WASHINGTON DC -- In the largest U.S. anti-war protest in recent memory, at least 75,000 demonstrators encircled the White House on Saturday to demand a diplomatic solution to escalating tensions with Iraq.
Chanting "No blood for oil!" and "Iraqis are people too!" the peaceful crowd of Americans from all walks of life rallied near the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial and then marched through the stately Capitol District to Washington's seat of power.
"We've got to liberate this country from militarism," Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney-general and leader of the ANSWER Coalition, one of the main organiser's, urged the rally. "This is not a democracy, it's a plutocracy. We know what's right, we just don't stand up."
Other speakers invoked the name of Paul Wellstone, the Senate's most liberal voice and an implacable opponent of the Congressional resolution authorising an invasion of Iraq, who died in a plane crash on Friday.
"If we launch a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, we lose all moral authority," said Reverend Jesse Jackson, after requesting a moment of silence in memory of Wellstone. "How will we say no to India, to Pakistan, to China when they consider pre-emptive strikes?"
Saturday dawned amid driving rain, but the skies quickly cleared and the mood turned decidedly upbeat. Homemade placards ranged from the earnest - "Support the U.N., not war" , to the wry and whimsical - "God bless hysteria", "Regime change begins at home", and "Smoosh Bush".
President George W. Bush was out of town Saturday at an economic summit in Mexico.
Dozens of trade unions, grassroots groups and left-wing political parties dispatched busloads of supporters, but the majority of the crowd appeared to be individuals who felt compelled to speak out about what they believed was a wrong-headed policy.
"I resent the fact that George W. Bush would even consider attacking another country," said Peter Hinds, a Vietnam veteran from Philadelphia.
"Why? For what purpose? Let the (U.N. weapons) inspectors go in. We don't need any more lives being lost in a war with Iraq. If Saddam gets pushed hard enough, he's liable to do just about anything."
Hinds' brother Michael spent two decades in the army and served in Vietnam during the bloody height of the conflict in the late 1960s. He said this was his first anti-war protest.
"I'm just so angry," he said. "I had to come."
In a reference to Bush's oft-repeated charge that Iraq has an arsenal of "weapons of mass destruction", many protesters called the sabre-rattling a "weapon of mass distraction".
Chibo Shinagawa from Ithaca, New York quietly stood with a sign reading, "I'm 13 years old, and I don't want a war with Iraq."
"It's critical for young people to get involved," she said. "What Bush is saying is wrong. Not everyone has been heard, and it's important that he hears us today."
Others used the opportunity to decry what they say is the erosion of individual rights in the United States since the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001.
"This is a very frightening moment in U.S. history," said Damon Moglen, an organiser with the American Civil Liberties Union. "In the midst of the war on civil rights and civil liberties, the government is covering up what we most need to fight for: equality, democracy, freedom and openness."
But most people seemed focused on the civilian casualties that a possible war with Iraq would bring.
"After 10 years of sanctions, the people are already suffering," said Arif Bustani, a member of a 100-person Muslim contingent from Raleigh, North Carolina.
"War will just bring more suffering. Hopefully, today will have some effect on the decision-making process."
Scepticism about the motives of the Bush administration, which has numerous ties to the oil industry, also abounded.
"This war is about oil," said Thomas Clayton, an aboriginal from Canada's Cree Nation. "And oil is the blood of the monster called globalisation. We as Native Americans stand in solidarity with people in the Middle East."
"We know what it's like to have people from outside come in and tell you how to live, what to eat, how to pray."
Terry Klug, treasurer of the Transport Workers Union Local 241 in New York, said times had changed since the United States first sent troops to Iraq in 1991. Then, he did not feel comfortable telling other members of his union that he went to protests.
"Now, more and more people are getting concerned about a war," he said. "You can be a lot more open about opposing U.S. policy. People understand that it's going to hurt them economically, they're going to pay with their jobs."
Tens of thousands turned out for other anti-war rallies yesterday in San Francisco, Berlin, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, San Juan, and other cities.
Organisers of the Washington DC protest put attendance at 150,000, but since the DC Parks Police no longer issue crowd estimates, this could not be verified.
Some 600 police officers on horseback and motorcycles lined the route. No arrests were reported.
ANSWER spokesperson Tony Murphy said another demonstration was planned for Jan. 18 in Washington. "Only the people have the power to stop the war," he said.
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