Antiwar Movement Gears Up for Global Protests on War Anniversary

At Fort Bragg, the largest U.S. army installation in the world and home to the famed 82nd Airborne Division, the mood is not exactly buoyant.

"There are people here who are being deployed for the third time," said Lou Plummer, a veteran with a son on active duty. "At least 50 people from the base have been killed in Iraq."

The total US death toll since the start of the war is now 1,487, according to Pentagon officials. As for the number of civilians killed, the British group Iraq Body Count estimates a figure between 16,000 and 18,000.

In a sign of mounting discontent, the military also concedes that about 5,500 servicemen have deserted, although Plummer believes the real number is probably much higher.

This picture is somewhat bleaker than the one painted a year ago by Army Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack, Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne – also known as "America’s Guard of Honor" – who brightly told reporters in Baghdad that "we’re on a glide-path toward success."

"We have turned the corner, and now we can accelerate down the straight-away," he said in a Jan. 6, 2004 briefing. "There’s still a long way to go before the finish line, but the final outcome is known."

Not so fast, say antiwar activists like Plummer, who is helping to organize a mass protest rally near the base in Fayetteville, North Carolina on Mar. 19 to coincide with the second anniversary of the US invasion.

"The message is not ‘bring them home after they fix stuff’, it’s ‘bring them home now’," said Plummer, an active member of the national peace group Military Families Speak Out.

"Organizing in Fayetteville requires sensitivity that you wouldn’t need to have in a nonmilitary town," he added. "You have to respect people who oppose the war but are afraid to go public because they have a spouse in the military and could lose their benefits."

Even so, he says that interest in his group – which represents 2,000 military families – and in the March antiwar events has been "overwhelming."

The Fayetteville rally is being conceived and planned by veterans and relatives of soldiers, with delegations coming from as far away as the Pacific island state of Hawaii.

Speakers will include Daniel Berg, the father of Nick Berg, a US civilian beheaded in Iraq; Lila Lipscomb, the grief-stricken mother of a US soldier featured in the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11; and David Potorti, a peace activist whose brother died in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

Last weekend, Plummer attended a conference in the southern state of Missouri that drew several hundred representatives of pacifist groups, former combatants, soldiers’ families, and others from 35 US states and Canada.

They gathered to discuss the direction of the antiwar movement for the first time since the start of President George W. Bush’s second term.

The meeting was coordinated by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), an umbrella coalition of 1,000 national and local antiwar groups. Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of UFPJ, said the conference winnowed dozens of proposals down to a six-point action plan for the coming year.

"We plan to launch a nationwide grassroots educational campaign to reach out to people who are our allies and constituents that we believe are with us but haven’t become part of the movement," she told IPS.

Activists will highlight the occupation’s economic drain on communities, build alliances between clergy and laity concerned about Iraq, and step up lobbying in Congress.

One novel initiative, already started in the state of Vermont, would campaign against the use of the National Guard in Iraq.

"They’re supposed to be under the control of the governors in each state, and were never designed to fight wars overseas," Cagan said.

UFPJ members decided it made the most sense to focus narrowly on Iraq, she said, although their strategies are hardly devised "in a vacuum": "Iraq is where Bush is most vulnerable, and through the lens of that work we can focus on other issues as well."

While polls show a fairly even split on whether the war was a good idea to begin with, more than a third of US citizens say that the relative success of the recent elections in Iraq does not mean Bush’s policy is working, and three-quarters believe that "most of the challenges in Iraq remain ahead," according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll conducted last week.

Fifty-nine percent believe the US should pull its troops out in the next year, compared to 39 percent who want to wait for a stable government in Iraq.

The Fayetteville rally is just one of many taking place around the United States next month, with New York City hosting a Central Park gathering expected to attract up to a quarter million people.

The international peace movement has become increasingly sophisticated in coordinating events across the globe: in February 2003, more than ten million people marched simultaneously in 60 countries against the imminent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

This year, antiwar actions are also planned in Britain, Greece, Italy, France, Iceland, Germany, Denmark and other European cities, as well as in Brazil, Korea, Japan, South Africa, Bangladesh and Australia, many listed on the Web site of International Mmobilization Against the War and Invasion of Iraq.

In Sydney, the main focus will be on opposing the presence of foreign troops, but also specifically to condemn the Australian government’s decision this week to send another 450 soldiers to Iraq, activists say.

Mar. 20 falls on Palm Sunday this year, the traditional day on which Australians have held peace rallies. Antiwar actions will take place across the country.

"While the ongoing aim is still to end the violent occupation of Iraq, many people will be attending to express their opposition to Australia’s new troop commitment, which has been very unpopular around the country," said Tim Vollmer of Western Sydney Peace Group, noting that opinion polls indicate 70 to 80 percent of the public opposes the move.

In Sweden, activities are being coordinated by the Network Against the War, which represents 40 political parties, religious organizations, peace and solidarity groups, and others.

"The manifestation (on) Mar. 19 in the absolute center of Stockholm will put forward four demands: US out of Iraq; end the occupations of Iraq and Palestine now; preserve the U.N. for peace (and) defend international law; no Swedish support for US war policy," said Network spokesman Goran Drougge.

"We try to reach out as broadly as possible with these demands. We use as examples of the war policy the systematic torture at Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq. We speak about the costs of war in the form of dead and wounded people," he said in an e-mail interview.

BanglaPraxis, a public interest research and advocacy group in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is also planning to join the weekend protest actions.

"We will organize a small gathering – the recent situation in Bangladesh does not make it easy for us to organize anything loud," said Zakir Kibria, a spokesman for the group. "But of course, most people feel that what the US has been doing in Iraq is a crime."

"Bush and his second-term election was a surprise to people here," he added. "Most people didn’t believe that US citizens were going to reward Bush after what he has done."