- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

Millions of antiwar protesters — vocal, impassioned, but in gatherings for the most part orderly — surged through the streets of the world's major cities Saturday for a weekend of demonstrations against the prospect of war in Iraq.

More than a million marchers converged on Rome, twice as many as police had expected. Hundreds of thousands also gathered in London's Hyde Park and in Damascus, Syria, with other demonstrations of a few to many thousands taking place elsewhere. Paris, Berlin, Beirut, Baghdad, Seoul and several cities in Australia and New Zealand as well as the United States are among them.

Rome's demonstration was the largest public protest in Italy in a decade and proof that a large and visible portion of the Italian population is opposed to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's support of Washington's hawkish stance toward Baghdad.

On the four-lane city streets, predominantly young and vocal crowds stretched for nearly 2 miles, in many cases spilling into roadside parks and onto nearby roads and alleys.

"Nobody is saying that Saddam is a saint, but we are saying that war should be the absolute last option," protester Silvia Santi, 22, told United Press International.

Two days before the march, the U.S. Embassy in Rome distributed information warning U.S. citizens to stay away from the 10-kilometer (6-mile) protest route on the grounds that they could become targets for violence. But hundreds of Americans ignored the warning, and participated in the march or watched from the sidelines.

"I love my country, but I also know that my country is part of the world community," said John Miller, 45, who was in Rome on vacation from Ellicott City, Md. "I don't have all the information (about the threat represented by Iraq) that President Bush has, but I do feel that we should be working within the context of our allies."

In Paris, the anti-war demonstration took off shortly after 2:30 p.m. local time under azure skies, winding from Place Denfert Rochereau on the city's Right Bank to the Place de la Bastille.

Albert and Genevieve Le Guern, both 75, were among the throng of several tens of thousands waiving pro-peace and anti-Bush banners.

"These demonstrations are decisive," asserted Albert Le Guern, from the Paris suburb of Orly. "If there's still a chance to prevent a war it's through the weight of public opinion — people who are rarely listened to by the powers-that-be."

He added, "This demonstration isn't against the American people. It's against the U.S. government. Mr. Bush is a dangerous man. He's an enemy of humanity. We're convinced that if Mr. Bush was isolated it would be in the best interest of the world and of the U.S."

As in Rome, Americans were also among the demonstrators. Some chanted, "Hey hey, ho ho, Bush and Cheney have got to go!" Others, like 37-year-old Christian Mayer, from Taos, N.M., walked along quietly.

"I wish there were more Americans like us," said Mayer, who brandished a red banner with "Don't Attack Iraq" written on it. "I think there are a lot of things motivating the Bush administration to go to war. Including Iraqi oil."

"I think it's very good to have so many Americans present," said Dominique Verignolle, who walked just behind Mayer. "I think most of the American public has been hoodwinked into believing the Bush administration."

Politicians and major personalities from the political left to the right joined in the demonstrations. Among them: Former Education Minister Jacques Lang, a top Greens Party member Noel Mamere, and anti-globalization protester Jose Bove.

In Germany, who with France have led the anti-war movement, the main gathering place in the capital Berlin was a site familiar to all European youth — the Tiergarten, where the youthful Love Parade is held each mid-summer in a din of amplified rock music. The anti-war protest that converged there Saturday, however, conveyed a far different mood. The crowd of all ages, estimated by police at nearly 500,000, was stern, defiant and decidedly bristly toward Washington.

"Stop Bush," said one popular placard. "Stop the Bushit," said another. Many of the banners were pointedly in English. "You can bomb the world into pieces — but you can't bomb it into peace," one of them admonished.

In an echo of past anti-war movements, T-shirts were emblazoned with "Give Peace a Chance." In front of the main stage – where aging musicians sang old peace songs dusted off from the anti-U.S. missile protests of the 1980s – an oversize papier-m ch Statue of Liberty bobbed above the crowd. The figure held a missile in her upraised hand and an oil barrel in the other.

