Voices for peace growing stronger

January 17, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Even as President Bush tells the world how "sick and tired" he is of Saddam Hussein's stalling tactics and complains about U.N. inspector Hans Blix's insistence on continuing his search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, American anti-war voices are growing louder.

Big protest marches and other demonstrations are planned for this weekend in Washington, San Francisco and elsewhere. The activities are being billed by an umbrella organization, United for Peace and Justice, as the largest protest ever mounted against a war that has not yet started.

Tomorrow in Washington, a coalition called International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) will parade from the Capitol to the Washington Navy Yard, where a mock request will be made to inspect American weapons of mass destruction.

On Sunday, another group, Iraq Pledge of Resistance, will court arrest by forming on the sidewalk in front of the White House, barred to protesters, as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience reminiscent of Vietnam War protest days.

On Monday, still another band, Black Voices for Peace, will mark the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday with a rally and church peace service.

The Washington and San Francisco marches will be similar to those held in October that organizers say drew between 50,000 and 100,000 participants. But they received little national publicity, leaving an impression among many that the antiwar movement has been a flop.

Nevertheless, polls indicate a drop-off in support for the president and particularly for the notion of going ahead with a pre-emptive American attack against Iraq without further specific authorization by the U.N. Security Council. And that seems increasingly uncertain as France and Russia continue to express reservations.

Public unease has also been fanned by indecision within the Bush administration concerning North Korea's belligerent resumption of nuclear weapons development, first declining all consultation and then holding out the prospect of more economic aid. This weekend's demonstrations are intended to further arouse what generally has been regarded as a silent opposition to impending war.

Some small groups expressed their views here this week. Two of them, Veterans for Common Sense and Military Families Speak Out, held a news conference in which veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf war warned of further unintended consequences of the sort they experienced from the battlefield presence of chemical and biological materials.

Steve Robinson, an Army sergeant who served in Iraq and became an expert about gulf war illnesses, said protective gear distributed to U.S. forces in the region is defective and could expose soldiers to thousands of illnesses, similar to those suffered in the 1991 war. "The Department of Defense has obfuscated the facts of what happened in the gulf war," he said.

Nancy Lessin, a co-founder with her husband of the military families group and whose stepson is now serving with the Marines in the region, tearfully noted that the people "who speak out for going to war are not going anywhere."

Charles Sheehan-Miles, co-founder of Veterans for Common Sense, said that as a tank crewman in Iraq he had "killed a lot of Iraqis" and suggested that urban warfare this time around would be a lot bloodier on both sides, as well as costlier to the United States. Another war against Iraq will only bring on more terrorism, he predicted.

The organizers of the two groups acknowledged that their memberships are small - probably in the hundreds - but said contacts via their Internet sites indicated growing concern.

Certainly this anti-war protest has not yet caught fire as its Vietnam War predecessors did. But that earlier spark was not ignited until that war was aflame for several years. The big question is whether Mr. Bush's resolution, and impatience, will allow enough time for this effort to stop a war before it begins to take hold.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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