WASHINGTON, Mar 16 (IPS) - The U.S. capital saw its third massive protest against a possible war in Iraq Saturday, even as participants struggled to remain optimistic in the face of a massive military build-up in the Persian Gulf.

The balmy weather seemed to inspire a more relaxed atmosphere than previous outings, with some 50,000 people gathering at the Washington Monument to paint peace umbrellas, wave United States and United Nations flags, and listen to dozens of speakers from religious, labor and political groups.

President George W. Bush was at his Camp David retreat, and travels to Azores, Spain on Sunday for a summit with U.S. allies to discuss Iraq.

Other large anti-war rallies were held across the globe, from Bangkok to Paris, Calcutta and Tokyo.

Many here expressed frustration that Bush has largely ignored nationwide demonstrations and opinion polls that show strong opposition toward the push for war.

Signs reading 'Merci France' and 'Got Fascist Fries?'--a reference to widely mocked efforts by some here to rename French fries as "freedom fries" after Paris opposed the U.S. plan to attack Iraq--dotted the crowd, along with the more traditional 'How Come He Never Mentions Oil?' and 'The World Says No'.

"The French have been outspoken and they're being trashed in U.S. public opinion right now," said Scott Macleod from Baltimore. "People are gullible here, largely because the press is not adequately covering the anti-war movement."

Media analysts agreed, citing a distinctly hawkish spin to most U.S. coverage.

"Peace activists are brought on Fox (news channel) to be stood up and pistol-whipped by Bill O'Reilly, but the really dangerous conservatism is provided more subtle: men in ties sitting in front of bookcases thoughtfully discussing the pros and cons of invading Iraq," said David Davis, a writer and photographer in Colorado, who has written columns against the war. "It becomes so abstract."

Sam Husseini, communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy, said he believed the protests have given many people pause in the U.S., but clearly have not changed government policy.

"There is an extraordinary split between an active population on the one hand and the administration policy on the other. It's been noted that the more people understand the situation, the more opposed they are to the Bush administration policy," he added.

Gauging public support for the war is tricky, others said, although polls show U.S. citizens more or less evenly divided about going to war without U.N. backing.

"It's probably true that a large number of Americans are disconnected from politics, because of overwhelming personal or economic problems, or from confusion, distrust, or fear," said Caroline Arnold, chair of the Kent Environmental Council in Kent, Ohio.

"What Bush has done, I think, is to awaken a sleeping giant of conscientious Americans who are not disengaged and not ill informed," Arnold said. "They may be disillusioned, especially after the inconclusive election of 2000 failed to reflect the will of the majority, and many are suspicious of politicians and angry about government failures. Is it a majority? I don't know."

While Saturday's rally and march to the White House was dominated by veteran activists, there were also groups of people attending their first protest. Margie Thomas said she and her husband drove for five hours from New Jersey despite having voted for Bush in 2000.

Holding a sign that read 'Republicans Against the War,' Thomas said she was unconvinced by Washington's arguments for invading Iraq.

"The general public and the administration will write off a lot of the people here," she said. "But the fact that we got out from in front of our TV set in our nice middle-class home to come here really indicates that they haven't made a case. Lots of people we know think like we do, but they're just not the protesting types."

Demonstrations in other U.S. cities like San Francisco and Portland reportedly drew tens of thousands of anti-war protesters, while one of North America's largest rallies was in Canada's Quebec province. At least 200,000 men, women and children streamed down a downtown Montreal street and then gathered to hear speeches by provincial and federal politicians, labor leaders and entertainers.

"Mr. Chretien," said one speaker addressing the country's prime minister, "We are here because we are waiting for you to say 'no' to the war." Canada's parliament meets next week for the first time this month and debate on Iraq is expected to take center stage.

Chretien has said that Canada would support a United Nations-authorized attack against Iraq but the politician avoided answering if he would join Washington in a war without U.N. approval.

Canadian opposition parties have requested an emergency debate Monday after a newspaper reported Friday that some Canadian soldiers involved in an exchange program with the U.S. military would fight with those troops in Iraq even if Canada officially does not join the attack.

U.S. analysts stressed the broad base of the anti-war movement in this country, pointing out that anti-war rallies and demonstrations have erupted in unlikely places in recent weeks.

"It is not just that more people are joining in, but that the resistance is coming from all sectors of society," said Bob Jensen, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book 'Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.'

"I am speaking this Saturday (March 15) at a rally and meeting in Fargo, North Dakota, my hometown. It's a city of 90,000 people and traditionally very conservative," Jensen added. "I think the fact that an anti-war coalition has sprung up in Fargo says a lot."

Even if the protests here fail to move the Bush administration, they are having a powerful impact abroad, many said.

"They're having an enormous effect in the UK," said Eamonn Dornan, who traveled to Washington with a newly formed group called Attorneys Against the War. "Tony Blair is under enormous pressure. His cabinet could resign, he could lose his post if he makes the wrong move."

"The anti-war movement in the U.S. isn't that much different from voices around the world who support less destructive methods of resolving international conflicts," noted Nancy Snow, an assistant professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton.

"If the U.S. could get a second strong vote at the U.N. and signify full backing and support of the international community, the anti-war movement position in the U.S. would not be as strong," she said. "A pre-emptive strike on Iraq spells trouble for a country like our own that seeks to repair a growing image problem in the world, and people are becoming skeptical about what war will do to fuel more retaliatory strikes here at home."

Last Call for Peace—North America Bush Deaf to Protests, Say Marchers

By Katherine Stapp,

Inter Press Service

16 March 2003