Iraq: The Rush to War and Movement for Peace

According to BBC News, between 6 and 10 million people too part in protests in about 800 cities in up to 60 countries. Some estimates put the figure as high as 30 million, others at 15. Europe was the center of the biggest protests; the one in Rome, for instance, involved approximately 3 million people and is listed in the 2004 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest antiwar rally ever held. The demonstration in London that day began with a march organized by the Stop the War Coalition, the CND, and the Muslim Association of Britain.

The 3.5-mile-long (5.6 km) march, displaying slogans (including the memorable "Make Tea Not War") with Holtom’s ubiquitous peace symbol, was ordered to start early by the police, who were concerned by the crushing numbers already assembled. People arrived by bus and train from 250 cities and towns across Britain.


ImageThe police estimated that 750,000 people were on the march. Marchers made their way down Piccadilly chanting slogans, banging drums, and sounding horns. The final Hyde Park rally is thought to have involved close to 2 million people, the largest U.K. antiwar demonstration ever. They were addressed by ex-government minister Mo Mowlam, liberal democrat leader Charles Kennedy, London’s mayor Ken Livingstone, former Member of Parliament Tony Benn, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, actress Vanessa Redgrave, and, among others, playwright Harold Pinter, who described the United States as "a country run by a bunch of criminal lunatics with Tony Blair as a hired Christian thug." There were also large rallies in Glasgow and Belfast.

San Francisco

On March 14, 2003, 80 protesters from Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) were arrested in the business district of San Francisco for taking part in a "direct action" against war in Iraq. Over 200 people assembled at dawn outside the old Pacific Stock Exchange, while some set up a blockade outside the financial trading floor. At the intersection of Bush and Montgomery streets, about 30 people sat in the street chanting, "We’re blocking Bush!" and were arrested at 8:30 A.M. so that business could continue as usual. On March 21 more than 1,400 were arrested in San Francisco as protests against the U.S. invasion continued across the city. People chained themselves together at street intersections, rallied in front of city hall, closed the San Francisco Federal Building, and blocked the Bay Bridge. More than 100 people were arrested blocking the entrance to the Bechtel Corporation, a major defense contractor, chanting "No business as usual, walkouts and refusal."

International Coordination

ImageInternationally coordinated demonstrations occurred on March 19, 2003, in San Francisco, Rome, Bombay, Mexico City, Ankara, and Halifax, and on March 23. 2003, a quarter million marched in New York.

Again, on April 12, 2003, more than half a million took to the streets of Rome, and a similar number in Spain. In Barcelona the protest took a unique form: At 10:00 every evening, people went out onto their balconies and beat on pots and pans for five minutes. The noise resounded throughout the city, with people on almost half of the balconies in some parts of town, particularly in the old section. There seemed to be few apartment blocks that didn’t have a banner protesting the war, many flying Holtom’s symbol. At a protest in central Washington, Dustin Langley, a volunteer with the protest’s sponsor, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), voiced a common perception. "This is not about liberation, it’s about the occupation of Iraq and the plundering of its natural resources."

Hans Blix

One of the most respected critics of the war was the chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, who concluded that Iraq was invaded for political reasons, not because it had any weapons of mass destruction (WMD). No credible evidence was ever found that Iraq possessed WMDs, and it is impossible to believe that Bush and Blair did not know it.

On April 9, 2003, 21 days after the war began, Blix said in an interview with the Spanish daily newspaper El Pais, "There is evidence that this war was planned well in advance. Sometimes this raises doubts about their attitude to the [weapons] inspections. I now believe that finding weapons of mass destruction has been relegated, I would say, to fourth place, which is why the United States and Britain are now waging war on Iraq. Today the main aim is to change the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein."

President Bush, he said, had told him in October 2002 that he supported the efforts by U.N. inspection teams to verify U.S. and British claims that Iraq was developing biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. But Blix also said that even back then "there were people within the Bush administration who were skeptical and who were working on engineering regime change."

ImageBy early March 2003, Blix added, hawks in both Washington and London had become impatient. It was possible that the United States and Britain did believe Iraq had WMDs, but given U.S. fabrication of evidence, that belief was doubtful. U.S. allegations, for example, that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from Niger, were later proved to be false.

"You ask yourself a lot of questions when you see the things they did to try and demonstrate that the Iraqis had nuclear weapons, like the fake contract with Niger," Blix explained, adding. ”I’m very curious to see if they do find any [weapons]."

In any event, none was found, and it is extremely unlikely that any had ever existed. Blix said the war in Iraq was "a very high price to pay in terms of human lives and the destruction of a country" when any threat of weapons proliferation could have been contained by the U.N. inspections.

A Continuing Protest

President Bush’s ill-timed visit to Britain in November 2003 spurred continuing demonstrations in the United Kingdom. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, shunned the official celebrations, holding an alternative event honoring antiwar activists, while Bush and his entourage ran the gauntlet of jeering crowds.

In Iraq on April 8, 2004, thousands of Sunni and Shiite Muslims forced their way — nonviolently — through US. military roadblocks in order to bring aid from Baghdad to the besieged Sunni rebel bastion of Fallujah, carrying banners and shouting antiwar slogans.

On March 20, 2004, on the anniversary of the US. invasion, millions of people took to the streets in protest. In Rome there were more than 300,000 people, and in Heroe’s Square, in Budapest, protesters carrying lit torches formed a gigantic peace symbol.

In London a huge statue of President George W. Bush was toppled as part of an antiwar rally in Trafalgar Square — an imitation of toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

ImageAnd on the eve of the Republican National Convention in New York City, August 29, 2004, demonstrators carried 1,000 coffins draped in U.S. flags past Madison Square Garden, where the convention was held: each individual coffin represented an American killed in the war. As usual, Holtom’s symbol, which had now come to universally represent the idea of peace, was very much in evidence.

Wherever there is tyranny, wherever warmongers are at work, there will be people who will oppose them. And marching with them will be Gerald Holtom’s peace sign.

Copyright © 2008 Essential Works Limited 

The writing and photos here are from Peace: 50 Years of Protest by Barry Miles.

Barry Miles was the chairman of the Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early sixties. Based in London, he has written numerous articles and books about the Beat Generation, including the New York Times best-seller Hippie.