Current Issue

Back Issues

Contact Us



Support Us


About Us



Hundreds of Thousands Worldwide Protest on the First Anniversary of the US Invasion of Iraq

by Sarah Ferguson

A year after the Bush Administration launched its headlong invasion of Iraq, hundreds of thousands of protesters around the world took to the streets on March 20 to denounce the war and demand an end to the US-led occupation.

Protests and peace vigils took place in more than 300 cities across the US and in 60 countries. As many as one million Italians (per Reuters) filled the streets of Rome to denounce their government's support for the war, and at least 25,000 marched in London (per BBC), where two intrepid Greenpeace activists caused a security panic by scaling Big Ben to hang a banner that read, "Time for Truth."

In Spain, some 100,000 marched through Madrid to denounce the war and mourn the 202 people killed in the March 11 train bombings there, while 150,000 demonstrated in Barcelona. Tens of thousands more protested in cities across Europe, Asia and Latin America. At least 30,000 marched in Tokyo, where demonstrators demanded a withdrawal of Japanese troops from Iraq, and about 10,000 marched on the heavily guarded US embassy in Athens. In Cairo, AFP reports some 2,000 demonstrators faced off with at least 5,000 riot police, while in Manila, police used water cannons to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who tried to march on the US embassy.

In Iraq, in a show of unity that went largely unreported by the US press, several thousand Shias and Sunnis rallied together, chanting "Yes to Iraq, no to sectarianism, no to US occupation."

In New York, city officials estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people turned out for a rally and march through midtown, but organizers said the number was closer to 100,000.

"Today we sent a message, not only to George Bush and his cronies in Washington but also to John Kerry and the people he wants to bring to the White House that our movement is alive and strong we're not going away," said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), which initiated the call for a global one-year-later peace demonstration last October.

Admittedly the crowd sizes in New York and most other cities did not match the massive demonstrations that took place on February 15, 2003, when an estimated 500,000 in New York and millions more around the world hit the streets in hopes of pre-empting the war.

Mobilizing public opposition at the brink of war is easier than building a mass consensus for what to do once the soldiers have been sent in. Still, organizers in New York said the turnout there and elsewhere exceeded expectations, and marked a sense of renewed vigor among anti-war activists--many of whom felt demoralized once the war began.

After Saddam's speedy fall last April (and the wave of patriotic fervor that ensued in the US), many activists found themselves under attack, with mainstream media outlets accusing the anti-war crowd of being "wrong" in opposing the "liberation" of Iraq. But the rising death toll of US soldiers and Iraqi civilians, along with near daily revelations of how the Bush administration manipulated the facts about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction---not to mention the gruesome terror bombings in Spain--have given opponents of the war a sense of grim vindication.

"More and more people are being won over to the idea of opposing the occupation because our service people are dying over there and to what end?" says UFPJ's Cagan.


New York's protest, like those in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, was co-sponsored with the more hard-left coalition International ANSWER, which expanded UFPJ's call to end the US occupation of Iraq to the more doctrinaire "End Colonial Occupation from Iraq to Palestine to Haiti & Everywhere!"

Nevertheless, the New York demonstration drew a remarkably broad cross-section of people, from large numbers of Arab Americans and Palestinians, to Haitians angry over the US-backed ouster of Aristide, to students, Greens, and Kucinich peaceniks, along with union workers, teachers and more well-heeled professionals--many of them Deaniacs and Kerry supporters.

At one point the march spanned more than 40 blocks in a broad loop between 40th and 23rd streets along Madison and Sixth avenues. Police segregated the crowd from the general populace behind barricades throughout the route and tightly controlled access in and out of the rally portions of the event. But the barricades were far less obtrusive than the maze of small constraining "pens" that frustrated protesters at the February 15, 2003 demonstration.

Especially prominent was a large contingent of veterans and about a dozen military families, whose presence added a level of gravitas to the protesters' myriad causes.

"Bush lied and who died?" demanded Fernando Suarez del Solar speaking out on behalf of his 20-year-old son Jesus, who was one of the first Marines killed during the invasion last March when he stepped on a cluster bomb dropped by Coalition forces. "More than 570 beautiful human beings have died in this war, and for what? For lies!" Suarez cried. "America, I am looking to you. We need to stop this war today. No more dead bodies," he pleaded, before leading the crowd in a chant of "Bring them home now!"

Suarez's anguish was echoed by Sue Niederer, whose son, Army Lt. Seth Dvorin, 25, was killed on February 3. Holding a sign that read, "You killed my son," she castigated President Bush for misleading the nation to war. "I want answers on my son's death. I want answers to why he was defusing a bomb when he was never trained to do that. What did he die for? For a country that hates us, that doesn't want us there? We should bring our troops home and topple Bush."

