Weekend protests worldwide by millions of anti-war activists delivered a stinging rebuke to Washington and its allies on their hard-line advance towards war.
The unprecedented wave of demonstrations, involving eight million to 11.5 million people, according to various estimates, further clouded US war plans a day after they suffered a diplomatic setback at the United Nations.
Anti-war marchers take to the streets in front of the Brandenburg Gate during a demonstration in Berlin, February 15, 2003. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out in the German capital Berlin on Saturday, joining worldwide protests against possible U.S.-led military action in Iraq. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Significantly, some of the biggest rallies were held in countries which have strongly supported the pledge by US President George W. Bush to use force if necessary to strip Iraq of suspected weapons of mass destruction.
In Sydney Sunday, Prime Minister John Howard was greeted upon his return from a nine-day trip that took him to the United States and Britain by the largest anti-war demonstration ever seen in Australia.
An estimated 250,000 people filled the streets of the antipodean nation's largest city, following on from demonstrations that began Friday in Melbourne and cropped up from Brisbane to Canberra.
A crowd estimated by organizers to be three million-strong marched through Rome to condemn Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's backing of Washington. More than five million people turned out in separate demonstrations in Spain, protest leaders said.
Even Britain, the staunchest US ally, saw at least 750,000 people tramp through London in the country's biggest protest ever to give their government's stance the thumbs down. Organizers put the figure at more than two million.
"If we don't stand up and say no to Bush, he thinks he can do what he likes because he's got the most powerful military and economy in the world," said Nick Lobnitz, a 24-year-old Briton.
Demonstrators turned out in droves Saturday in New York, where organizers expected more than 100,000 people as the focal point of the largest display so far of US public opposition to an attack on Iraq.
The White House, which appears to have been rattled by the surge in resistance to its calls for quick military action, was low key in its response to Saturday's massive display of pacifist feeling.
"The president is a strong advocate of freedom and democracy, and one of the democratic values that we hold dear is the right of the people to peaceably assemble to express their views," said Jeanie Mamo, a spokeswoman.
Mamo also stressed that Bush views the military option in Iraq "as a last resort. He still hopes for a peaceful resolution, and that is up to (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein."
There were other signs the US march toward war was losing steam, at least for the moment, after most members of the UN Security Council urged Friday that UN weapons inspectors be given more time to do their work in Iraq.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair sounded a conciliatory note Saturday after a relatively upbeat report issued by chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix on Iraqi cooperation in his search for chemical and biological arms.
"There will be more time given to inspections," and Blix will report back to the Security Council on February 28, Blair told a Labour Party conference in Scotland. But he added the crisis cannot be allowed to drag on forever.
A senior diplomat at the United Nations in New York said an early Security Council vote on a resolution to authorize the use of force against Iraq looked unlikely after Friday's show of support for more inspections.
The diplomat, who asked not to be named, acknowledged the anti-war camp was likely to gain more support at an open council meeting scheduled for Tuesday, when non-members will be allowed to take the floor.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, also voiced their support for UN weapons inspectors to continue their work in Iraq.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who backed Bush in the war in Afghanistan, told him by telephone Friday that a strike against Iraq is "not a good option," officials in Islamabad said Saturday.
From Baghdad, papal envoy Cardinal Roger Etchegaray told Italian television after a two-hour meeting with Saddam that the Iraqi leader felt "more relieved" after Friday's report by the UN disarmament inspectors.
"He is doing everything to avoid war," said Etchegaray, who brought Saddam a personal message from Pope John Paul II. "He is the first to be concerned. He is the first to be mobilizing all his energies to avoid war."
Saddam's deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz, a Christian, spent Saturday morning in Assisi praying at the tomb of St Francis as part of a peace ceremony organized by an Italian Catholic Foundation outside the anti-war march.
Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo to discuss the crisis. Egypt said an extraordinary Arab summit on Iraq and the Palestinian question would be held at the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in the week beginning February 22.
The United States has already deployed some 150,000 troops in the Gulf region in anticipation of a move against Iraq but is still trying to win the approval of Turkey to use its soil to mount a northern front.
Turkey is seeking NATO's assistance to prepare for possible reprisals by Iraq. But France, Belgium and Germany sparked a crisis within the alliance by blocking such help until the issue of a war against Baghdad was decided.
Diplomats in Brussels said NATO ambassadors should reach a compromise in the dispute by Tuesday.
Copyright 2003 AFP