In an impassioned appeal to Saturday's demonstrators in Britain, pro-U.S. Prime Minister Tony Blair said he respects the demonstrators' good intentions, but insisted leaving Saddam in power would allow more misery and death for Iraqis.

"Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity," Blair said. "It is leaving him there that is inhumane.

"I simply ask the marchers, however well intentioned, to understand this," Blair said. "I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor, but sometimes it is the price of leadership and the cost of conviction."

Arab capitals such as Beirut and Amman attracted crowds around 10,000 demonstrators, but streets of the Syrian capital Damascus rippled with an estimated 300,000 marchers raising the Iraqi flag for the first time in 20 years. Syria and Iraq severed ties because of a wave of bombings in Syria in the 1980s that were blamed on Baghdad.

Syria, which restored economic ties with Baghdad in 1997 but have so far refrained from any political normalization, strongly oppose U.S. war on Iraq and expressed fears of possible widespread chaos and forced changes in the region.

"For the sake of oil, the new Nazis are depriving our children of their dream," one banner read. "No to U.S. terrorism. No for the invasion of Iraq and yes to U.N. inspections."

Some protestors burned Israeli and U.S. flags while one of them was disguised in a black outfit, with a terrifying mask and a U.S. hat while holding an effigy of oil barrel. They kept away from the well-guarded U.S. Embassy where security measures were reinforced, however, and respected official guidance for their march.

The global rallies began Friday in Melbourne, Australia, where more than 150,000 protesters poured into city streets, and moved west with the sun.

In South Korea, some 2,000 protesters marched through central Seoul, carrying purple balloons they said symbolized peace and banners that read, "No war, Peace now!" and "Drop Bush, not Bombs." Thousands of riot police were deployed around the U.S. Embassy building, but there were no major clashes.

South Korea is a key U.S. ally in Asia and is home to 37,000 U.S. troops who have been stationed to help defend South Korea from a potential conflict with North Korea under a bilateral defense treaty signed after the Korean War.

Meanwhile, in Brazil's economic capital Sao Paulo, some 30,000 protesters marched through in the streets led by a large banner adorned with swastikas saying "Heil Bush" and imploring the United States not to go to war with Iraq.

Thousands of protesters also hammed the streets of other Brazilian cities like Rio de Janeiro and the capital, Brasilia.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has voiced his opposition to U.S. military intervention without the authorization of the U.N. Security Council, encouraged members of his ruling Workers' Party to participate in Saturday's protests.

U.S. time zones were among the last to gear up for demonstrations. New York authorities expected the largest group of marchers, with San Francisco, Washington and other major cities anticipating turnouts as well.

New York, target only 16 months ago of the worst attack in history on U.S. continental soil, was tense Saturday after Washington raised the national terror alert earlier this week. The orange, or high, level has called up police patrols armed with machine guns and special anti-terror arrangements for bridges, tunnels, railroads and airports and many hotels or gathering places.

But neither security measures nor bitter cold deterred thousands of protesters, who flooded New York's East Side as the march's start time of noon approached. Both young adults and older, some of whom remembered their days of protests against the war in Vietnam, were in the crowd.

"This is a kind of a last big push to prevent this war," Alex Cheney of Boston Mobilization, a grassroots peace group, told UPI. "We're really running out of time. It seems like a race to see who can build more support the quickest."

In Baghdad itself, the focus of the rallies, thousands of Iraqis filled the streets to protest both U.S. and British military deployments in the region and threats to invade their country.

Angry demonstrators gathered on the two banks of the Tigris River in the Iraqi capital, with hundreds waving Russian-made Kalashnikov automatic rifles and carrying banners denouncing the United States and Britain. Others marched with banners calling on the people of the world to support Iraq against the U.S.-British stance or waved Iraqi and Palestinian flags.

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(With reporting by Eric Lyman in Rome, Elizabeth Bryant in Paris, Jordan Bonfante in Berlin, Thanaa Imam in Damascus, Jong-Heon Lee in Seoul, Nick Horrock in New York, Carmen Gentile in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Ghassan Al-Kadi in Baghdad.)

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