As the Bush administration beats the drums of war in Iraq, Nyier Abdou finds growing opposition around the world
Kicking and screaming
Anti-war activists in the US and Europe are making sure that if a US-led coalition goes into Iraq, a considerable portion of the public will not go quietly
When Iraq formally accepted the United Nations Security Council resolution authorising a return of weapons inspectors to Iraq last Tuesday, United States policy-makers were in a fine position from which to view the political landscape of a possible war in Iraq. Having eluded the stigma of unilateral action against Iraq, the US is better situated for pulling together a coalition against Iraq should Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein thwart the efforts of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).
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Pushing the limits: anti-war activists are determined to have their voices heard. Left, an anti-war march in Brussels on 17 November drew 10,000; Right, "No War on Iraq" is projected on the British Houses of Parliament during 400,000-strong protests in London
Stringent conditions make it easy for Iraq to breach Security Council resolution 1441 and energetic efforts by the US to sound out allies on contributing to a US-led war in Iraq make it clear that there is little faith in Washington that Hussein will toe the line. The Security Council resolution promises severe consequences for non-compliance and the US has made plain that it will not pursue another UN resolution authorising military action. Some 60 countries have already received requests for co- operation and the US continues to aggressively build up its military capabilities at bases in Qatar and Kuwait.
For many, war in Iraq is a fait accompli. How US President George W Bush and his defence team choose to finesse this may still be an open question among some analysts, but the overt desire in Washington for regime change in Iraq seems well on its course. Anti-war groups, along with other organisations focused on alleviating suffering in Iraq, however, have not thrown in the towel yet. The last month has seen vigorous anti-war activity, with days of protest across the US and United Kingdom and an explosion of anti-war sentiment manifested in the march following the first meeting of the European Social Forum in Florence. The 9 November protest was said to be half a million strong.
The American public has often been portrayed as homogenous in its acceptance of the administration's hard sell on war in Iraq, and the recent success of the Republican Party in mid- term elections has been offered as a popular vote of confidence. But widely active groups working to educate people about the reality of war and peaceable alternatives show that this is far from reality. Andrea Buffa, co-ordinator of the United for Peace programme at the San Francisco-based anti-war group Global Exchange, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the level of resistance to a war against Iraq is much greater now than it was before the Gulf War, noting that the anti- war movement that she has seen growing over the last several months "is larger than any resistance movement I've seen in my lifetime".
"Although the size of our demonstrations still pales in comparison to the size of our country, I'm amazed by the number of people who are trying whatever they can to stop a potential war -- and the diversity of the types of people who are becoming involved," says Buffa. "People are doing non-violent civil disobedience in Iowa. Church leaders are coming out with weekly anti-war statements. Hundreds of communities have weekly peace vigils. University campuses are alive with student anti-war activism. Web sites that promote online anti-war actions have generated half a million e-mails within one week."
Scott Lynch, spokesman for the national office of the Washington-based Peace Action, agrees. "Anti-war sentiment is definitely on the rise," he told the Weekly. "As the implications of Bush's pre-emptive attack doctrine become known to more people, the level of support for anti-war activity and groups such as Peace Action rises. We are receiving calls from all over the country from people wanting to know what they can do in their communities to stop the war."
Although there is considerable resistance to another attack on Iraq at a grass-roots level, and even within the Democratic Party, anti-war groups seem to be swimming against the tide of inevitable war. How effective local activism can really be towards influencing Washington's final decision on military action seems questionable. "Many of us believe that it was people getting out on the streets as part of the anti-war movement that stopped the Vietnam War -- and we think we can do that again," counters Global Exchange's Buffa. "What we have to do is make our resistance and activism so large-scale and effective that the US elites become convinced that all hell is going to break loose if they attack Iraq."
Mike Zmolek, outreach co-ordinator for the National Network to End the War Against Iraq (NNEWAI), a nation- wide association of groups and activists, says that anti-war sentiment is growing each day, but because Congress has "basically washed its hands of the war" and the UN has given what is essentially a tacit go-ahead, "the difficulty now is to prevent people from succumbing to fatalism about the inevitability of the war." Indicating that he is speaking from personal experience, and not for the network of groups and individuals that make up the NNEWAI, Zmolek seems optimistic about the depth of activism emerging from traditionally non- politicised environments. "What we're seeing now is not just large protests, but protests popping up in towns that are not used to having protests -- and medium- sized cities, like Tucson, setting records for the biggest peace rallies in their history," he told the Weekly. "I would say that in terms of protests focused on a large-scale military attack" -- he noted that because the war with Iraq is "an ongoing war", it is inaccurate to call the protests "pre-war" -- "the level of pre- attack protest is historically unprecedented. That is very encouraging."
