Feb. 20, 2003
Something was missing from last weekend's vast wave of demonstrations against war in Iraq:
Across Europe and the United States, 2 million or more protesters took to the streets to denounce the Bush administration's plans to disarm Saddam Hussein. The enormous crowds of demonstrators, news reports stressed, comprised all sorts of people -- "college students, middle-aged couples, families with small children, older people who had marched for civil rights, and groups representing labor, the environment, and religious, business, and civic organizations," as The New York Times put it.
An endless parade of speakers addressed the throngs, praising their antiwar message and denouncing George W. Bush and his allies. Among the speakers at the immense London march -- reportedly the largest in the city's history -- were the city's mayor, Ken Livingstone; the playwright Harold Pinter; Jesse Jackson; Bianca Jagger; and even a former minister in Tony Blair's Cabinet. In New York, the crowds heard from Bishop Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King III, singers Pete Seeger and Richie Havens, and Hollywood celebrities Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon.
But where were the Iraqis? Where in this great chorus of antiwar passion were the voices of those for whom Iraq is not just a cause but a homeland? More than 4 million Iraqis have fled that homeland since Saddam came to power in 1979. Tens of thousands live in the United States, hundreds of thousands in Europe. Yet virtually none took part in the weekend's demonstrations. Don't they care about Iraq?
Of course they do. That is why they stayed away.
"I am so frustrated by the appalling views of most of the British people, media, and politicians," one Iraqi expatriate, a London neurologist named B. Khalaf, writes in The Guardian. "I want to say to all these people who are against the possible war, that if you think . . you are serving the interests of Iraqi people or saving them, you are not. You are effectively saving Saddam. You are depriving the Iraqi people of probably their last real chance to get rid of him."
Another Iraqi in exile, 19-year-old Rania Kashi, penned an open letter asking where the antiwar movement was during Saddam's war against Iran in the 1980s, which caused the death of 1 million Iraqis and Iranians. Or during his attack on the people of Halabja, when thousands of Iraqi Kurds were gassed to death. Or during the 1990s, when Saddam flouted one United Nations directive after another.
"Saddam rules Iraq using fear; he regularly imprisons, executes, and tortures large numbers of people for no reason whatsoever," she wrote. "Believe me, you will be hard-pressed to find a single family in Iraq which has not had a son/father/brother killed, imprisoned, tortured, and/or 'disappeared' due to Saddam's regime. What then has been stopping you from taking to the streets to protest against such blatant crimes against humanity in the past? . . . I have attended the permanent rally against Saddam that has been held every Saturday in Trafalgar Square for the past five years. The Iraqi people have been protesting for years against the war -- the war that Saddam has waged against them. Where have you been?"
If the suffering of Iraq's people meant anything to the protesters, such cries from the heart might have prompted twinges of shame, or at least some second thoughts. But there is little evidence that the antiwar campaign cares at all about those whom Saddam has hurt. Countless demonstrators carried signs reading "Don't Attack Iraq," "Not In My Name," "War Doesn't Fight Terror," and "No Blood For Oil." Others toted posters defaming Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- portraying them with swastikas or Hitler moustaches, for example. For those who failed to grasp the point, a large sign in Rome spelled it out: "Bush is the new Hitler."
But nowhere to be seen were signs proclaiming "Against war AND against Saddam" or "Saddam must disarm" or "Justice for Saddam's victims." There were no banners proclaiming Saddam the new Hitler. None of the speakers were Iraqi Kurds or Shi'ites or dissidents. None were survivors of Saddam's torture chambers or poison gas attacks.
It goes without saying that many of those in the crowds were well-meaning people who want only to prevent war. Undoubtedly they would bristle at being labeled pro-Saddam. But whatever might be in their hearts, they can be judged only by their actions -- and by their actions last weekend they declared themselves pro-Saddam.
As they poured into the streets, as they clamored for peace at any price, as they denounced those who oppose the tyrant of Baghdad, as they counseled passivity in the face of his crimes, they strengthened one of the world's most vicious despots and complicated the task of those trying to bring him down. The demonstrations were a powerful boost for Saddam and a stinging betrayal of Iraq's afflicted people. That is why they were broadcast live on Iraqi television. And why millions of free Iraqis stayed away.