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Rebuilding Iraq

Thousands stage protests in London and elsewhere

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 2/16/2003

LONDON - In the largest political demonstration in Britain's history, at least 750,000 people, took to the streets yesterday to voice opposition to a possible war in Iraq. More than 2 million rallied in other European cities.

The protest converged in London's Hyde Park, bringing together peace activists, labor union members, Christian pacifists, Muslim activists, country and city people, liberals and conservatives. Many said it was the first protest march they had ever attended.

Police estimated the crowd at three quarters of a million, while protest organizers said it was twice that number.

By any count, it was a demonstration of the depth of collective anger in Britain at Prime Minister Tony Blair for marching in step with President Bush toward an invasion of Iraq. Opinion polls suggest that Blair's support for prompt military action to disarm Iraq would be opposed by up to 90 percent of the population without UN backing.

Elsewhere, police estimated that 1 million turned out in Rome, and 660,000 marched in Madrid, to protest their governments' support for the US position.

In London, there seemed to be a sense of civility that cut across social and economic lines.

One sign read, ''Make Tea, Not War.'' Another politely stated, ''Blair is Quite Annoying.'' Other signs and slogans were more direct: ''No Blood for Oil,'' and ''Drop Bush and Blair, Not Bombs.

Charles Kennedy, head of Britain's Liberal Democrats, said: ''Our country has a principal and a responsible role to play on the world stage. But to do so we have to pursue international justice through the United Nations, and our government has got to take its people with them.''

Many in the Conservative Party, the principal opposition party, support a tough stance on Iraq.

London's leftist mayor, Ken Livingstone, told the crowd: ''This war is solely about oil. George Bush has never given a damn about human rights.''

Livingstone, like other speakers,pointed to what he said was a double standard in the foreign policy of Britain and the United States, in which Israel was permitted to ''flout UN resolutions'' while Iraq was ''to be bombed'' for doing so.

Blair, speaking at a conference of his Labor Party in Glasgow, Blair spoke of the demonstrations and the anger voiced against his government's position.

''It is a right, an entirely understandable hatred of war,'' he said. ''I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor, but sometimes it is the price of leadership and it is the cost of conviction.''

Opposition to the war in Iraq is often packaged with anti-American rhetoric in continental Europe, and there was no shortage of that yesterday in the demonstrations, especially at the speakers' podiums. One large sign in Rome read, ''Bush is the new Hitler.''

Similar sentiments were expressed in Berlin. But there were many different voices, and many wanted to distinguish their opposition to the war from feelings about Americans.

Ian Clark, 78, a British veteran of World War II, said he fought in France with the British Army's Scots Guards regiment

Clark's father was killed in the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940, and his mother was killed in a German bombing raid on London. He wore his campaign medals and regimental beret as he marched in what he said was his first demonstration.

As he passed the Cenotaph, Britain's memorial to the dead of two world wars, he said that the memory of those soldiers could be served only by peace.

''I know the horrors of war so I understand the feelings of those don't want to see them ever again,'' Clark said. ''They may have a reason, but war cannot be justified by any reason.''

Tens of thousands of the protestors in London were Muslim. Many were mobilized by the joint organizers of the march, the Muslim Association of Britain.

Maha Alkatib, 30, a doctor from southwest London, was born in Britain to parents who immigrated from Iraq. She said she worries about extended family who still live there, both because of the hardships under the dictatorship and because of the prospect of US bombing.

''We've been campaigning for years against Saddam,'' she said. ''That's not why the US are doing this. ... The people in Iraq don't feel that America is coming to save them. ... There are two reasons why America wants war. The first is to protect Israel. ... The second must be oil.''

Globe correspondent James Abdulaziz Brown contributed t o this report.

This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 2/16/2003.
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