MADRID - Hundreds of thousands took to streets across the world on Saturday to demand the withdrawal of U.S.-led occupying forces from Iraq on the first anniversary of the start of the war.
Protester Christine Brozyna (2nd R holding placard) from Bridgewater, New Jersey takes part in an anti-war demonstration in New York, March 20, 2004. Her boyfriend is a National Guard soldier serving in Iraq for the next 11 months. Thousands in New York city attended the rally, just one of the many anti-war protests taking place in cities around the world on the anniversary of U.S.-led war in Iraq. REUTERS/Chip East
Journalists estimated at least a million people streamed through Rome in probably the biggest single protest, and in London two anti-war protesters evaded tight security around parliament to climb the landmark Big Ben clock tower.
From Tokyo to San Francisco, demonstrators accused President Bush of having made the world an unsafer place by going to war in Iraq and triggering a violent backlash from al Qaeda and other Muslim militant groups.
But there were fewer demonstrators than in the mass marches staged around the world in the run-up to the war.
In Iraq itself, many people said their lives had improved since Saddam Hussein was toppled, but others said a year of guerrilla attacks and widespread lawlessness had left them fearful. No major attacks or protests were reported.
"Your war, our dead" said one Rome protest banner directed at Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
SEA OF PROTEST FLAGS
"This is a gigantic demonstration," Nobel prize-winning playwright Dario Fo said as a sea of rainbow-colored peace flags bobbed above protesters marching to a rally at the Circus Maximus, site of an ancient Roman stadium.
Supporters of Berlusconi, a staunch backer of the U.S.-led invasion who has also sent troops to Iraq, issued a statement criticizing the protesters and accusing them of having "paralyzed" the capital.
"These aren't pacifist demonstrations. They are demonstrations against the United States, against the Italian government and, in many ways, against the West," Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini told the AGI news agency.
Thousands of anti-war protesters march up Sixth Avenue in New York, March 20, 2004. Anti-war protests are taking place in many cities around the world on the anniversary of U.S.-led war in Iraq. REUTERS/Chip East
The protests began in Asia where rallies took place in Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, Bangladesh and Thailand. They then moved to Europe through the day and more were expected in the Americas later.
In Spain, many protesters blamed the previous conservative government's decision to go to war in Iraq for the March 11 Madrid train bombings that killed more than 200 people.
"The government took the country to war, but it was ordinary people who got hurt and killed by the terrorists," film producer Lila Pla Alemany said on her way to a protest in Barcelona.
Incoming Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, elected last weekend, has pledged to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq, calling the war a disaster and fiasco.
In London, thousands streamed through central London carrying "Wanted" posters bearing the faces of Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's main ally on Iraq.
"We want to send a clear message to...Blair that we and the British people are fed up with the half-truths and evasions on Iraq," said a protest organizer, Stephen Tindale.
He and many other protesters accuse Bush, Blair and other leaders who backed the war of lying when they said it was necessary because Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. No such arms have been found.
In Greece, around 10,000 protesters marched toward the U.S. embassy in Athens which was protected by hundreds of riot police. But the numbers were well down on the some 100,000 who marched against the war last year.
A protester wears a George W. Bush mask during a march to mark the first anniversary of the start of war in Iraq, in Glasgow, March 20, 2004. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Reuters
In Germany, several thousand people took part in demonstrations in about 70 cities and towns across the country. About 1,000 protested outside a U.S. air base at Ramstein. "Happy Birthday Mass Murder," said one banner.
Some 3,000 people turned out in Sydney, chanting "End the occupation, troops out" and carrying an effigy of Prime Minister John Howard, a firm supporter of the war. Last year some 200,000 protested against the war.
An estimated 120,000 protested across Japan, including two rallies in Tokyo that each drew about 30,000 people, the Kyodo news agency said.
Yasuko Nagasawa, 41, said she feared the presence of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in Iraq could make her country a target.
"If the SDF stays in Iraq, something like 9/11 will happen in Japan. The troops must come home," she said.
Additional reporting by Elaine Lies in Tokyo, Paul Eckert in Seoul, Peter Griffiths in London, Karolos Grohmann in Athens, Kirsten Gehmlich in Paris, Kamil Zaheer in Calcutta, Nizam Ahmed in Dhaka
© 2004 Reuters Ltd