Peace Movement Gears Up for Global Protests on War Anniversary

NEW YORK, Feb 24 (IPS) – 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 U.S. death toll since the start of the war is now
1,480, 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 Honour” — 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 straightaway,” 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 anti-war activists like Plummer, who is
helping to organise a mass protest rally near the base in Fayetteville,
North Carolina on Mar. 19 to coincide with the second anniversary of
the U.S. 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.

”Organising in Fayetteville requires sensitivity that you
wouldn’t need to have in a non-military 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 anti-war 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 U.S.
civilian beheaded in Iraq; Lila Lipscomb, the grief-stricken mother of
a U.S. soldier featured in the Michael Moore film ”Fahrenheit 9/11”;
and David Potorti, a peace activist whose brother died in the Sep. 11,
2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre 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 U.S.
states and Canada.

They gathered to discuss the direction of the anti-war
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 anti-war
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, anti-war 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.

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. Anti-war 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
organisations, peace and solidarity groups, and others.

”The manifestation (on) Mar. 19 in the absolute centre of
Stockholm will put forward four demands: U.S. 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 U.S. 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
Guant

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