LONDON — Police are bracing for what could be the largest demonstration ever organized against a foreign head of state when President Bush arrives for a state visit on Tuesday.
Central London streets will be closed for Mr. Bush’s motorcades and leave has been canceled for London police, who are expected to spend millions of dollars on security for the visit.
The highlight will come Thursday when as many as 60,000 people gather in Trafalgar Square to pull down a homemade statute of President Bush in a parody of the April 9 destruction of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad.
“Our quarrel is not with the American people but with Bush and his administration,” said Ghada Razuki, a organizer with the Stop the War coalition representing more than 400 student, religious and labor groups opposing the war in Iraq.
“American soldiers are over there dying — for what?”
Mr. Bush addressed the planned protests in an interview given to the London Daily Telegraph for publication today.
“I can understand people not liking war, if that’s what they’re there to protest,” he said. “I don’t like war. War is the last choice a president should make, not the first. …
“And, yet, we are at war. That’s what September the 11th taught us. It’s a different kind of war. And I intend to, so long as I’m the president, wage that war vigorously to protect the American people.”
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said people were entitled to demonstrate, but questioned why those planning to march against Mr. Bush had not protested Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“What bothers me is the fashionable anti-Americanism that’s around,” he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio this week.
“Many more people, I guess, will be demonstrating about the United States and the action which the United States has had to take since September 11 than ever demonstrated against the brutal, vicious, horrible regime of Saddam Hussein.”
Scotland Yard is concerned that terrorists may mix in with the anti-Bush crowds and attempt an attack on the president, said Andy Trotter, the deputy assistant police commissioner.
He said neither U.S. nor British intelligence had detected any specific plans but he added, “London has been on high alert for some time.” He refused to elaborate, saying, “It would be inappropriate to go into details.”
Demonstrators are being denied their usual protest routes to Buckingham Palace, past the Parliament or 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence.
But Commissioner Trotter rejected reports that demonstrators were being pushed out of sight to avoid embarrassing the president or that the White House had been pressuring police to close off large swaths of London.
“There has been no attempt to spare the president from embarrassment,” he said at a news conference on Wednesday. “There is no pressure from anyone for an exclusion zone.”
Roads destined for the president’s motorcade and adjacent streets will be closed to vehicular traffic, but open to pedestrians. Commissioner Trotter said helicopters may be used to avoid some motorcades.
“The details are still being worked out but any effort to ease the gridlock in London is welcome.”
Asked if this would be the largest security operation London police have ever undertaken to protect a visiting head of state, Commissioner Trotter said, “I wouldn’t want to put it in those terms.”
He did say, however, that 5,000 officers have been designated for security detail and that all leaves had been canceled. He rejected a local newspaper’s report that the security operation would cost $6.8 million, but refused to put a price tag on the security arrangements.
The visit comes at an awkward time for Prime Minister Tony Blair with British support for the Iraq war at just 37 percent compared with a high of 64 percent in April.
The opposition Conservative Party has been invigorated with the selection of an aggressive new leader, Michael Howard, while opposition to the war remains high within Mr. Blair’s own Labor Party.
“What does Blair get out of [Mr. Bushs visit] politically? A lot of headaches, that’s what he gets,” said Michael Cox, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
Mr. Bush tried to boost the embattled prime minister in his interview with the London Telegraph, saying Mr. Blair “is making decisions for the right reasons.”
“In my relationship with him, he is the least political person I’ve dealt with. And I say that out of respect. He makes decisions based upon what he thinks is right. …
“He believes it’s in his country’s interest that we work for a free and peaceful Iraq. He, as much as any world leader, saw the consequences of September 11, 2001.”