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In Europe and America, peace gets a chance

By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles and Terri Judd, The Independent, 18 January 2003

The drift towards conflict may seem inexorable, but a celebrity-packed anti-war movement is finally gaining momentum.

As tens of thousands of anti-war demonstrators across America take to the streets today to try to stop the looming invasion of Iraq, a group called Baring Witness will strip off in central San Francisco and lie down in formation to spell out the word PEACE. Drivers of fuel-efficient hybrid cars, leading the charge to lessen the United States' dependence on foreign oil, will have their vehicles blessed at Grace Cathedral and then roll down Nob Hill in the company of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Environmentalists will wave banners urging Americans to go solar, not ballistic. Union workers will question the wisdom of spending $200bn (£125bn) on a foreign war when health care and education budgets are being slashed, working family incomes are falling and tax cuts are being offered almost exclusively to the very wealthiest Americans.

The National Council of Churches will be out in force, and plans to follow up today's protest with a candlelit vigil in Washington and a march on the White House on Sunday. Veterans' associations will remind President George Bush that war should be a last resort, not something to be launched pre-emptively and without provocation. Suburban mothers and grandmothers will be voicing concerns about their children's future. Naturally, Joan Baez will be on hand to sing Blowin' In The Wind and The Times They Are A-Changin' .

In other words, today's demonstrations—the largest will be in Washington and San Francisco, with up to a dozen smaller gatherings between the two coasts—will be both a throwback to the colourfully theatrical anti-war protests of the Vietnam era and also something quite new, the expression of an extraordinarily broad coalition of opinion that goes far beyond the usual gang of tie-dyed lefties railing against American imperialism.

With the Iraq crisis throwing up so many different issues at once—the war on terrorism, America's image in the world, the threat of weapons of mass destruction, the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes as opposed to self-defence, the world's dwindling oil resources, Islamic fundamentalism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more—the burgeoning anti-war movement is setting itself no limits and throwing itself open to all-comers.

Earlier this week, it even won the support of an influential group of Republican Party donors, who said in an advert in The Wall Street Journal, no less: Let's be clear. We supported the Gulf War. We supported our intervention in Afghanistan. We accept the logic of a just war. But Mr President, your war on Iraq does not pass the test.

Such sentiments have made the organisers of today's events confident that America will see the largest anti-war demonstrations since Vietnam. That, in turn, will help to bridge some of the mistrust that has built up between the United States and Europe, where other demonstrations are being planned over the weekend. In Britain, several groups of non-violent protesters plan to blockade Northwood military base in Hertfordshire to mark the 12th anniversary of the Gulf War and campaign against any future conflict.

We have seen some of America's scepticism about Iraq before: on 26 October last year, more than 200,000 people took to the streets of Washington and San Francisco. This time, all indications suggest the gatherings will be even larger.

According to International Answer, a relatively marginal left-wing group that has nevertheless taken the organisational lead, the number of buses descending on Washington indicates a turn-out of at least 150,000. On the other coast, the 60,000-odd who demonstrated in San Francisco in October are likely to be joined by several tens of thousands more, largely because of the increased participation of the union movement.

More than 50 unions have urged members to turn out in San Francisco today, twice the number who endorsed the October rally. Nationally, union groups representing more than two million workers (15 per cent of unionised employees) have formed a group called US Labor Against War—a development that promises to bridge the gap between hippies and hard hats that proved a thorn in the side of the anti-war movement during Vietnam.

The unions are important for two reasons. Firstly, as the world saw during the anti-World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle three years ago, they are uniquely able to mobilise large numbers of people. Secondly, their participation points to a discontent going beyond the remit of foreign policy and global security. It suggests that Americans are growing uneasy about their own domestic well-being under the presidency of Mr Bush.

Mr Bush remains popular with voters, but polls show that his popularity is slipping from the stellar 80 to 90 per cent approval ratings of a year ago to less than 60 per cent now. On Iraq, the polls show considerable confusion—the erroneous belief, for example, that Saddam Hussein was behind the 11 September attacks and that Iraqis were among the suicide-hijackers—but they also indicate a clear desire for the White House to explain its motives for war better and to take action only in concert with its allies and the United Nations. The latest poll, published on Thursday by the Pew Research Centre, suggested that support for a war would reach 76 per cent if UN inspectors find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If they find no such evidence, support would plummet to just 29 per cent.

That may make the United States less militantly opposed to war than European countries. In Britain, polls cited by the anti-war movement suggest that opposition might be as high as 80 per cent. But these are early days: the anti-Vietnam movement did not get going until the conflict was well under way and the body-bag count started rising.

In Britain, the next big anti-war rally in London is scheduled for 15 February. Ten days ago, two train drivers became the first industrial conscientious objectors after they refused to transport ammunition destined for the Gulf. And this week Tony Blair was heckled by a group of peace protesters in Scotland.

Protest UK - anti-war dates

18-19 January: Voices in the Wilderness, Arrow and D10 host non-violent action at Northwood Military Base, London.

21 January: Rally by Stop the War Coalition, CND and No War on Iraq Liaison, to lobby Parliament at 2.30pm.

26 January: Day of non-violent action at Fairford airbase by Gloucestershire Weapons Inspectors.

3 February: Day of non-violent action at Lakenheath airbase, Suffolk by Lakenheath Action Group.

14 February: Make Love not War day in London with rally at Friends Meeting House, Euston, screenings including Ken Loach's September 11, and comedy event at Bloomsbury theatre.

15 February: Organisers hope 500,000 will turn out for demonstration in London beginning on the Embankment at noon and moving on to Hyde Park for a rally. The event, organised by Stop the War Coalition, CND and the Muslim Association of Britain, is part of a day of action with protests planned for cities worldwide.