But Scott Lynch, of Peace Action, strikes a more sombre note. While he agrees that local activism has managed to slow the administration's drive for war and pressure Bush into seeking approval from Congress and the Security Council, it seems that in the end, it was just a matter of modifying rhetoric and strategy -- not policy. "It may not be possible to stop [an] attack on Iraq by the Bush administration. They are committed to attacking Iraq and it may not be possible to get millions of people in the streets before Bush is able to concoct a pretext for bombing Iraq," Lynch said.
Zmolek is equally aware that time is running out. "I think the administration has been pushing its agenda with all haste because they knew from day one that the race would be on with the anti- war movement as one major factor in the equation," he said. "They are right on schedule. The peace movement is way ahead of the pace set in the past, but still behind the administration. This is the eleventh hour for the peace movement on Iraq."
Urgency is certainly a feeling shared among activists with regard to Iraq, and groups like the London-based Stop the War Coalition, which organised the 30 October day of protest in the UK, are equally alarmed by the apparently unconditional support of Downing Street for the US's war plans. Glen Rangwala, a leading anti-war activist in the UK and a lecturer in politics at Cambridge University, is the author of the Labour Party's "counter-dossier" released ahead of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's dossier on Iraq. He told the Weekly that not only do opinion polls show that between 50 and 70 per cent of the public is against military action in Iraq, but the majority of people in the Labour Party itself "have severe misgivings about [Blair's] stance". Asked if people in Britain were resigned to war, Rangwala insists it is quite the opposite, noting that "there is considerable disquiet among people in the UK." Citing a recent demonstration that brought an estimated 400,000 people into the streets of London to demonstrate against war on Iraq and for the rights of Palestinians, Rangwala said, "There has not been a demonstration for peace of that size for over 30 years."
Rangwala, who also works with the university's Campaign against Sanctions on Iraq (CASI) programme, which acts to disseminate information about the humanitarian consequences of an invasion but does not take a direct position on the war, says that in his own opinion, local demonstrations in the US, UK and Arab world "are the only thing" that will stop the war machine. "Officials in the UK especially are concerned about the effect that an invasion will have on their reputation and future credibility in the Arab world," Rangwala says. "As opposition becomes more vocal in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States especially, British official reluctance to participate in the war becomes all the greater."
Rangwala points to thirst for knowledge about Iraq, the Arab world and Islam following 11 September as an opportunity to be seized on by the anti-war movement. "The population here are more educated about sanctions than they ever were before, and are increasingly willing to attend public meetings and demonstrations against British policy in the Middle East," he told the Weekly. "I'm speaking at public meetings on Iraq now with hundreds of people in the audience. In 1998, it would have been unusual to have more than 30 people at those meetings."
In the US, NNEWAI's Zmolek says that demand for speakers locally has exceeded the capacity of his network's groups. "Why now?" he asks. "I would like to say that Americans have woken up to the reality of sanctions," he suggests. "I also think that a lot of the new energy we're seeing is people who are worried about loved ones in the military being sent to Iraq." Other factors are the fear that a US attack on Iraq "would likely provoke retaliation from Muslim extremist terror groups like Al-Qa'eda", and the claim that the US is merely seeking to control Iraq's oil resources. "A lot of people understand that this war is going to be fought for control of Iraq's oil fields, and they are very cynical about that," Zmolek said.
"Perhaps the greatest challenge of the peace movement in the US is to educate Americans about the outside world," says Zmolek. "Historically, the most opulent countries have always been inward-looking. People in general tend to be drawn to wealth and power and have a hard time facing poverty and suffering." Thinking about this, Zmolek later adds: "Of course there is a lot of wealth in the Arab world, so we can't say poverty is a reason why the Arab world receives so little attention -- or when it gets attention, negative attention." Concluding that the real culprit is "cultural misunderstanding" and, sadly, "a pretty strong anti-Arab current of racism in this society", Zmolek argues that the only cure is education and cross-cultural exchange.
Asked if he thought there was considerable recognition among Americans that a war in Iraq might increase anti- American sentiment in the Arab world, Peace Action's Scott Lynch says he thinks the American people have "more common sense" than the leadership in the Bush administration. "There is wide recognition among Americans that such an attack will likely increase terrorism aimed at the US," says Lynch. "That recognition is one of the main reasons that support for Bush's pre-emptive attack policy continues to fall and support for Peace Action and other anti-war groups continues to increase."
Global Exchange's Andrea Buffa is equally adamant that activism is essential to educate the public and, more importantly, make politicians sit up and take notice. "I think it's imperative for anti-war activists in the US to collaborate with activists from all over the world," she says. "There's nothing to stop us from organising days of protest that would bring people out on the streets on every continent -- and I think it would scare the hell out of our governments."
Says Zmolek: "If you look back in history, it was small groups of people taking leadership to promote peace and civil rights ... the abolitionist movement started small. But once a movement gains sufficient momentum, it can spread quickly. I see that happening right now. The critical question is, do we have enough time to save Iraqis from another devastating war?"