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Rebuilding Iraq

Europe sees wave of antiwar protest

By Brian Whitmore, Globe Correspondent, 3/21/2003

    Rebuilding Iraq


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PRAGUE -- A surge of antiwar protests swept Europe yesterday, as some governments condemned and others justified the US-led assault on Iraq.

As bombs rained down on Baghdad and as ground troops moved into Iraq, officials in France, Germany, and Russia criticized the rapidly escalating war, while Britain, Italy, and Spain called military action regrettable but necessary.

While Europe's leaders were at odds over the war's justification, public opinion was largely united in opposition. Tens of thousands took to the streets in cities across the continent in protests, some of which turned violent.

"If we allow the rule of force to replace international law, no country in the world will feel secure," President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said. "Russia demands the swiftest end to military action."

In Paris, President Jacques Chirac of France said he regretted that the attack had been "undertaken without the approval of the United Nations, . . . which is the only legitimate framework for building peace in Iraq." The French National Assembly briefly suspended yesterday's session in a demonstration of opposition.

Flying back from a UN Security Council meeting, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany called the attack "grim news."

Governments supporting the US-led military action defended their stance before increasingly skeptical populations.

"Unfortunately, the diplomatic channels being exhausted," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy said. "The forced disarming of Saddam Hussein is a tragic necessity for the international community."

Likewise, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain reaffirmed Madrid's solidarity with the fight "against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction."

Washington's strongest ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, told Britons in a prerecorded televised address that he had given the order for British forces to move on Iraq. Blair flew to Brussels for an emergency European Union summit.

Meanwhile, people across the continent took to the streets. Large and sometimes violent protests erupted in countries where governments support military action. Italy's three largest trade unions staged a two-hour strike, and many cities were paralyzed, as tens of thousands of protesters flocked to the streets, blocked train stations and highways, and marched on the US Embassy in Rome.

The Vatican expressed "deep pain" over the start of war, faulting both sides for failing to find a peaceful solution. Pope John Paul II dedicated a dawn Mass in his private chapel to peace.

In Madrid, riot police fired rubber bullets at antiwar demonstrators, including actors and celebrities. Police also beat some demonstrators with batons in an attempt to move them on.

Across Britain, thousands of demonstrators blocked roads and scuffled with police. In London's Parliament Square, police hauled away several demonstrators, including schoolchildren, who were sitting in roads and blocking access points. There also were large demonstrations in France and Germany, where governments oppose the US-led war.

In Berlin, more than 120,000 protesters took to the streets in two waves of demonstrations to express anger and frustration over the US-led attack on Iraq. Tens of thousands of high school students staged seemingly spontaneous walkouts in the morning, joining other protesters in a noisy but peaceful demonstration that wound its way past the US Embassy to the nearby Brandenburg Gate monument.

In the evening, some 70,000 people gathered in the city center, where they shouted slogans against the war and led a march along the main streets, with about 1,000 people breaking off to march to the US Embassy. Demonstrators hoisted signs such as "Bush is a war criminal," "No blood for oil," and "End the overflight rights."

In Paris, about 40,000 people, mostly students, marched and chanted antiwar slogans. Demonstrators smashed the window of a McDonald's in south Paris, forcing police to move in to protect staff and customers.

"I'm here for peace," Anthony Ramil, who fought alongside US forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said at the rally. "This is turning out to be a war against the Iraqi people."

Correspondents Joe Ray in Paris and Aliza Marcus in Berlin contributed to this report. Material from wire services also was included.

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