Sunday, March 19, 2006

Demonstrations Mark Third Anniversary of Iraq Invasion

The New York Times
Demonstrations Mark Third Anniversary of Iraq Invasion

About 1,000 people gathered near Times Square yesterday, in one of dozens of energetic and often unfocused rallies held in cities across the United States and around the world to protest the third anniversary of the United States invasion of Iraq.

Yesterday's protests, like those held to mark each of the two previous anniversaries of the March 2003 invasion, were vigorous and peaceful but far smaller than the large-scale marches that preceded the war, despite polls showing lower public support for the war than in years past and anemic approval ratings for President Bush, himself a focus of many of the protesters.

But the Iraq war itself — though the obvious inspiration for the march — was noticeably less central to the proceedings than in previous years. The rally in Times Square featured dozens of speakers on topics ranging from relations with Iran to the treatment of Hurricane Katrina refugees.

"No group owns the day," said Dustin Langley, a spokesman for the Troops Out Now Coalition, which helped organize protests in New York, Boston, Washington, Los Angeles, Atlanta and other cities. "Whoever you are, be out there on the streets."

Tens of thousands of people marched in Rome, while officials in London reported a crowd of 15,000. Other demonstrations occurred in Greece, Turkey, Spain, Brazil, Australia and Canada.

One of the biggest protests in the United States was held in San Francisco, for decades a hub of antiwar sentiment. The police there estimated the crowd gathered outside City Hall at 6,000. Many chanted slogans opposing Mr. Bush, and most appeared to hail from a distinctly grayer demographic than that of other protest events.

"There are not enough young people here," said Paul Perchonock, 61, a medical doctor from the Bay Area. "They don't see themselves as having a stake."

In his weekly radio address, President Bush defended the administration's record in Iraq, saying that the country's decision to depose the regime of Saddam Hussein was "a difficult decision—and it was the right decision." He pledged to "finish the mission" despite calls for withdrawal.

Today marks the third anniversary of the invasion.

In Washington, a relatively small crowd of about 300 people gathered at the United States Naval Observatory, where Vice President Dick Cheney lives.

Debbie Boch, 52, a restaurant manager from Denver, said she and two friends bought plane tickets to Washington two months ago, before the demonstration had been planned. It was the fifth protest march she attended since the war began, she said, and among the smallest.

"It's very disappointing, especially in Washington, D.C.," she said. "You think this is the place where people come to make things happen. I'm just not sure why there aren't more people hear today."

But other marchers took solace from recent opinion polls showing public opinion slowly drifting against the war.

"Three years ago, folks thought we were crazy; two years ago, people still thought we were crazy," said the Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, a minister at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington. "We know now that most of the American people do not believe that we are crazy anymore."

In New York, protesters gathered on three lanes of Broadway south of 42nd Street, after the city denied the organizers permission to set up near an armed services recruitment office. Mounted police patrolled the avenue, while dozens of police officers attempted to keep traffic moving on the street and sidewalk.

The demonstrators, bundled against the cold and confined by police fences to a two-block stretch, came from as close as Chelsea and as far away as South Korea. Quakers mixed with communists and labor organizers with high school students, as antiwar entrepreneurs hawked T-shirts under the sultry gaze of a Calvin Klein model, reclining in a massive billboard advertisement overhead.

"I am just sick and grief stricken that we are continuing this war in Iraq," said Julie Finch, 63, who lives in Manhattan. "I mourn every soldier that dies. This war was based on lies."

A nearby Starbucks — a chain once disparaged by the anti-globalization protesters from which today's antiwar movement draws some inspiration — served as a warming hut and bathroom station for the protesters, even serving up a latte or two to placard-brandishing customers. Journalists conducted interviews in the heated vestibule of a Gap store on 42nd Street until a security guard asked them to move.

A recorded message from Mumia Abu-Jamal, an inmate in Pennsylvania and a left-wing cause célèbre, drifted across the speakers as garbled as the service announcements emanating from subway speakers in the station below ground.

Around 2:30 p.m., the rally turned into a march, as those gathered walked around the corner down 42nd Street, bound for the United Nations. They moved slowly, sprawling the length of two crosstown blocks, with a few Katrina refugees at the column's front. At the back, Devin Kyle, 26, and Tonia Shoumatoff, 50, carried a 20-foot banner reading, simply, "May Peace Prevail."

"Rather than fight hatred with hatred," Mr. Kyle said, "I came here to be a peaceful presence."

Reporting for this article was contributed by Lakiesha R. Carr and Lynette Clemetson in Washington, Carolyn Marshall in San Francisco and Colin Moynihan in New York.