WASHINGTON—U.S. antiwar groups, invigorated by the success of massive protests around the world, are stepping up efforts to stop an attack on Iraq even as they debate what to do when the bombs start falling.
From mainstream to more radical, opponents of a U.S. invasion are building momentum with new rallies, Internet organizing, petition drives and celebrity ads. They're also coping with a backlash from conservative groups questioning their patriotism and calling on Americans to rally behind U.S. troops.
On Monday, a coalition of anti-war groups with strong global links plans to deliver petitions with one million signatures from around the world to the U.N. Security Council. The message: "The world does not want this war." Actress Jessica Lange plans to participate.
Other groups are planning large marches in Washington on March 15 and in New York on March 22. In the San Francisco Bay Area, activists are taking classes in civil disobedience, as they want to block buildings when war starts.
Their ranks include Warren Langley, former president of the Pacific Stock Exchange, who said he is prepared to be arrested lying down in front of the building where he once worked.
"I've always been a rule follower rather than a rule breaker, but this war is wrong, and I'm prepared to break some rules and take some risks," said Langley, who attended his first peace march on his 60th birthday in January.
"Sure, there's a fear of being identified with fringe groups, but I hope I can bring some credibility to this cause," he added.
In recent weeks, anti-war groups have gained recruits and media attention. The leaders of the Win Without War coalition said they registered more than 700,000 participants online last week in a "virtual march," hitting the White House and Congress with a blizzard of e-mails, calls and faxes.
"What the Bush administration is trying to sell is a reverse Vietnam—that this war will be quick, popular and with few casualties—and that this is inevitable. But it's not," said Tom Andrews, director of Win Without War. "And they won't talk about risks or costs."
Andrews, a former congressman from Maine, is a longtime organizer. He raised money for farm workers as a teen-ager and coordinated a campaign with Europeans to boost the democracy movement in Burma.
"We've got to keep people engaged and let the administration know we are not going away," he said. That means, if war begins, to find ways to support the troops while opposing the policy that puts them in harm's way.
To build support, anti-war groups must involve "mainstream America," he emphasized.
Blocking a military base or throwing blood on a federal building "could be unwise, and we can't let our opponents marginalize us," Andrews said.
Some conservative groups are trying to do just that. The Federalist, an online journal with 400,000 subscribers, launched a Patriot Petitions drive recently to attract support for "our president and armed forces."
Organizers criticize "celebrity leftists" such as Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen who are "using the current threat from Iraq to do what they do best—evoke anti-military sentiment and incite anti-American action."
John Machen, a Federalist editor, said he respected some opponents of the war but not "opportunists who are getting too much attention." He said 32,000 signed the petitions in the first few days.
Anti-war protestors have come under attack on several fronts. Samuel Freedman, associate dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, said in a USA Today column that the peace movement was "either deceitful or naive" by ignoring the threat of Saddam Hussein.
Columnist Andrew Sullivan warned that if any demonstrators try to impede war-related operations "they will massively overplay their hand . . . the backlash could be enormous."
Some peace activists said they will work to prevent a repeat of the anti-military sentiments that marked some Vietnam protests 30 years ago.
"To call our soldiers baby-killers, to deride them, was unconscionable," said Deborah Regal, a 45-year-old high school teacher from Pinckney, Mich., who has a son in the Marines waiting to be deployed to the Gulf.
"We have to make it clear we do not oppose our people in uniform but the agenda of this administration," said Regal, a member of Military Families Speak Out. "You can be an advocate for peace and a sincere supporter of our troops."
Andrews' coalition is focusing on preventing a war, not what to do when one starts, but many groups are making plans. United for Peace, an umbrella organization, urges nonviolent marches, rallies and "peace encampments" in front of federal office buildings.
The movement is decentralized, with many local groups making their own plans. Neighborhood groups in Minneapolis-St. Paul are aiming for a citywide rally March 22, and educators in that area are just starting to organize, stressing the budget impact of a war, said David Fox, a paleontologist at the University of Minnesota.
Fox, 33, once was arrested protesting U.S. policy in Central America. This time he has led a petition drive of educators and isn't sure if nonviolent resistance will be effective if war breaks out.
"Blocking the federal building in Minneapolis—I'm not sure what that achieves," he said. "But civil disobedience can be an effective way of expressing moral outrage."
Fox and many other activists are bracing for war and expect that when the bullets fly, even many Americans ambivalent about a U.S. invasion will tend to rally around Bush—at least in the short term.
"I think those people will not protest war. They will kind of take the attitude of `that's our president and support him,' " said Henry Bright, a 68-year-old retiree and peace activist in Venice, Fla.
But the anti-war movement is too broad, diverse and committed to be ignored, say activists, and that reflects deep divisions among the public on the eve of war, said Ann Florini, a Brookings Institution fellow who has studied protest movements.
"The country is more sharply polarized on this war the closer we get," she said. "The country may rally `round the flag, but there's no sign of that yet."
(Knight Ridder correspondents Dana Hull and Nevy Wilson contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ANTIWAR