Toppling Bush was a central theme of the day, spelled out in a multitude of placards, from "Outsource Bush" and "Stop Mad Cowboy Disease" to a 40-foot-tall "pink slip" strung up by members of Code Pink on the faade of a building on 23rd Street that read: "Women Say Fire Bush." (The giant slip fluttered there for about 20 minutes before police entered the building and forced the activists to take it down.)

Indeed, many of the demonstrators said they came out not just to voice their anger at the war but the entire agenda of the Bush administration. "I'm against everything this president has done," said Jerry Mazak Sr., an unemployed pipefitter and electrician from Phoenix who carried a sign that read: "Read my Lips: No New Jobs."

"Bush put a stop to the Clean Air Act, and that shut down a lot of our work installing scrubbers," said Mazak who marched with two other unemployed union electricians from Boston. "There's no money for public works. We've been all over the country looking for jobs."

Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens, speaking on behalf of 133 House members who voted against the war, saluted the crowd as "warriors for peace" and urged them to "make your voices louder."

"Adopt a Congressman! They need to hear your voices. Because we are in a period when the Congress is shriveling," Owens said, pointing to the many legislators who supported the Republican's "support the troops" resolution the previous week--even though it claimed the war had made the world a "safer place."

Other speakers included Ohio congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and former UK Labor Party MP Tony Benn, head of Britain's Stop the War Coalition, who said he hoped Americans would "follow the example of Spain's electorate."


But if the crowd was unified in wanting to see Bush defeated, there were many differing opinions over what to do about ending the occupation in Iraq. On stage, there were emphatic demands to "Bring the Troops Home Now!" but little effort to address the larger question of how this might be achieved or where the anti-war movement should go from here.

Part of the problem may have been the fact that while UFPJ and International ANSWER co-sponsored the march, the two organizations had been openly feuding for months over the direction of the peace movement and how much to emphasize the struggle in Palestine.

ANSWER--which formed after 9-11, but is widely perceived to be a front group for the neo-Stalinist Workers World Party--has proved itself adept at building coalitions for mass demonstrations, particularly with Arab and Muslim groups. When ANSWER put out its own call for a demonstration on March 20, UFPJ suggested the groups cooperate to avoid splitting the crowds at separate events. ANSWER agreed, says Cagan, but insisted that UFPJ make ending the occupation of Palestine a central demand of the demonstration.

Cagan and others within UFPJ balked, stating that while they agreed it was important to address Palestine, the main purpose of the March 20 demonstration was to express broad opposition to the war and occupation in Iraq. ANSWER responded by circulating a letter on-line. signed by numerous Arab and Muslim groups alleging that it was "racist" of the anti-war movement not to give the Palestinian cause equal footing.

The letter also claimed it was racist to support a demand that the occupation of Iraq be "internationalized" with UN troops or other outside peacekeeping forces--a position it said smacked of "the white man's burden to civilize."

In the end UFPJ and ANSWER agreed to collaborate on March 20 but with separate messaging-which made for a somewhat schizophrenic stage show. The split was apparent as the march stepped off on 23rd Street behind two separate banners: UFPJ's "End the Occupation: Bring the Troops Home!" running side-by-side with ANSWER's more elaborate: "End the Occupations of Iraq, Palestine, Haiti & EverywhereÉ" While the UFPJ contingent chanted "Money for housing, not for war!", the ANSWER folks shouted over them: "Occupation is a crime, from Iraq to Palestine!"

While Dennis Kucinich urged the crowd to "radiate peace," a Pakistani speaker raged at America's "redneck" president and demanded a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Palestine, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where, he said, "they're killing thousands of innocent people." As he spoke, someone taped a photo to the speakers' platform of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who apparently peddled nuclear materials to North Korea and Libya.

On stage, the Palestinian cause did get high billing, with speakers from both the UFPJ and ANSWER coalitions denouncing the US role in subsidizing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. But the ANSWER speakers were more strident. "Our intifada is an antiwar movement," declared Hussein Agrama of the Free Palestine Alliance. "If you support the antiwar movement, you have to support the Palestinian intifada, because it is a movement against occupation, against racist apartheid, and against colonialism."

That effort to equate Iraq and Palestine has drawn fire from pro-Israel groups like the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL). In a recent posting to its website, the ADL warns that the "alliance" between UFPJ and ANSWER "signals that UPJ [sic] is prepared to integrate anti-Israelism into the heart of its message, thereby heightening the possibility that anti-Jewish rancor will be widespread and acute."

No doubt the ADL claims are alarmist. While UFPJ voted at its national conference last June to increase its focus on the Palestine conflict, UFPJ's member groups have thus far "agreed to disagree" on how peace might be achieved in the Middle East, leaving individual groups to decide such thorny questions as whether there should be one state, or two states, or a right of return for Palestinian refugees. And unlike ANSWER, UFPJ has put out a position criticizing all attacks on civilians--whether by Israeli military forces or Palestinian groups--calling them counterproductive to peace.



