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Rebuilding Iraq


New voices join chorus against war

By Brian Whitmore, Globe Correspondent, 3/31/2003

    Rebuilding Iraq


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PRAGUE -- As the reality of a bloody, unpopular, and potentially long conflict with Iraq sinks in, even ''New Europe'' is getting skittish.

The Czech president said last week that trying to force democracy on Iraq was an idea "from another universe," while Poland's defense minister publicly scolded the White House for exploiting the success of his nation's forces in the Persian Gulf "for propaganda."

The two former communist nations have been among Washington's strongest supporters on Iraq, but widespread and rising public opposition to war has these and other European governments in President Bush's "coalition of the willing" scrambling for cover.

And while support for military action has risen sharply in Britain, giving embattled Prime Minister Tony Blair a reprieve, the rest of the continent remains ardently antiwar, with no signs of the opposition abating.

With the conflict well into its second week, and the public witnessing on television the carnage, civilian casualties, and stiff Iraqi resistance -- including guerrilla tactics and suicide bombings -- antiwar forces across the continent have become emboldened and are winning new converts.

"Instead of collapsing, the dictatorship resists, and the liberators are turning into occupiers," the French newspaper Liberation wrote in an editorial Friday.

Protests across Europe have become daily occurrences, boycotts of American-made products are underway in Germany, and polls show public opposition to the war soaring to stratospheric new highs in many countries.

In Spain, which officially supports the war, opposition has jumped to 91 percent, up from 80 percent before military operations began. Antiwar sentiment also has risen sharply in Hungary, where almost 90 percent now oppose the conflict, and in the Czech Republic, where 83 percent do. In Poland, which has troops in Iraq, two-thirds of the population opposes the war and only 20 percent approve of the nation's armed forces being involved in combat.

"US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may not be aware of how mistaken he was when he labeled NATO's new members, including the Czech Republic, as `New Europe,' which, unlike France and Germany, understand that preemptive action against Saddam Hussein corresponds to the advanced era we live in," political analyst Petr Fischer wrote Thursday in the daily Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny.

With public opposition rising, European politicians are doing verbal somersaults as they try to maneuver between a desire to please Washington and appease their antiwar electorates.

"The idea . . . that democracy can be installed by military force is, for me, from another universe," Vaclav Klaus, the newly inaugurated president of the Czech Republic, said in comments reported Tuesday by the daily newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes.

Unlike his predecessor, Vaclav Havel, a supporter of the war who retired last month, Klaus has said his position would reflect public opinion.

The Czech Cabinet has followed suit, issuing a statement that its 400 antichemical troops stationed in Kuwait are not actually part of the anti-Hussein coalition.

Poland, one of the most pro-American countries in Europe, issued a rare rebuke to Washington last week after Bush and Rumsfeld praised the work of that nation's special forces.

"It is not good when a politician -- even if his name is George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld -- talks about the actions of special forces," Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski told Poland's Radio 1 on Thursday. "We are happy with the high grades given to Polish troops, but we are not happy with their use for propaganda."

Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, also has tried to navigate between his alliance with the United States and an antiwar public. While offering Washington logistical support, Berlusconi said Italian bases would not be used for a direct attack on Iraq. When 1,000 troops flew directly from their base in the northern Italian city of Vicenza to northern Iraq, the government insisted that they were not engaging in an attack.

On Saturday, antiwar demonstrators threw red paint and flares at the base in Vicenza, while in Rome, demonstrators hung black sheets from the 16 bridges across the Tiber River to mourn the war dead.

In Germany, protesters also targeted US military installations. In Stuttgart on Saturday, 6,000 people circled the European command headquarters of US armed forces, and 1,500 demonstrated at the US Rhine-Main Air Base near Frankfurt.

Also in Germany, 40,000 people formed a 30-mile-long human chain between the northwestern cities of Osnabrueck and Muenster on Saturday, and 50,000 converged on downtown Berlin's Victory Column.

Local boycotts also have started, as some German restaurants have removed US-made products such as Coca-Cola from their menus. A dermatologist in the northeastern German town of Rendsburg hung a handwritten sign on his door saying he will not treat patients from countries in the US-led coalition, the Associated Press reported. And the staff of a bar in the southeastern French city of Bayonne dumped its Coca-Cola stocks into sewers Saturday.

Recent French polls show antiwar sentiment reaching 97 percent. In Germany, 80 percent are opposed. The notable exception to Europe's increased antiwar fervor is Britain, where public opinion has made a dramatic turnaround. According to recent polls, at least 59 percent of British citizens support the war, about the same percentage who voiced opposition a month ago.

Material from Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this report.

This story ran on page A25 of the Boston Globe on 3/31/2003.
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