed a form of waging war that is rather discriminate -- not perfect, but an improvement on the destruction of the past."

Some protesters Saturday rejected the idea that their dissent was disrespectful to British troops, who have suffered disproportionately high casualties in the early days of the war.

"I know there are people who say we must now support the war," said Les Deakin, a science teacher from Chesterfield in central England, watching the crowd pour into Hyde Park on a sunny spring afternoon.

"I will support the soldiers, but I say bring them home. Whether it's soldiers or ordinary people who die, it makes no difference to me. Nobody should die."

The march was organized by the Stop-the-War coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Assn. of Britain. It started from two points north and south of the city and converged in Hyde Park.

Several groups carried Iraqi flags, Palestinian flags and placards reading "Homeland for Palestine," "No Blood for Oil," and "Blair Out."

Despite the strong pro-war feeling in Britain's large community of Iraqi exiles, many antiwar Iraqis marched Saturday. They said they wanted to topple Saddam Hussein, but not by war.

"I have been waiting for over 30 years to get rid of Saddam Hussein," said Dr. Ali Zubaidi, who left Iraq for England 32 years ago. Marching with his wife and daughters, he said he thought the war was being waged not for the Iraqi people, but "for many geopolitical reasons and reasons of security for Israel."

Another 30-year exile, Amani Selman, said: "We worry about innocent people dying, whether they are soldiers or Iraqis. If they want to kill this man, I am sure they could find a way to get rid of him. They should give diplomacy a chance. Where is the justice in this war?"

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