UFPJ promoted the March 20 demos under the broadest possible umbrella--"The World Still Says No to War"--a message of universal condemnation that made room for more mainstream groups like Win Without War, True Majority,, and the National Council of Churches to participate without having to commit to UFPJ's more adamant demand to "Bring the Troops Home Now!"

Instead, these groups encouraged their members to take part in vigils and memorials to commemorate the nearly 600 US soldiers and estimated 10,000 Iraqi civilians that have died since the invasion began--without taking an explicit "troops out" stance.

Win Without War (which includes groups like True Majority and the National Council of Churches) also shied away from endorsing the March 20 marches in New York and other cities because of ANSWER's involvement.

"We're not comfortable with ANSWER's politics and the way they go about organizing," said Win Without War's David Cortright in an interview prior to the march. "We have no disagreement with the need for a Palestinian state and to stop the US's one-sided support for Israel, but we didn't think Palestine should be the primary demand at this demonstration because that alienates potential supporters."

Similarly, some grassroots organizers said they were put off by ANSWER's efforts to "strongarm" the antiwar movement with race-baiting. "They're just a little group of Stalinists who specialize in being divisive and co-opting other people's work," complained one peace activist in North Carolina who asked not to be named.

Activists with UFPJ conceded that the cause of Palestine did get more emphasis in New York and elsewhere because of ANSWER's pressure tactics. And many in the anti-war movement say the escalation of violence in the Middle East makes this an issue the movement can't afford to sideline.

In an interview after the march, UFPJ's Leslie Cagan said the split was more a matter of emphasis and organizing tactics, rather than over the issue of Palestine itself. "We think our job is to open this movement up to the broadest number of people," Cagan said. "You have to appeal to people where they are at. But once you bring people out, you can engage them in how these other issues like Palestine are connected."

Still, by downplaying differences, some question whether the antiwar movement risks being lumped in with ANSWER's more kneejerk politics. ANSWER is led by members of another Worker's World Party spinoff, the International Action Center--a group that has defended both Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, and whose leader, Ramsey Clark, is on the defense committee for Slobodan Milosevic.


Left unaddressed by the speakers at Saturday's march was the larger question of what bringing home the troops actually means. Should the US simply withdraw and leave the Iraqis to fashion a democracy for themselves, as ANSWER advocates? Or should the peace movement push for the United Nations to oversee a truly international peacekeeping force to help facilitate real elections and prevent the country from devolving into civil war or becoming an even greater magnet for terror? And if the UN or other countries won't go in, then what?

"Our position is the Bush adminstration created a mess and the quickest way to clear it up is to get out now," says UFPJ's Cagan--though she acknowledges there's no consensus over what to call for next. "Most of the groups in our ranks support bringing in the UN or Arab forces to lend international support; others see the UN as just a puppet. But the key thing is to get the US forces and military bases out. Once you take the occupying military power out of the equation, everything changes. Perhaps some indigenous forces will arise. You can't even know what the solutions are unless you take the threat of US force out of the picture."

That kind of stance worries some critics, who say that with the US occupation failing in Iraq, the Bush Administration would like nothing better than to cut its losses and get out, leaving the Iraqis or the UN to pick up the pieces. "The risk here is that that by demanding an immediate pullout without some sort of transition to UN power, the peace movement is dovetailing into Bush's position," says Stephen Bronner, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

Others say the debate over the mechanisms of how the US withdraws from Iraq is academic, because the US has no intention of abandoning its interests there anyway.

"I think the coalition of the unwilling has to take over through the UN," commented Tony Benn, referring to those countries who refused to back the war last year. "But it's got to be a real takeover, it can't just be a cover for the US occupation. The problem is, I don't think the US will accept a demand which will take them out of control of Iraq. [US administrator Paul] Bremer just wants the UN to come in and provide cover."

Cortright of Win Without War said his group has been reluctant to get behind the "bring them home now" demand because it "couldn't happen immediately" and "there has to be some alternative interim force to take the US's place."

"Under international law, we have an obligation to provide for the wellbeing and security of the Iraqi people," Cortright argued. "For the UN to go in, it will need the support of the governing council and leading Iraqi figures, and we don't have that yet."

Peace activists concede there are no easy answers. But for those who marched on March 20, the point was to keep opposition to the war and occupation visible.

"Realistically, we know the troops aren't coming home tomorrow," says Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and Global Exchange. "But it's still important to call for the troops to come home, because that will make a difference how long they stay there--and whether it's a year, five years or 10 years. The stronger we call for this now, the more chance there is that it will happen sooner rather than later."


Sarah Ferguson is a New York-based freelancer who often covers activism.

Photographer Diane Greene Lent has photos of the New York demonstration on-line.

See some rather unsavory shots from the San Francisco rally.

Special to WORLD WAR 3 REPORT, April 9, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Reprinting permissible with attribution.