WASHINGTON—The international call for peace grew louder Saturday as tens of thousands of protestors against a U.S. invasion of Iraq surrounded the Washington Monument and later the White House. It was the latest and perhaps the largest, of recent anti-war protests in the nation's capital.
Exact crowd numbers were not available because the Metropolitan Police Department and the National Park Service no longer provide crowd estimates. But event organizers said the protesters exceeded the range of loudspeakers that were set to handle a crowd of 100,000.
"I'm amazed because this was done in only two weeks notice and the crowd is so many more times our capacity," said Sara Flounders, co-director of International Action Center, one of several groups that helped to organize the rally.
"There's so many of you in here, they can't even fit any more," said John Holmes, also an IAC co-director.
Toting signs with slogans like "Health Care Not Warfare", "Peace is Patriotic" and "War is not the Way", the crowd of students, activists, labor leaders and everyday people chanted anti-war slogans and loudly cheered a host of speakers who all urged U.S. restraint in dealing with Baghdad.
Muhammad Chebli, 21, a Rutgers University student, made the trip with about 40 members of his central New Jersey mosque. "We're here as Americans from every walk of life, not just hippies or Muslims," Chebli said. "We're not here in support of Saddam Hussein, but the people of Iraq don't deserve what's about to come their way."
The Washington rally and march was matched by similar protests around the world as opponents of a U.S.-Iraqi showdown took to the streets in a last-gasp effort to head off the budding conflict.
In Moscow, more than 1,000 communist and left-wing demonstrators rallied near Russia's Foreign Ministry carrying signs that read: "Bush, Take Your Hands Off Iraq" and "USA World Cannibal."
In London on Friday night, the anti-war group that organized a record-breaking peace march in the city on Feb. 15 called on demonstrators to "shut the country down" once war breaks out.
"When the bombing starts, the country stops, simple as that," said speaker Mark Thompson of the Stop the War Coalition. "Pull it down. Pull it down. If you have to fight barbarity you use every non-violent means you can."
Anti-war demonstrators are being told to leave schools and workplaces on the day war begins and then to assemble for a mass demonstration outside Parliament at 5 p.m. An even bigger demonstration is being urged on the Saturday following the start of war. On Feb. 15, Coalition organizers drew at least 750,000 demonstrators to central London, joining millions more around the world.
"We are saying to (Prime Minister Tony) Blair, start the war, and we will pull you down," said Coalition leader John Rees on Saturday night.
More than 10,000 protestors marched to the U.S. Embassy in central Athens on Saturday. While in the northern port of Thessaloniki, Greece, three separate anti-war marches merged at the U.S. Consulate, where an effigy of a missile was burned.
In Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of people carrying anti-U.S. signs and portraits of Saddam poured into the streets of the Iraqi capital to protest the threat of war.
The protests come on the eve of President Bush's Sunday meeting in the Azores Islands with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. The three are expected to discuss their stalled effort to win new U.N. backing for a U.S. invasion.
John Conyers, D-Michigan, was the only member of Congress to address the Washington protestors. Conyers, who has informally called for President Bush's impeachment over his handling of the Iraq crisis, drew loud cheers by calling for a "regime change" in the White House as well as Iraq.
Conyers said Saddam Hussein should be removed from office and face trial for war crimes, but added, "we don't have to destroy a nation and millions of people in that cause."
Flounders, who recently returned from Baghdad with former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and others, said Iraq's medical infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle massive casualties if U.S. bombings begin. Iraqi hospitals had severe shortages of clean water, electricity and supplies after the 1991 bombing and this time, "the hospitals will be much worse than the horror of `91," Flounders said.
John McGuire, 49, Asheville, N.C., said he came to the rally with his son, Henry, 12, because "we wanted to be counted." Henry McGuire said he also opposed a U.S. invasion because "the Iraqi people haven't done anything wrong" and "there wouldn't be much of the country left," if there was a war.
Unemployed Kathleen Byrnes, 47, of Cape Cod, Mass., made the trip because she wanted to "spread some peace and love. . . . That's my real job," she said.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Fawn Vrazo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PROTEST