Huge waves of demonstrations not seen since the Vietnam war jammed more than 600 towns and cities around the world over the weekend as protesters from Tasmania to Iceland marched against war in Iraq.
Up to 30 million people demonstrated worldwide, including around 6 million in Europe, according to figures from organisers and police, although most conceded there were too many people in too many places to count.
Action began on Friday when 150,000 protesters filed into Melbourne, with thousands more gathering across the rest of Australia and in New Zealand. Protests were still swelling yesterday in Sydney, San Francisco and in Oman – where 200 women filled the streets in the sultanate’s first all-female demonstration.
Smaller demonstrations choked streets from Cape Town, Dhaka and Havana to Bangkok.
Tens of thousands filled the streets of Iraq. In Baghdad, students, housewives and volunteer militia, many waving Kalashnikovs and giant pictures of Saddam Hussein, were presided over by leaders of the ruling Ba’ath party and watched over by heavily armed police.
Last night’s protest in San Francisco was the last in a weekend of American mass demonstrations.
In New York on Saturday organisers counted 400,000 demonstrators who, forbidden by a court order from marching, rallied within sight of the United Nations amid heavy security. They were joined by the South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, and actors Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover. In Chicago 3,000 gathered and in Philadelphia 5,000 more carried anti-Bush banners. Other marchers massed in more than 100 towns and cities, including Seattle, Miami and Los Angeles.
Yesterday’s anti-war protest in Sydney was the biggest demonstration in Australia’s history, surpassing even the record set by Friday’s demonstration in Melbourne. Around 250,000 marchers were addressed by American singer Jackson Browne, journalist John Pilger and Green party senator Bob Brown.
There was a typically Australian strand of irreverence about parts of the protest, with organisers giving out prime minister John Howard’s office phone number.
The prime minister was unimpressed by the protests. “I don’t know that you can measure public opinion just by the number of people that turn up at demonstrations,” he said.
Two marches in Spain – in Madrid and Barcelona – each brought out around a million people on Saturday evening, with dozens more gatherings countrywide, taking the total number of protesters towards the 3 million mark.
It was the biggest outpouring of popular political sentiment – with the possible exception of some anti-Eta marches – since Spaniards took to the streets to protect their fragile young democracy after a coup attempt in 1981.
The protest was not directed so much at George Bush as at his faithful ally, the conservative Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar. “The Pope says no to war, the People’s party says yes”, “Aznar, Bush’s doormat” and “USA global coup” were among the slogans on display.
“We don’t understand the concept of a preventive war. The only preventive war is called peace,” film-maker Pedro Almodovar told the Madrid march.
Between 300,000 and 500,000 anti-war protesters marched through some 60 towns across France on Saturday, many carrying banners declaring “Proud to be French” and waving US flags scrawled with the words: “Leave us in peace”.
Police said 200,000 people attended a Paris march, the largest such gathering since the anti-National Front protests of last spring. Some 15,000 gathered in Lyon, 7,000 in Toulouse, and 5,000 in Strasbourg, Rennes and Marseille.
President Jacques Chirac said yesterday that “no option was excluded” if the UN weapons inspectors failed or were unable to complete their task, but a new survey found that 81% of the French wanted him to use the country’s UN security council veto against any US-led military attack on Iraq.
Among those marching in the capital to support Mr Chirac’s stance were some of his most bitter political opponents, including the Communist leader Marie-George Buffet and the anti-globalisation activist José Bové.
Berlin’s peace march turned out to be five times bigger than expected by police and organisers – and twice as large as the biggest previous demonstration in post-war Germany.
By the time Saturday’s protest reached its peak, an estimated 500,000 people were packed into the Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park. Three members of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s centre-left cabinet defied his express wishes and joined the march.
Rome’s ancient monuments were draped with peace flags on Saturday and the city swarmed with anti-war campaigners, producing what organisers said was the biggest turnout in Italy’s long history of mass popular protest.
The music of Bruce Springsteen blasted over a crowd of leftwing opposition politicians, film stars, Catholic church representatives, human rights groups and Iraqi exiles. March campaigners claimed three million pacifists “invaded” Rome. Police said the true figure was around 650,000, though it was “difficult to count”.
The centre-right prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who has pledged Italy’s support for a US-led war, made no official comment on the march. His deputy and leader of the far-right National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, said the protests had brought the world no closer to peace because “ideological anti-Americanism” and “totalitarian pacifism” would not convince Saddam Hussein to disarm.
State television, RAI, did not broadcast the protest live, saying it would put “undue pressure on politicians”.
Saddam Hussein’s deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, on a controversial trip to rally support for Iraq, was in Assisi to see the tomb of St Francis, the patron saint of peace. “May God the almighty grant peace to the people of Iraq and of the whole world,” Mr Aziz, a Chaldean Catholic, wrote in the visitor’s book.
The small turnout for Saturday’s peace march through Tel Aviv confirmed that nowhere is there more support for an American attack on Iraq than in Israel.
About 1,500 people rallied at the Tel Aviv museum of art. Some were Arabs whose chants were anything but peaceful, with calls for retaliation against America and denunciations of George Bush and Ariel Sharon as terrorists more dangerous than Saddam Hussein.
Other protesters included Jews who focused their anger on the policies of their own government.