From Asia to Europe and the seat of American power, hundreds of thousands of antiwar protesters took to the streets Saturday in a global appeal for peace, as President Bush prepared for a summit with allies today billed as a final diplomatic effort before an attack on Iraq.
The protests in Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Barcelona, Berlin and many other cities came even as world leaders said a war in Iraq was likely within days.
“The prospect of military action is now much more probable, and I greatly regret that,” British Foreign Minister Jack Straw told BBC Radio.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said he thought Washington was now operating on the belief that combat could start in a matter of days. In what appeared to be a last-ditch effort to forestall U.S. action, France, Russia and Germany called for an emergency meeting of foreign ministers Tuesday at the U.N. Security Council. In Washington, the State Department responded with a terse “no comment” to the proposal.
In his weekly radio address, President Bush restated his commitment to disarming the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. “Crucial days lie ahead for the free nations of the world. Governments are now showing whether their stated commitments to liberty and security are words alone -- or convictions they’re prepared to act upon,” Bush said.
Bush said there “is little reason to hope that Saddam Hussein will disarm. If force is required to disarm him, the American people can know that our armed forces have been given every tool and every resource to achieve victory.”
Hussein placed his country on a war footing and divided the nation into four military regions under the command of trusted lieutenants. His son Qusai was given charge of a region including Baghdad and Tikrit, the president’s hometown.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said Hussein’s science advisor, Lt. Gen. Amer Saadi -- the point man on disarmament -- had invited the two chief U.N. weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, to come to Baghdad at the “earliest suitable date” to discuss “means to speed up joint cooperation ... in all fields, especially facilitating the verification process of issues considered outstanding.”
At U.N. headquarters in New York, Blix said he would study the invitation and discuss it with the Security Council.
The calls for new consultations came as Bush prepared to meet today with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Their nations have co-sponsored with the U.S. a proposed Security Council resolution effectively authorizing the use of force against Iraq.
The summit, to take place at a U.S. Air Force base on Terceira, part of the Azores archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, was announced Friday as it became clear that the United States and its Security Council allies lacked the votes to pass the Iraq resolution.
Bush, Blair and Aznar are expected to discuss abandoning their resolution early next week rather than face near-certain defeat at the council. In Washington, administration officials said the three were expected to issue a strong statement at the end of their consultations.
However, Bush continued to try to build support for the resolution Saturday, phoning Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.
Nearly 250,000 U.S. and British troops are in the Persian Gulf region, and Bush has said he is prepared to lead a war even without approval from the Security Council. But France, Germany and Russia, the leaders of the Security Council’s antiwar bloc, issued a declaration saying: “We reaffirm that nothing justifies in the present circumstances putting a stop to the inspection process and resorting to the use of force.”
The three nations called for a foreign ministers session at the Security Council on Tuesday to discuss a “realistic” timetable for Hussein to disarm. The meeting would follow the latest progress report by Blix on the weapons inspections in Iraq.
“The use of force can only be a last resort,” the declaration said. “We solemnly call on all the members of the Council to do everything possible” to disarm Iraq peacefully.
In an interview after the statement was released, De Villepin, the French foreign minister, said “France is prepared to compromise, on the basis of a very tight timetable [for disarmament inspections], but not on an ultimatum and not on automatic recourse to force.”
But U.S. officials have indicated little interest in seeking further compromise that would stretch out the timetable for action.
As the last-minute diplomatic maneuvering played out, hundreds of thousands of people added their voices to the debate by joining antiwar protests.
“I can’t go to bed tonight thinking that George Bush is going to bomb 6-year-olds only because they live in a country he has a personal vendetta against,” said Washington, D.C., resident Melanie Stettz, 41, who brought her 6-year-old twin daughters to a march in the capital.
Authorities declined to estimate the size of the crowd, which snaked peacefully from the Washington Monument to Lafayette Park, adjacent to the White House, and back. Organizers said tens of thousands had turned out.
Many chanted “Stop the war!” and “Peace now!” in what was a spirited but solemn march. Their signs read “Make Jobs Not War,” “How Many Lives Per Gallon?” and “Give Inspections a Chance.”
“I only hope that George Bush will go to sleep and have a vision that he would be a greater statesman to solve the Iraq problem diplomatically -- a vision of how to do that without taking one life,” said Lester McGuinness, 52, a Vietnam veteran and home improvement contractor from Rockland County, N.Y.
Michele Elone of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 52, a native of France who obtained U.S. citizenship a month ago, said many French oppose war because they know it firsthand. “My grandfather was gassed in World War I, and in World War II people lived in fear of just about everything,” she said.
Washington police said five people were arrested for “unlawful entry” of World Bank headquarters, several blocks from the White House and the demonstration route.
At a counterprotest, about 100 flag-waving people chanted: “War freed the slaves. War freed the Jews.”
Kristinn Taylor, 40, of Free Republic, a conservative news Web site that organized the counterprotest, said “the silent majority” of Americans support Bush’s policy of disarmament in Iraq. “Conservatives don’t really take to the streets anymore,” he lamented.
In Los Angeles, rain pelted thousands of downtown protesters who marched nearly two miles to the Federal Building, swathed in plastic ponchos and huddled beneath umbrellas. A San Francisco rally drew thousands more to the Civic Center.
In Europe, some of the biggest turnouts were in Spain. The Aznar government is a leading proponent of military action, but the opinion polls show that 76% of Spaniards oppose military action even with U.N. approval.
Local authorities said that more than 100,000 marched in Madrid, and more than 300,000 in Barcelona.
In Berlin, a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 lighted candles and held hands to form a “chain of lights” stretching 22 miles, passing the U.S. Embassy and the landmark Brandenburg Gate. In Turkey, riot police scuffled with some of the estimated 7,500 protesters outside Iskenderun, a port city where U.S. military personnel were unloading vehicles and equipment.
Local authorities and news reports said more than 10,000 joined protests in Athens and 10,000 in Tokyo, with thousands turning out in Stockholm; Copenhagen; and Wellington, New Zealand. There were smaller protests in Moscow; Cairo; Bangkok, Thailand; Hong Kong; Seoul; and Bucharest, Romania, among other cities.
As usual, discrepancies arose over crowd sizes, with protesters claiming their numbers were larger than police estimates in some cases.
In Britain, protests against the Blair government’s hawkish stance on Iraq were muted. An antiwar demonstration in London last month was the largest in city history, but leaders of the British Stop the War movement seemed resigned to the inevitability of conflict. They said they had decided to concentrate on organizing protests on the day that the first bombs fall on Iraq.
Nonetheless, there were marches, the largest of them in the provinces. About 5,000 turned out in York and about 6,000 in Sheffield, both northern cities. In Leeds, another Yorkshire town, 3,000 people marched through the streets.
In London, the main protest was a Muslim community march of about 5,000. In west London, an evening concert for 2,000 people, sponsored by the Stop the War movement, was sold out within days. Under the title “One Big No,” it gathered pop groups, comedians and poets.
Aaron Zitner, in Washington, was the writer. Sebastian Rotella reported from Paris. Contributing were Aparna Kumar in Washington, Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid and Janet Stobart in London.