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Iraqis Protest Against U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Demonstrators waving rifles and pictures of President Saddam Hussein marched by the tens of thousands through this Iraqi capital Saturday, protesting against the United States and a possible attack even as many expressed hope that chances of a conflict had receded.

The marches, part of a worldwide day of antiwar protests, were large but somewhat subdued, perhaps because the country has been in a state of high tension for months. People were allowed to leave work to attend, and many said they regarded participation as obligatory.

Even so, Iraqis left no doubt that they have been heartened by the antiwar movements in Europe and elsewhere and that their strained morale was boosted by Friday’s reports to the U.N. Security Council by the two chief weapons inspectors, which seem to have slowed momentum toward war.

As phalanxes of ruling Baath Party members, students, homemakers and volunteer militia members streamed by a reviewing stand on Palestine Street, a working-class area, an announcer cried with confidence, “We fear no aggression, and we have defeated America!”

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Some protesters burned a U.S. flag and one of Israel in front of the reviewing stand, where a senior Baath official presided. As the march proceeded, heavily armed police watched from the rooftops of buildings.

The marchers, many in plain olive green uniforms favored by army reservists and Baath members, carried banners and chanted, “Bush, Bush, listen well, we love Saddam Hussein!” and “With our spirit and with our blood, we sacrifice for Saddam!”

Neighborhood organizations had their own slogans. The Khadamiya district, for example, proclaimed in a banner, “We are swords in the right hand of the leader to defeat the enemy.”

Talib Sharifi, 48, a lecturer at Al Rafadein College in Baghdad, said he came to the rally more convinced than ever that Iraq would emerge successful from its current standoff with the United States.

“I think all people of Iraq believe that because they are in the right, if there is a war we will win, sooner or later,” he said. “America is always putting out untrue things about our weapons. But really, it wants to occupy Iraq.”

Rifle Saved From ’91

Mehdi Turki, 32, a worker for a state electrical commission, was one of thousands of marchers carrying Kalashnikov automatic rifles. He said he brought the weapon to show that Iraqis are ready to defend themselves if U.S. or British troops invade. He said he has kept the rifle at home since the last war with the United States, in 1991.

He said he would have no qualms about using it: “I am defending my country and also my leader.”

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A knot of demonstrators gave looks of disbelief when told that authorities in the United States are hoping to “liberate” Iraq from the rule of Hussein.

“That is not reasonable,” said veterinarian Khadim Mohsan, 38, who specializes in caring for poultry. “If the Americans come here, it would not be for the benefit and the interests of the Iraqis. They would like to grab our oil fields.”

As the marches were taking place, Hussein met for 90 minutes with Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a Frenchman carrying a message from Pope John Paul II.

Afterward, the papal envoy refused to answer questions about the Iraqi leader. However, he said he had asked Hussein to do “all that can be done to guarantee peace” and allow Iraq to resume its place in the international community.

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The pope has been outspoken in his opposition to any U.S.-led war in Iraq to force Hussein’s government to give up what the United States alleges are weapons of mass destruction. Baghdad denies having any banned arms.

In addition to sending his envoy to Hussein, the pontiff Friday received Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, a Christian, to underline his concern about the crisis over Iraq.


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